Spoken English a Pending Subject for Many Spaniards

The English language is still the main barrier for many Spanish-speaking residents in Scotland. Lack of language management makes it hard for these individuals to integrate into social and professional networks. Although there is not a single cause for this, experts agree that English teaching methods in Spain are inappropriate. They do not well equip latin language speakers to tackle anglo-germanic languages. Various studies discuss that previous generations had a lack of foreign language ability and a low level of literacy (1). They show that this has given generations of young Spanish a poor starting point for learning a new foreign language. This article outlines the scale of this language barrier and some of the proposals to overcome it, according to a sociological study from 2013.


Jordi Albacete

[cml_media_alt id='1804']SAMSUNG CSC[/cml_media_alt]Let’s introduce the fictional character of Marcos Romero (Madrid, 1978). His story, which is based on several true stories, will be all too be familiar to many of the Spanish speaking community in Scotland. Despite having a PhD in Art History, he has ended up as a support worker for people with learning disabilities. Just as anyone else who lives on minimum wage he is struggling with his finances. The main cause for this disaster in his career is a lack of proficient fluency in English.

Six years ago, Marcos achieved a Cum Laude (Distinction) in one of the top Spanish universities for his PhD on a pictoric movement in Latin America.  He has now been in Scotland for six years. For the first three years he worked as a kitchen porter and for the last year as a support worker for people with learning disabilities.[cml_media_alt id='2091']images (1)[/cml_media_alt]

He arrived in Britain seeking job opportunities (2) that he could not find in Spain. As with many other Spaniards, when he arrived in 2009 he thought that his level of English was good enough to find a new job in a library or a museum (Marcos was always a straight-A student with very good marks in English). But his expectations were rather unrealistic.

As soon as he started to look for a new job he realized that he could not pass the first stages of the job interviews. He wasn’t fluent enough and interviewers couldn’t understand him. “When I saw them frowning (3) and looking at me with pity, immediately I knew that I won’t get the job. It was devastating.” he says. It felt like his impressive studies in Spain meant nothing in this new country.

“When I saw them frowning and look at me with pity, I knew, immediately, that I won’t get that job. It was devastating…”

The European Study of Language Competency (ESLC) compares the competency of foreign languages between students in all European countries. This study concludes that the worst competency levels are for Spanish students.

According to the survey, the causes underpinning these results are: differences between the Romance and Germanic languages, and the absence of correspondence between  vowel and consonant sounds in English and Spanish, teaching methodology that overemphasizes grammar and no real interaction, lack of specific phonetic teaching, and above all the intergenerational cultural distance between adults and the children they teach.

Why English is so difficult for Spanish speakers?

In an article published in El Confidencial , in 2013, it was outlined that young Spaniards between 18 to 19 had the lowest level of English in the European Union according to the English Proficiency Index.

This article outlined five main causes: the phonetic distance between the two languages, the internationalization of the Spanish language, the little exposure of audiovisual content in English, and the teaching method in Spanish schools, resulting in a lack of motivation, and all students learn to their necessary level.

1. A very different phonetic system.

[cml_media_alt id='1807']Vocal Apparatus[/cml_media_alt]One of the main challenges for the Spanish speaker is pronunciation. Fernando Galván, English teacher at Alcala university says that standard British English contains 12 vowel sounds, seven more than in Spanish. In contrast, Catalan has a wider range of vowel and consonant sounds, which makes English pronunciation easier. Hugh Black a classical linguist and English teacher at Alba School in Edinburgh has been teaching Spanish speakers for many years. From his experience Hugh thinks that one of the main challenges for Spanish speakers is to articulate the voiced and unvoiced sounds. For example the voiced sound /v/ and the voiceless sound /f/  in the words van  /væn /and fan /fæn/ are hard to recognise by Spanish speakers owing to the lack of these sounds in Spanish. In addition in both words the sound /æ/ is a short vowel sound also non-existent in Spanish.  In this respect teacher Hugh Black thinks that this is the second main difficulty for Spanish speakers to pronounce short and long vowels (e.g. pull-pool or ship-sheep).


[cml_media_alt id='2093']1767536_fa49ce4a[/cml_media_alt]2. Spanish language internationalization.

Geographically, native Spanish speakers cover the second largest area worldwide after English. This has created a general perception that no other foreign language is needed to communicate
with citizens from other countries.  This is a also a common trend for native English and French speakers.

3. Little exposure to English original version content.

In Spain, all films have been dubbed into Spanish since the civil war, originally as a censorship measure. Since then, TVs and cinemas have continued this tradition.

Professor Galván says that the lack of original versions of audiovisual products makes people lose contact with foreign languages. The European Study of Language Competency (ESLC) notes that to listen and watch audiovisual products in their original version eases the understanding and later incorporation of the foreign language by 21%.

4. Level of motivation.

Lack of important role models with fluent English is also pointed out as one of the main factors that demotivate Spaniards to learn and improve their English. According to Mateo, until recently there have been no famous Spanish role models who speak good English. Politicians do not have a good command of the language and neither do the sport figures, celebrities or artists. This has a strong influence on the motivation of  Spanish students to improve their ability in English. Jenny McLay is the director of Alba School in Edinburgh she’s been teaching English to Spanish speaking people for many years, she is also studying Spanish and travelled in Spanish speaking countries. In her opinion interaction between the students is basic to improve speaking skills and motivation is crucial to help them to interact between themselves.


