Posted in English language, Spanish learners

5 reasons why Spanish are bad at learning English (according to some Spanish friends)

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%)

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?



I'm a teacher trainer doing lots of different things in Granada, Spain and back in the UK. I've been a Course Director on Trinity TESOL programmes, worked as an EAP tutor at universities in the UK, spent a couple of years as a DoS at a wonderful school in London, and have also dabbled in online teaching, course creation, blogging and materials development.

37 thoughts on “5 reasons why Spanish are bad at learning English (according to some Spanish friends)

  1. Mother tongue (a.k.a. L1) influence has a great deal to answer for, regarding final consonant omission, ‘d’ and ‘t’ sounds, and all the other pronunciation differences (B-V, Y-J, W-G etc.) which regularly present themselves. And the bit you wrote about grammar-translation stalwarts made me smile rather ruefully. They might be able to explain what a third conditional is but they couldn’t ask for directions or have a simple conversation. So … well done for writing this page – I enjoyed reading it!

    I’d also make the point here that in any country, one gets people who are good at languages and others who are the opposite. People who are motivated, and the opposite. People who want to learn – and those who don’t. I’ve had the privilege to work with some great students but there are a number of opposite examples too – I’ve tolerated some* , and a Spanish friend of mine who is an English teacher in the public system can vouch for this much more than she would like to – and she finds it depressing.

    *Progress reports and timely feedback can work wonders!

    1. Hi Mark,

      Thanks for your comments. Good point about motivation – an extremely important aspect of learning – and I agree with you about progress reports and timely feedback. Something I’ve noticed here is that lots of students have instrumental motivation (they need to pass an exam to achieve their goal) and this means they see English as a means to an end and not something that’s necessarily of value in itself. I have a private student at the moment who thinks improving her speaking is memorizing her 2 minute presentation for her B1 exam. When it comes to engaging in conversation though, she just responds in Spanish to even the most basic of questions.

      1. Like it or not, Hispanic culture is intellectually lazy. That is why Spanish-speaking students are the last to learn English in a typical EFL class with students from all over the world.

      2. Indeed, and I do sympathise (from experience!). The other thing I look for when I have the luxury of deciding which student(s) to accept is WHY they want a B1 certificate. Is it for love of the language – or because they are “obligated” [sic] i.e. obliged to ?!

  2. Tell me about it! It’s always a fine borderline we have to tread with private students. If they insist on speaking Spanish (as in your example) I will answer if I have to – but sometimes reply with a question, “How do you say [whatever it is they’ve just said] in English?”.

    A few months ago I read an ELT blog where a profesor particular / private tutor was complaining about how he considered he had been reduced to almost being a “paid entertainer” (the author’s exact words) – with one or two who didn’t (/still don’t?) even spend a few minutes reading their notes between lessons. Perhaps he teaches a lot of young children, instead of a mix of ages and abilities. I seem to remember he was making his point about adult students, though.

    Then we have the Vaughan approach where they often emphasise the importance of studying between lessons. I’ve always agreed with, was taught and have used a few of their ideas – not in that company, but from a very good German language teacher who has her own school. One of the Vaughan YouTube videos or radio station presentations once mentioned that a private language tutor is to speaking as a personal trainer is to exercise at the gym – I smiled at that one! I think it’s a good analogy if the student is willing and able, and the teacher is experienced – and, equally importantly, both have a sense of humour.

    All that said, unless one is a millionaire (difficult to become one, teaching languages!) one has to keep an eye on student satisfaction, class ‘experience’ and …. (dare I say it) perhaps an even closer eye on one’s income from tuition fees. Think mortgage or rent payments!

    Hope I haven’t raised as many questions as answers (or perspectives) I’ve given! (?). I’d be interested to hear your ‘take’ on it too.

    1. Sorry for the late reply Mark.

      I think you have identified one of the main issues here and the personal trainer analogy is particularly apposite. A weekly session with a personal trainer will only help you get in shape if you are prepared to follow their training advice and do some exercise in your own time. If not, an hour a week with a specialist won’t make much of a difference. It’s surely the same with language learning. The student I mentioned – the one who can’t resist translating – desperately wants to improve her speaking in the shortest time possible but insists she cannot find time to do any homework, even listening to the radio, as she doesn’t have any time. I spend most lessons reviewing the previous week’s work!

      Encouraging learner autonomy is a fairly new concept here but I’ve noticed that ‘coaching’ seems to be all the rage. Maybe language teachers should try and promote themselves as ‘coaches’ rather than ‘teachers’.

  3. Do you mind if I quote a few off your articles as long as I provjde credit and sources
    back to your webpage? My website iss in the very same niche
    as yours and my visitors would tuly benefit from a lot of the information you provide here.
    Please let me know if this alright ith you. Maany thanks!

  4. No necesitamos hablar inglés pues el idioma nuestro tiene mucho peso internacional al contar con unos 500 millones de hablantes con quienes comunicarnos. Aunque no doblaran en España no significaría que de repente hubiera más personas que hablaran inglés pues hay muchos programas de televisión de países como Italia, Francia, Austria y claro también de América, Claro que si uno quiere aprender este idioma que se apunte a clases pero ingleses, dejad ya de tratar de convencernos que para salir adelante el inglés es imprescindible que eso es mentira.

