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Why are the Spanish ‘so bad’ at speaking English?

After a global study earlier this month ranked Spain among the worst in the EU when it comes to speaking English, The Local asked its readers why, in their opinion, the country is struggling so much with its English language skills.

Why are the Spanish 'so bad' at speaking English?
Photo: andreasmarx / Flickr

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 worst in the EU… even below the notoriously-bad-at-English French and Italians.

READ MORE:  Spain now ranked worst in EU at speaking English

But what is it that makes the Spanish struggle with learning English? 

Emphasis on grammar

Photo: Nenad Stojkovic/Flickr


Charles Bulch thought 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/ ; while students treat English as a lark and an excuse for some daft carry on; while 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.

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.

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.

Too much dubbing

Photo:Felipe Andreoli/Flickr


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 their home here.

“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 recent visit to Granada (to learn Spanish), Englishman Roderick Boucher was struck by how tolerant locals were to his faltering 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 Lanjaron are very supportive of my attempts at Spanish,  and very good humoured regarding my mistakes.”

Is Spain really that bad? 

Photo: Susana Fernandez/Flickr


Mark Levy, the head of English programmes at the British Council bilingual programme in Spain believes 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 tells The Local over the phone.

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 launched as a national project in 43 schools in 1996.

Now, there are 145 schools across Spain within the British Council programme and numerous others in programmes run by regional education boards.

“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.”


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For members


New rules and laws: Everything that changes in Spain in July 2021

As the month of July kicks off in Spain, we take a close look at all the important changes that come with it, from vaccines to entry requirements, new VAT charges, car devices and more.

New rules and laws: Everything that changes in Spain in July 2021
Photos: Help Flash/AFP

Delta variant expected to become dominant in Spain 

Spanish researchers and public health officials believe the Delta variant of coronavirus, first identified in India, will become the dominant Covid-19 strain in Spain over the course of July.

On June 24th, the Delta variant accounted for four percent of the cases detected in Spain, three points more than the previous week.

In Catalonia, at least 20 percent of new cases are due to the Delta variant, the region’s health official Josep Maria Argimon told reporters at a press conference on June 17th, adding that it would be “predominant” in two to four weeks.

The Health Ministry has so far only officially recorded 62 cases of the Delta variant in Spain, but several regions have reported many more cases than this. Galicia has reported 25 Delta variant infections, while Castilla y León are investigating 83 possible cases. 

The variant has also been found in Andalusia, the Balearic Islands, Canary Islands, Cantabria, Castilla-La Mancha, Castilla y León, the Valencian Community, Extremadura, Murcia, Navarra, La Rioja, Ceuta and Melilla.

READ MORE: How much is the Delta variant spreading in Spain?

Vaccines for thirty-somethings

In July, Spain’s vaccination campaign will focus largely on getting people in the 30 to 39 age group their first dose of the Covid-19 vaccine.

Many Spanish regions have already started inoculating those aged 35 to 39 towards the end of June, whilst Madrid has decided it will start allowing thirty somethings to book their vaccine appointments in July.

Administering second doses to those in their forties, fifties and sixties will also be a priority, especially for the latter group as only around 30 percent of the 60 to 69 age group have completed their vaccination treatment (roughly half that of people in their fifties). 

That’s in large part because the AstraZeneca vaccine has been reserved for this group and delivery delays and side-effect investigations have hampered its distribution. As a result, Spain’s Health Ministry has brought forward their second dose by two weeks. 

As of June 29th, 16 million people (35 percent of the population) have received their full vaccination treatment and more than half of the population (52 percent, 24.7 million people) have at least one dose.

To read all the latest vaccine news from Spain, visit The Local Spain’s Covid-19 section

Photo: Pau Barrena/AFP

New travel entry requirements 

July 1st marks the start of the requirement for British travellers to Spain to show proof of full vaccination or a negative PCR test.

Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez made the announcement on Monday June 28th with regards only to the Balearic Islands, but it has been widely reported that the requirement will apply to travel to all Spanish regions, to be confirmed in an official government bulletin on Tuesday. 

