Why are the Spanish 'so bad' at speaking English?

The Local Spain
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Why are the Spanish 'so bad' at speaking English?
Some readers have pointed out that the focus should be on the fact that native English speakers in Spain often have a worse level of Spanish than Spaniards do English. Photo: Thirdman/Pexels

Spain is the EU country with the second lowest level of English proficiency in the EU, according to a 2023 study. We asked readers why, in their opinion, the country appears to be struggling to get better at 'inglés'.


The new English Proficiency Index (EPI) from global language training company Education First (EF) suggests the Spanish are making very little progress when it comes to mastering English with Spain ranked the second worst in the EU, ahead of the French and tied with Italians.

The data shows that the level of English proficiency in Spain has hardly changed over the past decade, with only a slight increase in level in the early 2010s, followed by ten years in the linguistic doldrums.

READ MORE:  Spaniards' English level still among worst in Europe in 2023


"Despite making a little progress, the English level of Spaniards remains at the moderate levels where it has stayed for many years, without showing great improvements," said the director General of EF Spain, Xavier Martí, in 2022.

"The data confirms that the educational model presents deficiencies in language learning". 

In 2023, upon analysing the latest proficiency results, Martí added that Spain must raise its overall level of English if it wants to be a “world reference in leisure and investment”.

So what is it that makes the Spanish struggle with learning English according to our readers? 

Emphasis on grammar

Charles Bulch agreed that the education system in Spain was partly to blame, and that the standard of English taught by the Spanish themselves was, in his opinion, letting students down.

"While there are still teachers in schools who say /bi:skwi:t/ instead of /biskit/ ; some students treat English as a lark and an excuse for some daft carry on; the top teaching jobs are a closed shop, Spain will lag behind."

Jane D, who moved to Spain from Australia and has taught English here to Spaniards, blamed the poor standard on a lack of respect for English teachers as a whole.


"From my perspective, there’s no respect for English teachers here. The pay is appalling, and the academies and private schools make all the money. We are not paid for any prep time, nor for travel. Sometimes it works out to be about €2-€3 an hour if you add up all the work we put in," she explained.

READ MORE: 'Hard to stay afloat' - Is working for an English language academy in Spain worth it?

But she also thought that the emphasis Spain puts on grammar learning could also be turning people off.

 "Unfortunately, the system of training within Spain is extremely heavy on the grammar, with little emphasis on just practicing speaking.  This puts many people off learning, as they can’t see the advantages of speaking English. Also, there’s a huge lack of confidence about their ability to speak," she said.

why spaniards speak bad english Not enough importance is given to just practicing spoken English in Spain, according to our readers (Photo by JEFF PACHOUD / AFP)


Lack of confidence

Helen Thompson agrees that lack of confidence is damaging Spain’s proficiency in English.

"I find the key problem is with the flow of the language and not their lack of knowledge of the language. It’s their confidence to say what they are thinking," she explains.

"Tuition in just plain speaking and listening needs to be added to the learning programme as pure grammar alone does not help with conversation."

Helen helpfully suggests that conducting singalongs to English tunes seems to help with this problem.

READ ALSO: Ten things I wish I'd known before I started teaching English in Spain


Too much dubbing

Some readers were quick to point out that if only Spain didn’t dub its imported television programmes and English language films, language learning would naturally improve.

"I think it lies in the fact that the Spanish market is big enough to ensure that many movies and TV shows justify vocal dubbing so there is no need to 'listen' in English," pointed out Gordon Rae.

Steve Day, a retired Brit who lives in Caceres in Extremadura, compared Spain to neighbouring Portugal which ranks among the top in English proficiency.  

"It's not so far from Portugal where I live," he explained. "And the fact that cinema and TV are shown in original versions in Portugal but not in Spain is often cited by my Spanish friends. I complimented a Portuguese waitress in Porto on her excellent English last year (she was also fluent in Spanish) and she replied that it was thanks to the TV."

Runar Karlsson agrees: "Having lived in a number of countries including Norway, Iceland and Spain, I think the main reason is that the general public in Spain and especially the young people are not as exposed to English as those in many other (smaller) countries," he said.

"Youngsters in Norway, Iceland, Holland, for instance, are picking up the English language in daily exposure watching videos, TV etc.  But in Spain, everything is dubbed which I think is to blame (or praise) for the lack of English fluency."




Spaniards learning English isn't the problem

Some people justly pointed out that in fact, the Spanish were much better at mastering the English language than many of those English speakers who choose to visit, or even make Spain their home.

"What struck me was the failure of the tourists even to bother to use 'por favor y gracias'," said Steve Day after witnessing an exchange between bar staff and English-speaking visitors.

After a visit to Granada (to learn Spanish), Englishman Roderick Boucher was struck by how tolerant locals were to his wavering language efforts.  

"We were treated with warmth and courtesy everywhere and my faltering language efforts were benignly accepted. I suspect that this welcoming of inept foreign language speakers would not be reciprocated in Boris and Nigel's xenophobic "little Britain". In fact, I know damn well it wouldn't," he remarked.


"Stop beating yourselves up on the language. After all, most English people have no clue as to their own grammar. The only person to really understand it was a Dane, Jespersen. Instead rejoice in living in such an English-friendly culture and thank your Spanish hosts for it."

Michael Meehan agreed: "Perhaps the accolade, if you can call it that, of the most monophone nation in Europe should go to the English," he said.

"As an Englishman living in Spain I see no reason why the Spanish should feel any necessity to learn English," commented Kerry Burns who lives in the Alpujarra, south of Granada.

"Fine if they want to, but no shame in not doing. Much more a feature of life here is the English person who can’t be bothered to learn Spanish, that seems quite antisocial to me."

He added: "People here in Lanjarón are very supportive of my attempts at Spanish, and very good humoured regarding my mistakes."

A British couple walks past a sign in English advertising dental services in Benidorm. Should Spaniards be getting better at English or should it be the foreign English speakers who improve their Spanish first? (Photo by JOSE JORDAN / AFP)


Is Spain really that bad? 

Mark Levy, the head of English programmes at the British Council bilingual programme in Spain has previously said that surveys like the EF one aren’t necessarily helpful.

"What it doesn’t show is how vastly Spain has improved in English language learning over the last two decades," he told The Local Spain in 2019.

Although he admits that all of the above reasons have a negative impact on proficiency - grammar-focused learning, dubbing over English - Spain is now on the right track.

"English Language Teaching (ELT) hadn’t been hugely successful as a largely grammar focussed approach. It meant people could pass exams but couldn’t communicate," he said explaining Spain's traditional approach to learning a foreign language.

"But one of the drivers of change has been the bilingual programme which is not grammar based and sees a whole generation of children now leaving school comfortable in English," he said.

The bilingual project run in partnership by the British Council and Spain’s Ministry of Culture was launched in 1996 and currently reaches 40,000 students in 90 primary schools and 58 schools in 10 of Spain's 17 regions.

"Around 1.5 million children are currently learning at least one subject in English at school," cites Levy.

"So it’s a huge investment in English learning and those that have gone through that system haven’t yet been included in the survey data because they are below 25," he said.

"Anyone going into classrooms will report a complete paradigm shift in how Spanish children react to English, which is now one of the languages of the classroom. They are comfortable in it, the fear has gone.  

 "And when those kids that have been through the system become teachers themselves, Spain will leap ahead," predicted Levy. "So obviously Spain is improving."

READ ALSO: Nine sure-fire ways for Spaniards to improve their English skills



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