    1. Buenos días, Felipe:

      Lo de su comentario “…pero ingleses, dejad ya de tratar de convencernos que para salir adelante…” etc, pues sólo quería preguntarle – ¿Se refiere a los escoces, galeses, irlandeses (del norte) y desde luego a los angloparlantes del EE.UU. también? Era sólo pregunta.

      (No iba a mencionar los Australianos ni los neozelandeses tampoco, aunque supongo que Ud. sabrá que en el continente de Oceanía es el idioma inglés que se habla por la gran mayoría.)

      1. Nací en Filipinas y estoy superorgulloso de no saber ni una puñetera palabra de inglés. Trabajo en el mundo de los negocios y contrato intérprete cuando voy al extranjero así de fácil. Los anglos sois unos arrogantes e insulares. Después del Nerita seguro que no encontráis curro en España. No se os quiere nadie. Estoy harto de que digan que hay que hablar inglés para salir adelante. Mentira. Díselo a los jamaicana que viven en la miseria.

  5. I think Felipe has answered the original question very nicely. Attitude. I’ve had students tell me that they are not interested in learning English because it is the language of the “enemy”. I cut them short before they started singing “de cara al sol”!!

    1. No necesito hablar inglés y gano muy bien. Los ingleses sólo miran por sus propios intereses.

  6. The other factor involved in Spain’s poor English skills is intellectual laziness, which is part & parcel of Hispanic culture. Most Spanish speakers also have an inflated view of the importance of their own language, too. They think it is as important as English when it clearly is not. To wit: Three times more nations have English as an official — or semi-official — language than Spanish. English is also the language of science, entertainment, diplomacy, business, sports and technology. Spanish is not and never will be.

  7. There are other reasons why Spaniards are bad at learning English. One of them is that Spaniards have an inflated sense of the importance of their own language: Spanish. They say there are more Spanish speakers in the world than English ones, which is highly debatable. Even if true, there are 2 billion people in the world who have English as a first, second, or third language. I doubt there are even 700 million people with Spanish as a first, second or third language. English is the world’s only truly global language whereas Spanish is nowhere to be found in Asia, Australia or Africa — 5 billion people right there. Also, English is the language of academia, science, technology, entertainment, business, international sports and diplomacy. Spanish is none of those. So when a Spaniard says to a non-Spanish speaking tourist, “You should learn Spanish!” — that Spaniard is wrong for four reasons: 1) Tourists are spending money in Spain and should be served in English. 2) In Europe today, those who cannot speak English are considered either uneducated or perhaps old. 3) For every one person in the world learning Spanish, ten are learning English. 4) Spanish is not a global language. English is.
    Yes, I know Hispanic culture is intellectually lazy and not goal oriented. Still, there is no excuse for Spain’s
    poor English skills.

  8. ANYONE HEARD ABOUT THE TENERIFE AIRCRAFT ACCIDENT ? The worst in the aviation history up to this date.One of the main cause is the language barrier. The Spanish ATC controls the airport and two English speaker pilot (one dutch but can speak decent english) collided

  9. Unfortunately, so many years under Franco and very little immigration until the 1990s have contributed to Spain remaining a surprisingly culturally isolated country. As you commented, English is seen as a requirement for graduation, an imposition, a way to get extra points in order to get a job, but it’s not understood as a way to expand your acess to resources, knowledge, information, varying world views and perceptions of reality that would otherwise not be available to you. It’s unfortunate, but it does explain why many students and teachers prefer to focus on form.

  10. Why do people in the education business excel at never calling a spade a spade? Hispanic culture is many things — and one of the aspects is intellectual laziness. That is why native Spanish speakers are poor at learning anything. It’s why if America/the U.S.A. had been a Spanish-speaking nation, it never would have landed a man on the moon.

    1. ¿Qué dices conacho? Si los españoles fueron los primeros en circunnavegar el mundo más el real de a ocho fue la primera moneda mundial. No tengo nada en contra de los inglesiños pero no todo el mundo necesita hablar idiomas extranjeros.

  11. The reason Spanish people cannot learn English is because they do not listen and they think they’re always right. I have taught so many Spanish people and they talk over you 90% of the time and in the remaining 10% of the time, they answer questions that you didn’t ask. Why? Because they don’t listen. When you correct them, they absolutely hate it, because their horrendous grammar just has to be correct.

    1. Hi, Ana. I was going to suggest maintaining one’s patience and moderation, always giving the student the benefit of the doubt etc. until I reminded myself of the comment by Felipe R.P. above.

      Certainly, active listening is a SKILL which needs to be learnt and practised. There are many people (not just of Spanish nationality) who do not listen; they merely wait for *their* turn to speak.

      Some of the feeling you express certainly resonates; though, in fairness, I do have some students who even said once in a class discussion that they dislike the (largely Spanish) habit of interrupting. These students are well-educated people who are working towards professional careers.

