Spaniards cannot speak English, and it's embarrassing

Spaniards cannot speak English, and it's embarrassing

Microblogging pills” (MBP) are short posts containing random thoughts that cross my mind. Without necessarily any context or story behind them, raw and unedited.

In the first week of January, my husband and I were on vacation. After months of enduring the dark Estonian winter, we needed some sunlight. We also had a lot to celebrate, my birthday (on the 6th) and our 11th anniversary (on the 11th). After spending Xmas with the family in Spain, the most obvious (read, closest) place to look for the sun was the Canary Islands.

When I get back to Spain, I always feel a little bit embarrassed at the Barajas airport. Last year, when coming back from Sofia, at the passport control, there was a lady loudly asking people (screaming would be more accurate) to line up in two different queues depending on their passport (Bulgaria is still not in the Schengen area).

She was, of course, speaking Spanish, not English. Now, I think I was one of the very few Spaniards flying on that trip. That means most people didn’t understand a word she was saying, and were queuing wherever they felt like. The lady was getting more and more frustrated and started shouting more loudly, telling people they were in the wrong queue.

I can only imagine the confusion of a Bulgarian citizen (who speaks no Spanish) when being approached by this lady yelling at you in a language you don’t understand (and expecting you to do something).

I learned English on my own

A recent study from Eurostat showed that 60% of Spaniards don’t speak English at all, and the ones who do can’t speak it very well anyway. The study also shows that our educational system is not doing a great job at teaching us foreign languages.

I experienced this first-hand. I went through primary school without having a single English lesson. I had an English Language subject in high school, but it was just a couple of hours per month, and the teacher was … well, let’s say that English was not her area of expertise.

Once I got to college I realized I had to learn English… and fast. Most IT books were only in English, or had hideous translations. I really had to work hard to catch up. Luckily, I noticed how important it was to learn English for my future. But I had to learn it on my own. My English is FAR from perfect. I have a strong accent, a limited vocabulary, and lousy grammar, but can communicate decently enough when traveling.

I’ve got to admit it’s (not) getting better

However, that was the end of the 80s and the 90s. Things are supposedly much better now, English is much more relevant in our education and we have plenty of bilingual schools, right?

Well, unfortunately, the answer seems to be “no”. English is still only taught partially at school, and not by native speakers. The quality of the education is quite poor.

Our society does not encourage people to speak English. First, because Spanish is the second most-spoken language in the world. People in Spain tend to travel to Spanish-speaking countries. Movies in Spanish theaters are always dubbed to Spanish, never –or rarely– offered in English (not even with subtitles).

On top of that, we have these stupid language wars in Spain, where every region claims that its local language or dialect needs to be taught at schools because it’s super important. Don’t get me wrong, I am all about preserving local traditions, cultures, etc, but the practical result in Spain is that teenagers speak Galician, Valencian, Asturian, Catalan, Basque… but not English. If forced to choose, I would prefer my children to study ONLY English at schools.

Spaniards cannot speak English

If last year’s trip was embarrassing, this year’s one won the award. First, there was the staff at the airport’s safety control. There was this poor old man who didn’t speak Spanish, and they were asking him all kinds of questions… In Spanish. We are talking about the most important international airport in Spain.

After passing the security check, we went for a bite at a Burger King near the gate. I was in the queue, and before me, there was an Asian guy asking (in perfect English) for a burger menu, an extra burger (without the menu), and a small box of chicken wings. The boy at the counter didn’t understand him and gave him an oversized bill for two complete burger menus and a big box of chicken wings. The price difference, at around 12€, was considerable for some junk food.

The Asian guy tried to explain patiently the error in the order, but the employee simply didn’t make an effort to understand him. He even had to go to the menu poster, point to each one of the items, and enumerate their prices one by one. He was extremely frustrated. I considered offering my help (I could speak Spanish after all), but I wanted to observe how the situation unfolded. Finally, the guy was able to get the right order, but he spent almost 10 minutes at the queue. Again, this was at an international airport that probably receives thousands of foreigners every day.

The effect on the job market

But probably the most infuriating example was the girl at the reception of our hotel. She could not speak English, at all. During these 7 days, we were the only Spanish-speaking guests in the hotel (apart from us, there were only Germans), so I can’t figure out how they hired someone who can’t speak English or German. On one occasion, a German guest was trying to ask for directions and a place to rent a bike, and the girl simply couldn’t answer him. I wondered how this person got hired in a hotel here.

The Canary Islands was the region in Spain, after the city of Ceuta, with the highest unemployment rate in 2021. It’s simply mindblowing that these people can’t speak English, even when it is so obviously essential in a territory that lives out of tourism.

It’s embarrassing

As a Spaniard, it is very embarrassing for me. Each time I get back to Spain, I see no progress in this area. It’s about time our politicians understand that English is our pending subject, and it’s bad for all Spaniards, not just for pissed-off tourists visiting Spain.

Like it or not, the world is global, and the de-facto universal language is English. A poor English level is detrimental for our young people, deprive them of opportunities, and hinders their future.