There I was, having a copa (Rum and Coke) on Sunday evening with some Spanish friends and a chap from Chile. There were a couple of smokers in the group so we huddled around a table with a heater when one of them asked me how to say ‘Bufanda‘ in English.
Before I could respond, the Chilean calmly uttered the word ‘scarf‘. His pronunciation was clear, there was no attempt to insert an ‘e’ sound before the ‘f’ and, unlike most Granadinos, he managed to form the consonant cluster ‘rf’ at the end of the word. The locals laughed and, buoyed by the alcohol in their bloodstream, attempted to say this new word in English.
After 2 long and painful minutes of listening to repeated versions of ‘escar’, I had to stop them, write the word on a serviette and teach them how to say it. They gave up immediately and reverted to Spanish but used the incident as a launchpad for an extended conversation about the reasons why Spanish are bad at English.
According to most studies, there are fewer English speakers in Spain than in most other European countries. This survey suggests only 18% of Spanish speak 2 languages (compared to the EU average of 25% but better than us Brits with 14%) http://ec.europa.eu/languages/languages-of-europe/eurobarometer-survey_en.htm
Reason 1: Most of their English classes were taught in Spanish by Spanish speakers. A few of them had attended classes taught by native speakers and groaned about how difficult it was to be immersed in an English speaking environment. However, they all agreed being forced to communicate in English was a good thing to improve their speaking and listening skills but didn’t remember doing much, if any, unscripted conversation in class.
Reason 2: Native speaker teachers couldn’t answer their grammar questions. Learning about the finer points of English grammar was considered essential by a couple of people around the table. One was adamant that English grammar had to be explained by comparing and contrasting it with Spanish grammar. She really didn’t see how it could be learned any other way. When I mentioned (in Spanish of course) that people learn languages without formal grammar tuition, she looked at me as if I had suggested that we finish our drinks and go off and smoke some crack. Then again, I know some native speaker English teachers here who think a relative clause is Father Christmas’s aunt!
Reason 3: El miedo al ridiculo. After the next round of drinks arrived, my Spanish friends started to get a bit maudlin. They were ashamed of their poor English and didn’t want to look foolish in front of their peers. They identified this as a uniquely Spanish psychological trait. I got to thinking about the Spanish people I know who profess to have excellent English and wondered why they rarely speak to me in English. Indeed, they generally ask for tips about improving it but always speak in Spanish.
Reason 4: The ‘Oposiciones’ mentality. We were all now starting to shed our inhibitions. One of the group started to rage about oposiciones (public exams you need to pass to work for the state) and how the Spanish educational system encourages rote learning and memorisation of factual knowledge at the expense of developing critical thinking skills. She said that the main obstacle was getting Spanish people to see English as a tool for life and not just something to be used in order to increase your chances of being a funcionario (civil servants but this includes state school teachers, nurses and judges).
Reason 5: Version original (V.O). Remember the Chilean chap with the excellent English. Well, I asked him how things had changed in Chile because I went there in 2001 and don’t recall meeting any English speakers. He informed us that although Chileans studied English at kindergarten, he felt the main reason why Chileans spoke better English than Spanish was that films and TV shows were subtitled but not dubbed in Chile. He had grown up hearing English. The intonation, phonemes and stress patterns in the language were not unfamiliar to him. Unlike Spanish political leaders from Franco onwards…
All of us were fairly drunk by now, cheered by the beers and copas and the festive spirit in the air. Surprisingly, when I wished them ‘Feliz Navidad’, they were all happy to respond in English.
OK, they said ‘Merry Chrimas’ and avoided the ‘st’ consonant cluster, but at least they tried.
So, what do you think? It would be good to hear from you.
What other reasons might there be for Spanish struggling with English?
Are Spanish poor at English or is this a myth?