Spaniards do not have a good level of English. In fact, surveys from the European Union’s statistical office, Eurostat, and a report from the foreign language company, Education First, place Spain close to the bottom of the ladder compared to the rest of Europe when it comes to English proficiency.
Socio-economic status influences language skills, and Spain is still a relatively poor country in Europe
Antonio Cabrales, professor at University College London
Unlike other countries, the number of Spaniards who can speak English has scarcely changed in the last 10 years. And Spaniards in the 25-34 age bracket level have been left far behind their peers in Greece, Portugal and Italy, which had similarly low rates of English speakers 10 years ago.
The 2019 English Proficiency Index places Spain in 25th place out of a total of 33 European countries and 35th in the world, with no improvement noted since last year. The international ranking, drawn up by Education First, a company founded in Sweden in 1965 which publishes the index annually, was based on the results of 2.3 million exams in 100 countries.
Eurostat meanwhile showed that in 2007, 46.6% of Spaniards between the ages of 25 and 64 could not speak a foreign language. In 2016 – the most recent data available – this figure had dropped only marginally to 45.8%. During the same period, Portugal reduced this figure from 51% to 31%, Greece from 43% to 33%, and Italy from 38% to 34%. In all three of these countries, more than 82% of people between the ages of 25 and 34 were able to speak at least one foreign language – in Spain that figure was only 66%. Eurostat also found that English is the most studied foreign language in the EU with 94% of students still taking it in the second cycle of secondary school.
The United Kingdom and Ireland have worse foreign language skills than Spain
“The statistics are bad,” says Antonio Cabrales, a professor at University College London who has researched how English is learned in bilingual schools in Spain. “One of the reasons for this is to do with wealth. Like any other subject, socio-economic status influences language skills, and Spain is still a relatively poor country in Europe. Another factor is the size of the country. If you compare countries with a similar income bracket, normally the big ones perform worse. The small ones are generally more open to the outside world and their citizens see more opportunities both professionally and otherwise in learning foreign languages. Large countries have a larger domestic market and are not as concerned [about learning a language].”
France, for example, does worse in language surveys and exams than Belgium; while Austria performs better than Germany. According to the data from Eurostat and the Education First, the countries with the best level of English (where English is not the official language) are Nordic countries, the Netherlands and Luxembourg.
“In a number of countries where there has been a big improvement in the last decade, the younger generation have been making an effort,” says Cabrales. “In the case of Spain, young people are not very good [at languages]. Given the weight that tourism carries in our economy, it is really hard to understand.”
Another issue is the fact that Spanish is the fourth most-spoken language in the world, with 580 million people speaking it with varying degrees of fluency, according to a report by the Cervantes Institute published in October. Consequently, there is a long tradition of translation and dubbing in the publishing and audiovisual industries. “This is something that doesn’t happen in other countries,” says Cabrales. “People are forced to watch more films and TV shows in the original language.”
United Kingdom and Ireland are among the seven EU countries on Eurostat’s list of 28 that have worse foreign language skill than Spain. The other five are Bulgaria, Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Hungary, and Romania.
English learning in Spain has undergone a transformation in the last 20 years
Maureen McAlinden, British Council in Spain
But Maureen McAlinden, who runs British Council initiatives in Spain, believes there have been changes at least in the level of English proficiency. According to Eurostat, when the level of proficiency in a foreign language is taken into account, Spain sits somewhere in the middle compared to other European countries. This suggests that those who need to speak good English are able to, even if it means paying out for private classes to compensate for an education system that can’t guarantee results.
“English learning in Spain has undergone a transformation in the last 20 years and the level has improved a lot,” says McAlinden who arrived in Spain in 1996. “It is something I have noticed personally and we are also seeing it in our centers. There aren’t so many courses for beginners, for A-1, A-2 or B-1. Now there is more demand for B-2 and C-1, and there are also those seeking a certificate for the level they already have. What’s more, more than 12,000 Spanish students study degrees and post-graduate courses in the UK, not to mention those who study in English in other countries or do courses [taught in English] at Spanish universities.”
English version by Heather Galloway.