Understanding when Spaniards don’t Speak English with You

Dear Fran,

Like Dani spoke about previously, when in Spain, you may find yourself in a situation where people want to try and speak with you in English, practicing whenever they can. However, I have also found the opposite to be true—that some people refuse to speak to you in English. When foreigners come to visit Spain, they may have an immediate interpretation that this means that Spanish people don’t speak languages (in fact, many Spanish people I know consider that they are “bad at languages”). However, after meeting people who do speak good English, in addition to other languages, and speaking to different friends about language learning situation in Spain, I believe there is so much more to the story than being good or bad at English:


1. Spanish school systems understand the importance of English, but are still learning how to integrate it well:

English, and now French, have been given an utmost importance within the Spanish school system. Over the last 10 – 20 years language classes have been incorporated into all aspects of young people’s education. However, both as a teacher and a someone who has learned two languages as an adult, I don’t believe they are going about it the right way.

Photo by Green Chameleon on UnsplashWhat do I mean by that? Let me give you an example: One day, in a Bla Bla Car ride (learn more about Bla Bla Car here, here, and here), I met a girl who had gone to university to be a bilingual teacher in Spanish and English. After graduating, she tried unsuccessfully to get a job in her field in Spain. Instead of getting down on herself, she decided to go to the UK to try and find a job. Upon arriving she explained to me that the first thing she realized was that she didn’t know how to speak English. I don’t know what was more surprising, the fact that a fully qualified bilingual school teacher didn’t properly know her second language or that she had to go abroad to realize that she still had learning to do.

On one hand, I appreciate that the school system is trying to integrate languages into all aspects of their curriculum. On the other hand, I am appalled by some of the stuff that I hear about it. And this leads me to my next point.


2. Spanish people can be embarrassed to speak English:

Although this might seem incredulous, it is the answer you will often get by locals who seem to shy to speak with you in English. I have friends that will refute this idea by saying that Spaniards are just too proud to speak English, but I don’t truly believe this either. My theory is that the language classes they receive teach them to act a certain way because these classes are not properly prepared or incorporated into the system.

That may sound harsh, but allow me to explain. If you are not actually prepared in a language, like my example above, how can you be expected to teach this language? And if you are not aware of your incapacity for teaching the language, I can only imagine it becomes more difficult. The end result is teachers who are doing their best, but who aren’t truly prepared, giving classes that they don’t fully control.

In my opinion, the results have been disastrous for an entire generation of Spaniards. These students were ridiculed by their teachers for their speaking and comprehension skills—my theory here is because their teachers didn’t actually know what they were doing so they inadvertently took it out on their students. How can we expect any student who was laughed at by the supposedly ‘safe’ people in their lives to want to continue to learn languages?


3. The pressure on young people to speak English doesn’t have positive results:

From my perspective, the intense importance given to English coupled with the inadequate preparation of students, has resulted in a generation of Spaniards who “don’t speak English.” And this belief in itself, is harming to potential English speakers.

After teaching English to very young children, I know that Spaniards are not naturally “bad at English” but that this is something that they, incorrectly, learn about themselves growing up. At the same time, we all think things about ourselves that aren’t necessarily true and it is hard to break out of that bubble. In many cases, it is much easier to agree with what everyone is telling you about yourself than fight against the stereotype, even when you know it is false.

My analysis, over the course of years teaching, interacting, and living with Spaniards has brought about these conclusions that I think are important for the newbie in Spain to be aware about. Why? Because when you are in a situation where you think someone is being impolite or doesn’t want to talk to you, your interpretation of the situation may be off—it may be just that they weren’t taught to have the same reactions as you are used to or act the way you expect.


What is your experience? What do you think?




    Lo que pasa que a la inmensa mayoría del pueblo español le importa un pepino hablar inglés. Los que se empeñan en decir que el inglés se necesita para todo para tener éxito en la vida son unos mentirosos pues de ser así ¿cómo es que p. ej. en Jamaica sigue habiendo tanta pobreza? Claro que es bonito saber idiomas pero no se debe obligar a la gente a aprender inglés como si fuera la única manera de salir adelante.

  • Sincerely, Spain

    Gracias por compartir tu opinión Santiago. Justo la razón por compartir este artículo es porque nos parece importante hablar del hecho de que no todos van a saber inglés y si lo saben igual no te hablan en inglés. No nos parece un problema en sí pero puede resultar frustrante para una persona si no lo espera o no sabe porqué está pasando (y por eso compartimos nuestras experiencias aquí). Saludos!

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