      Oh, mustn’t forget: I agree in that if you’ve ever watched the constant interruptions on programmes like La Sexta Noche (Saturday nights), it’s very wearing.

  12. All I know is that if you put a typical Asian in an EFL classroom with a typical Spaniard, the Asian
    will always learn English 5 times faster than the Spaniard — or Mexican, or Dominican, or Puerto Rican, etc. Intellectual laziness is a strong part of pan-Hispanic culture. P.S. Don’t expect a Spaniard to ever win a Nobel Peace Prize for science.

    1. Or a peace prize for … peace (like it?) and quiet. Have you watched them all interrupt each other on La Sexta Noche?

      Yo creo que deberíamos dirigirnos al Felipe Robles Perales (May 2, 2017 at 8:03 pm) y lo de “No necesito hablar inglés y gano muy bien. Los ingleses sólo miran por sus propios intereses.”
      – ¿Y qué? ¿Su actitud más follonero y sus ingresos son vinculados, o algo? ¡¿Usted no mira nunca por su propio interes?!
      (apart from his other ramblings.)

      I’d suggest his supposed level of income is IN SPITE OF not being able to speak English – NOT BECAUSE of it…

    2. That’s an absurd generalization, I speak english fluently and I’m from Argentina. But now that we are at it, do you know how many native english speakers I know that can pull off a decent spanish avoiding that thick and embarrassing accent they usually have? none, zero. Never met one.

      1. It’s unclear to whom Emilio was replying (above) and which part of the thread he considered to be an “absurd generalisation”. However, how many fluent hispanohablantes do we know (and the Argentinians are no exception) who finish their words properly — so English speakers don’t have to work hard when we’re trying to understand whether it’s the past or the future they’re talking about? Doesn’t everyone get fed up of how they can’t say would, world and word, not to mention ‘bear it in mind’ instead of inadvertently mentioning walls and wool, or beer and mine?

        As you got me started: if you want “thick and embarrassing” accents, try watching this (if you can put up with it for long enough!) …


      2. Mark – My comment was addressed to Chris, and had you taken a second to read it would have been more than evident, Chris accused all spanish speakers no matter the country of having a bad english and being slow learners, ridiculous assessment. I don’t understand how you couldn’t contextualize my comment on your own. And on the other hand… you put an old Spanish man who was born during World War II as an example of bad pronunciation? And he’s supposed to represent all Spanish speakers in the world? Give me a break. Quite a few things have change for the new generations in case you haven’t noticed, the learning technics and tools have improved enormously, an so has our learning curve. But I don’t know why I bother with you I’m not surprised at your behavior at all. I’ve seen many anglo speakers mock foreigners about this kind of thing and then you think to yourself, man most of you don’t speak any foreign language at all, how come you get to criticize others that have worked their asses off to actually accomplish something.

      3. I don’t think you need to lecture us about working hard, Emilio. Although many English speakers don’t speak much Spanish, yours is also a sweeping generalisation by any stretch of the imagination — some of us DO. In fact, I happen to know several British and American people (and some of other nationalities) that are bilingual or have gone out of their way to learn and speak Spanish. Many of us still get treated as idiots by brainwashed shop assistants when we go to buy bread, no matter how well we speak the language, have Spanish partners, etc. THAT is what is *really* embarrassing.

        Movong on, we’re all probably aware of the latest learning methodologies and tools, which help motivated learners (of whom you may well be one). However, there are still plenty of lazy people of ALL nationalities.

        By the way, I don’t know why I’m bothering to reply either! Must be a love of languages ;-]

        Finally, you may find it helpful to read up about comma splice errors and follow the advice at this URL: — as well as a punctuation guide, although at least you had begun to use capitalisation of nationalities and languages (Anglo-…, English, Spanish, etc.) a little more in your last missive. Paragraphs enhance readability, too.

        Off to work… in a language-related job.

  13. I think one of the main reasons is the phonemic orthography of the language. For example you only have five vowels, and five sounds for them. Spaniards cannot even hear the sounds they don’t know, let alone pronounce them.
    Ask a Spaniard to pronounce the following words: chip, ship, sheep and cheap, have fun!

    1. Indeed, then there are the /i/ vs /i:/ — “Chips are cheap” and “Is it time to eat” are others.

      Not to mention “The world of work”, “Under the table”, ‘bar’ vs ‘path’ (or “paff”), “I won’t want to walk to work”, etc. They usually start talking about walls and wars… you must have noticed! 😉

  14. Chris, I am Spanish. After being living in 4 different countries (now in the UK), I do speak 4 languages in addition to my 3 degrees. I can assure from my 57 years pinnacle that it is nothing related to how lazy a person is. It is only related to the style of life. I know many retirees living in Spain and after 10 years they do not speak more than a few words in Spanish. Isn’t it lazy mentality? It is always easier to mention the others’ defects, but when I read comments like yours, I can only see prejudices and ignorance. Also, it is impossible to compare behaviours in a global way. Have a good day.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s