Conversely, Spain added the United States to the list of third countries that are exempt from presenting negative tests or vaccination certificates, meaning American travellers will able to visit Spain more easily during the month of July. 

To read all the latest travel news and information relating to Spain, visit The Local’s travel section

EU digital Covid pass launches

Still on the topic of travel, this digital ‘travel pass’ should make things a little easier if you’re venturing out of the country. 

The EU’s Digital Covid Certificate, as it’s officially known, launches across the bloc on July 1st, although Spain’s regions have made it available to their residents in June. 

In theory, people travelling from Spain to another EU/EEA country will be able to use their vaccination, testing or recovery certificates to get a QR code which allows for quicker and hassle-free travel in Europe. 


How to get a Digital Covid Certificate for travel from Spain to the EU

New VAT rules for imported goods

Imported goods with a value of €22 or less used to be exempt from tax, but this condition will be scrapped on July 1st across the EU. 

This means all goods arriving into Spain and other EU countries from non-EU countries will be subject to VAT, regardless of their value.

This EU-wide regulation will particularly affect businesses that import goods from outside of the bloc and people who shop online on international websites such as China’s AliExpress. 

If the goods cost more than €150 (not including transport, insurance and handling charges) you will also have to pay customs duty.

If businesses don’t register with the The Import One-Stop Shop (IOSS), the VAT will be paid by the customer when importing the goods into the EU. 

Postal or courier companies may charge the customer an additional clearance fee to collect this VAT and carry out the necessary procedures when importing the goods.

New device for cars in Spain

Back in January we reported how the warning triangles drivers in Spain have to carry in their cars in case of a breakdown are being phased out and replaced with these new emergency lights.

As of July 1st, drivers in Spain can use these DGT-approved V-16 emergency lights (luces de emergencia) instead of the warning triangles, although it won’t be obligatory to do so until 2026. 

Photo: Osram

VAT drop for electricity

The Spanish government’s bill to reduce the VAT on electricity from 21 to 10 percent in light of opposition to historically high rates comes into effect on July 1st.  

Last month we also reported how Spain’s main electricity access rates, the regulation costs of electricity which customers pay for, will no longer be frozen as they have been since 2018. 

The changes to the electricity rates means it has become more expensive to use electricity in the first part of the day from 10am – 2pm and in the evenings from 6pm – 10pm from Monday to Friday. The average times are between 8am – 10am, 2pm – 6pm and 10pm – midnight. 

READ ALSO: Spain’s new electricity rates for 2021 -the tricks to help you save up to €300 a year

July kicks off with a heatwave 

As is customary during the summer, July will bring suffocating heat to mainland Spain, with the mercury expected to hit 35 C in many areas. 

It hasn’t been a particularly scorching month of June in Spain but July is forecast to start with temperatures between 5 and 10 degrees higher than normal from Friday, the first heatwave of the year. 

That means that in parts of Andalusia and Murcia the temperature in the first weekend of July could be above 40 C. 

Photo: Jaime Reina/AFP

Ten single-use plastics officially banned

As of July 3rd, changes to the Packaging Act will come into force. 

Manufacturers will not be allowed to produce food and beverage containers made of Styrofoam from July. Furthermore cutlery, cosmetic cotton swabs, balloon sticks, stirrers, plates, bowls and drinking straws will also no longer be made from plastic.

If retailers and restaurants have remaining stocks, they can continue to hand them out so that they do not end up unused in the rubbish bin.

According to the EU Commission, the products prohibited under the law represent 70 percent of the waste that pours into oceans, posing a threat to wildlife and fisheries.

Money for staycations 

Twelve autonomous communities in Spain are offering their residents – and in some cases people from other parts of Spain-  holiday vouchers worth hundreds of euros as an incentive for them to spend their summer holidays in their part of the country.

These offers are available for the month of July, so if you want to find out more click on the link below. 

TRAVEL: Which regions in Spain are paying residents to go on staycations?