[cml_media_alt id='1796']Diccionario (2)[/cml_media_alt]

5. The Spanish Education System.

The ESCL outlines how Spanish pupils have a much lower level of English when compared to Swedish people. This fact becomes more striking when the study reveals that Spaniards spend more time learning the language and doing more homework than the Swedish do. In addition, Spaniards start learning English at an earlier age.

So why are Spaniards less able than the Swedish?

Professor Galván at the Complutense University of Madrid answers this by outlining different factors to explain this unbalanced picture.

              1. Tradition of learning foreign languages. In Sweden learning a foreign language has been embedded in the education system for many generations. In contrast, English teaching is a recent phenomenon in Spanish history. Professor Galván notes that until 40 years ago, French was the dominant foreign language. It is remarkable that in Sweden 60% of parents of young graduates (in their 20s) are fluent to a professional level, in contrast with 11% of Spanish parents. This has a historical explanation. During Franco’s dictatorship there was no access to higher education for the vast majority of young working-class people (particularly women).  This resulted in a lower level of literacy. In addition, the country was totally culturally isolated in order to avoid any rebellion against the regime.
              2. Low levels of cultural literacy in previous generations
              3. Differing teaching methods in Spanish and Swedish schools. Galván notes that the teaching methods and quality of the teachers have not historically been ideal in Spain. The education system for foreign languages has been inherited from Franco era. This is based upon learning and memorization of grammar. As a result of this, the student loses interaction with his or her teacher. Listening, practice and speaking skills are crucial. Similarly, Marta Mateo, director of the School of Languages (Casa de las Lenguas) in Oviedo University, notes how an emphasis for the understanding of grammar is essential to understand Latin languages like French or Portuguese, but conversely this does not apply for learning English. In this Germanic language, grammar rules are relatively universal but the range of vocabulary and the phonetics are complex and highly specialised. For example, in English speaking schools is the theory of grammar  is not taught and the emphasis on teaching English is on the right spelling. In Hugh Black’s opinion this is due to the mismatch between the written and spoken English and therefore students need to learn all the irregularities in the spelling. For example in America, at schools is common to have spelling contests, “Spelling Bees“. In this respect, Mateo notes that English is deceptive because it seems that there are very simple rules but for advanced levels these rules are not useful and the language becomes complex. As a result, with little interaction and exposure to the language, students might well know the grammar but still they are not fluent speakers. Their understanding of the language is poor without a system specifically tailored to teach English phonetics for Spanish speakers.

This was echoed in an article published in El País by Frank O’Connor, Principal of the Teaching Centre of British Council in Somosaguas (Madrid). He said that there was a structural failure in the Spanish education system when teaching English.  Young people who just left secondary school were not able to hold a conversation in English after having studied it for over 10 years. “It is like studying Geography for 15 years and not been able to locate a country”, says the teacher.

“It is like studying Geography for 15 years and not been able to locate a country”

According to O’Connor the two main problems for students of English are on the one hand, the lack of contact with foreign languages and  on the other, bad pronunciation as a result of lack of ability in listening, which is a feedback loop (4). Being good at grammar and vocabulary does not necessarily mean being able to understand the language.


Wrong Approach to English Learning

[cml_media_alt id='2090']communication1unknownartist[/cml_media_alt]After a year and a half as kitchen porter washing up dishes, Marcos was still almost deaf and mute in English. He started to attend night classes at ALBA school, which he was able to do thanks to government grants (ILA). This economic aid is given to workers to improve their career prospects and to strengthen their weakest points. Despite improving quickly in writing and reading, he soon realised that he still had problems in one huge part of the language: speaking.

The efforts of this young academic to make himself be understood gradually started to yield (5) some results. Thanks to the friendliness and patience of the Scottish people he managed to improve enough to find his current job as a support worker for disabled people.

Nevertheless, Marcos regrets having put his career on the backburner (6). “I cannot complain, eventually I managed to get a job with which I am paid the minimum salary. I’m no longer washing dishes but still I feel devastated when I think of the many sacrifices that I and my family made to get my PhD. Now I am doing a job for which I would only need my secondary school certificate. It’s unbelievable how badly we were taught English in Spain”.

Comparing Marcos’s situation with the research, we can see why his level of English was so bad. Yes, it has a different phonetic system from his native Spanish. However, he also had little drive to (7) learn the language before arriving in Edinburgh due to the internationalisation of the Spanish language. On top of that, he had had almost no access to original version films when he lived in Spain and no role models (8) to motivate him.

[cml_media_alt id='1797']Diccionario (3)[/cml_media_alt]If we look at his family history, we can connect the dots (9) to see what might have affected his English level. His parents did not have higher education and there was no tradition of learning English in his family due to the historical political factors in Spain. In his house there was never any intellectual discussion. His academic qualifications were gained through much lonely work with a great effort, but he did not receive support from his family.  But, Marcos’s language learning at school did not even give him the opportunity to overcome these cultural barriers. The classes focused far too much on memorisation of grammar and not enough on listening and speaking, which was impossible due to overcrowded (10) classrooms.

