Learning-English Culture in Spain

Dear Julian,

Claudia recently spoke about her understanding of some of the underlying reasons why many Spanish people won’t speak English with you. If you haven’t read her article, definitely check it out here! I think the obstacles she talks about that are inherently (and often unconsciously) built into the culture here are key components of the language-learning process in Spain. Since I’ve only had experience with teaching English, I’m going to focus primarily on that but I believe this culture extends to learning other languages as well. The explanations Claudia laid out in her article apply to the seeking of a B1 certificate* as well...

 

 For better or for worse, Spanish universities now have a language requirement.

For better or for worse, Spanish universities now have a language requirement.

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

As is the case at lower levels of the Spanish school system, the universities here have recently incorporated a second language into the graduation requirements. What this essentially means is that students must pass an official exam at the B1 level in another language, with most students choosing English as it’s seen as the most useful (and they technically have been learning it all throughout their education, so it’s arguably the easiest to get). While this originally sounded like a good thing to me (especially as an English teacher!), in talking to my students I’ve come to realize that this system is quite flawed.

Although this is a university requirement, there are no language courses offered on campus to help prepare students for the B1 exam of their choice. However, the nature of the exam necessitates most students to take classes in order to pass, which means that they will need to either seek out a private teacher (expensive!) or language academy (also not the cheapest). The result is that they’re looking for the best bang for their buck or, in this case, the shortest amount of time in classes that can get them good results on the exam.

 

2.) The pressure on young people to pass the exam doesn't have positive results:

Firstly, students tend to be very deadline-oriented, meaning that they come to the teacher/academy with a exam date already picked out and ask exactly when they should start in order to be prepared by then. Of course, the ideal (at least in my mind) would be to start studying for a couple months and then get the teacher’s feedback because by then the teacher could provide a genuine personal assessment, not a generic answer that may be too demanding or too generous for the particular student and their level of commitment.

 Exam-focused language learning is not my favorite.

Exam-focused language learning is not my favorite.

Secondly, it makes students incredibly exam-focused. The university students who have come to me saying “I just want to improve my English” are far and few between. The overwhelming majority simply need to pass their exam to check off one more box and so they’re not all that interested in engaging with the language or learning organically. If they had it their way, many would opt to start looking at the exam during the very first lesson. I personally shy away from this for at least a month as I prefer to ‘feel out’ my student(s) and get an idea of their strengths, weaknesses, and passions. However, many teachers at academies don’t have this luxury as the students demand the exam and therefore bosses demand that that’s exactly what their professors provide. The end result is that many students will learn how to pass the B1 exam, not speak English.

 

3.) Spanish people are embarrassed to speak English:

 But could all these B1-holders really defend themselves in English in a job interview?

But could all these B1-holders really defend themselves in English in a job interview?

Of course, this method of language-learning only feeds the vicious cycle of Spanish people believing that they are bad at languages and therefore being too embarrassed to speak it. That’s why, in my opinion, this new requirement is harming these language-learners more than helping them. Although everyone will eventually pass an exam and have that certificate to add to their CV, many of these students do not ACTUALLY speak English. Instead, they learned the best tips and tricks for mastering the exam. They drilled and repeated the ‘useful phrases’ that examiners look for on speaking and writing tasks and could produce these ‘perfect’ responses in their sleep.

The flip side, however, is that many of these students who technically have this level of English are also aware that they are not comfortable using English in real life and continue to tener vergüenza, or be too embarrassed, to practice it in the ways that would help them truly become an English speaker. Unfortunately, many of the Spanish people who list English on their resume don’t actually feel comfortable using the skills that certificate implies.


 

Although the above seems to be a common theme of language-learning here in Spain, I do have two disclaimers to make. The first being that this certificate-obsession is pretty common across the board in Europe. While I feel like we can put language skills on our resume without an official certification in the US, here it is expected to offer ‘proof’ of your skills, the most obvious being a B1 (or above) title. Unfortunately, more emphasis seems to be put on producing that piece of paper than on demonstrating your spoken skills.

The other point I want to make clear is that NOT ALL Spaniards fall into these patterns and I know quite a few people who genuinely speak English well, who take pride in their communication skills (with or without the accompanying certification), and/or who have gotten higher levels of English because they truly enjoy the language. It is not unheard of, it is simply not as common.

Were you aware of this B1 graduation requirement? Do you think it's a good idea?

Sincerely,
Spain

 

*If you’re an American, you’ve likely never heard of this framework and don’t know what the B1 level actually is. “English level B1 is the third level of English in the Common European Framework of Reference (CEFR), a definition of different language levels written by the Council of Europe. In everyday speech, this level would be called “intermediate,” and indeed, that is the official level descriptor in the CEFR. At this level, students are beyond the basics but they are still not able to work or study exclusively in English.” (You can read more about this from its source, here)