Nevertheless his effort and to be open to other people comments has eventually helped him to improve.

Maybe the time has come to listen more and write less.

Tips for English pronunciation for a Spanish speaker

There are different ways in which Spanish speakers can improve their English.

1. Musicality and Listening.

One tip is to adapt the listening to the musicality of the language and forget the written patterns, as Canadian teacher Paddy Kennedy outlines in the following video.


[youtube height=”450″ width=”750″]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xaoZolMx5Ng?enablejsapi=1[/youtube]


2. Awareness in the articulation of sounds.

One of the main challenges that many teachers note is to find parallels with the Spanish sounds.

The letter “i” in words such as: bit (pedazo, trozo); “it” (lo, la); him (lo, le); tip (punta, consejo); in (en, dentro).

The pronunciation for this letter is as it was as if the Spanish speaker would be about to pronounce the letter “e” and ended up saying “i”, which is much more open. In phonetics this is represented with the symbol /ɪ/ e.g. bit [bIt]; it [It]; him [hIm]; tip [tIp]; in [In]


Use of English for Spanish Speakers

(1) Level of literacy.

  • Definition: 
    1. the quality or state of being literate, esp. the ability to read and write.
  • Example: “[…] previous generations had a lack of foreign language ability and a low level of literacy.”
  • Translation: nivel cultural.
  • Comment: In some occasions the literal translation of cultural level instead of level of literacy might yield some confusions. One might ask if this has to do with he level of integration in the local or national cultural identity.

(2) Seeking job opportunities.

  • Definition:to try to obtain.
  • Example: “He arrived to Britain seeking job opportunities that he could not find in Spain.” (“Llegó al Reino Unido buscando oportunidades laborales que no podía encontrar en España”.
  • Translation:buscar.

(3) Frowning.

  • Definition:to wrinkle the forehead, such as when one is displeased or in deep thought.
  • Example: “When I saw them frowning and look at me with pity, I knew, straightaway, that I won’t get that job. It was devastating…” (“Cuando les veía fruncir el ceño y mirarme con pena, sabía el momento que no conseguiría el trabajo. Era devastador“).
  • Translation: fruncir el ceño.
  • Comment: In contrast to Spanish, in English frowning already indicates the part of the body with which we wrinkle [the forehead].

(4) Feedback loop.

  • Definition: codependent.
  • Example: “Bad pronunciation as a result of lack of ability in listening, which is a feedback loop”. (“La mala pronunciación como resultado de competencia en la comprensión oral, lo cual es interdependiente o se retroalimenta.”)
  • Translation: retroalimentar, interdependencia.

(5) To yield.

  • Definition:to produce or furnish (profit).
  • Example: “[…] gradually started to yield some results” (” […] paulatinamente empezó a producir algunos resultados”).
  • Translation:producir.

(6) Put something on the backburner.

  • Definition: (id.) to postpone.
  • Example: “[…] having put his career on the backburner.” ([…] habiendo pospuesto los planes de su carrera profesional“).
  • Translation: postponer.
  • Comment: literally when using the different burners of the cooker the ones that are at the front  are used for the first served courses and the ones at the back for seconds, thus the meaning of this idiom.

(7) To have little drive to.

  • Definition: predisposition.
  • Example:“[…]he also had little drive to learn the language” (“[…] también tenía poca predisposición a aprender la lengua“).
  • Translation: predisposición.

(8) Role models.

  • Definition: public personalities whose achievements and behaviours are portrayed as examples for the society.
  • Example: ” […]he had had […] role models to motivate him […]”. “[…] no tenía figuras públicas que le motivaran[…]”
  • Translation: figuras públicas.

(9) Connect the dots.

  • Definition: (id.) to reconstruct/review a sequence of facts.
  • Example: “If we look at his family history, we can connect the dots to see what might have affected his English level”. “Si miramos a su historia familiar, podemos atar los cabos para ver cuáles han sido las causas que han influido en su nivel de inglés”.
  • Translation: atar cabos.
  • Comment: Literal translation would be conectando puntos but the literal translation in Spanish is related probably to fishing “tightening knots”.

(10) Overcrowded.

  • Definition: to cause to have too many people in (a room, building, etc.);
    crowd or fill too much.
  • Example: “[…] was impossible due to overcrowded classrooms”.”[…] fue imposible debido a la masificación en las aulas”.
  • Translation: abarrotado/ masificado.

Autor: Jordi Albacete

I am an environmental journalist. My passion for the protection of human and environmental rights has been inspired by research led journalism. My ambition is to communicate and inspire people to make positive changes in the environment. Twitter @albacetejordi or Linkedin.

Periodista medioambiental. Mi pasión por la protección de los derechos humanos y medioambientales se ha forjado a través de la investigación periodística. Mi objetivo es comunicar e inspirar a la gente para hacer cambios positivos y proteger el medioambiente. Twitter @albacetejordi o Linkedin.

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