English in Spain

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So as I was wasting time the other day on Facebook during my many “leisure” hours at school (i.e. waiting around for a ride or the bus since I was somehow managed to be given the most inconvenient schedule possible, sorry, had to vent), I came across a wonderful NY Times article by Raphael Minder that a friend posted about teaching English in Spain. Since this happens to be my job this year, I was intrigued. I have copied the article here, and I will follow it up with some of my thoughts. Enjoy!

In Troubled Spain, Boom Times for Foreign Languages

MADRID — Facing high unemployment at home, more Spaniards are seeking work abroad. But they are confronting a significant hurdle: their poor foreign-language skills, in particular a lack of English.

With a 20 percent unemployment rate, twice the European average, labor mobility has become a burning issue in Spain, prompting some business leaders to call for an overhaul of the Spanish education system that would make better language training a priority.

Emilio Cuatrecasas, chairman of Cuatrecasas, one of the biggest Spanish law firms, said recently that “Spain has to take seriously the need to reform its education, particularly in terms of teaching English.”

There are early suggestions that the next generation will have sufficient communications skills to work outside Spain: More children are now being taught by English speakers as part of their regular class work. At the same time, more adults are playing catch-up, notably trying learn German to respond to employment offers in Germany, which has the largest economy in Europe.

One place where educational changes are under way is Madrid. A program run by the regional government has made about a third of primary state schools bilingual. The government expects to raise that proportion to half by 2015.

On a recent morning at the Rosa Luxemburgo school in the district of Moncloa-Aravaca, 10-year-olds were studying the human body in English, learning terms like “salivary glands” and “esophagus.” One of them, Macarena Ferrán, said that she also got to practice English regularly while vacationing abroad, last summer in the Netherlands. As to her long-term ambition, “I would like to live in New York because it looks like a very interesting city,” she said in almost flawless English.

For the current generation of Spanish job-seekers, however, working in New York might be more of a distant dream. While there are no reliable comparative statistics, language-school owners like Richard Vaughan even argue that “the level of English is lower than 15 years ago,” reflecting a general decline in education standards in Spain.

Mr. Vaughan, a Texan who moved to Spain in the 1970s, now runs Vaughan Systems, the largest English language teaching company in Spain. He estimated that “fewer than 5 percent of the students graduating from schools of engineering, law or business possess a working knowledge of English.”

Spanish politicians are also among the worst in western Europe in terms of English skills. Neither the head of the Socialist government, Prime Minister José Lusi Rodríguez Zapatero, nor the leader of the main opposition Popular party, Mariano Rajoy, speaks English.

Madrid’s bilingual program, however, is giving the region’s politicians something to gloat about.

“This is a major step,” said Lucía Figar, who oversees the regional government’s education policy. “Until very recently, getting to a decent level of English was simply impossible for any child whose parents didn’t have the money to send their child abroad or to a private school.”

The bilingual schools rely largely on Spanish teachers who get a monthly bonus of €180, about $255, for making the language switch. The schools also have recruited assistants who are native English speakers — often Americans on an extended university break or sent to Spain through an education scholarship like the Fulbright program.

Between 30 percent and 50 percent of the class work is in English, including the science that was being taught last week at the Rosa Luxemburgo school.

In another classroom, Felipe Alejandro Luna Merlo, an 8-year-old whose parents emigrated from Bolivia, was finding it more difficult to assimilate human anatomy in English, and struggling to understand general questions about his upbringing. Still, he sounded eager to progress, saying that he was also teaching his father, a waiter, how to say “the numbers and the colors” in English because “I really want him to learn like me.”

One of the teachers, Fernando Azpeitia, had spent three years in Chicago at a transitional school teaching Latino children. He welcomed the enthusiasm among his Madrid pupils. “The big advantage here is that parents have chosen to have their children learn English,” he said, “while in Chicago it was kind of compulsory.”

Whether the children always get to hear the Queen’s English is debatable, however, and even Ms. Figar acknowledges that some teachers could improve their own English. Still, she said, more than 90 percent of the children have so far completed their bilingual primary school program by passing English language tests set by Cambridge University.

“These tests are the best way to measure our success, rather than discussing whether some teachers have good grammar but poor pronunciation,” she said.

Indeed, pronunciation is rarely a Spanish strong suit. Last month, during the televised ceremony for the Goyas, Spanish cinema’s version of the Oscars, participants insisted that one nominated movie, “Buried,” should be called “Bar-y-ed.”

Ms. Figar also described as “absurd” the criticism directed last year at a €1.8 million Madrid advertising campaign to promote bilingual education. English purists said the slogan for the campaign — “Yes, we want!” — amounted to a grammatical error because a direct object should have followed the verb. “This was only about powerful advertising,” Ms. Figar said. When Apple promotes its consumer electronics, she added, “nobody questions whether their slogan should be ‘Think positive’ or ‘Think positively.”’

In collaboration with the Spanish Education Ministry, the British Council, Britain’s cultural agency, also runs a bilingual project in more than 200 schools, alongside similar initiatives in Italy and Portugal. Raising English standards in Spain “isn’t an overnight happening,” said Teresa Reilly, a British Council official. Still, compared with Portugal and Italy, “Spain is considerably ahead in the introduction and development of solid subject-based teaching in English in the primary and secondary sectors,” she said.

The economic crisis is also forcing more adult Spaniards to return to the classroom — and not just to learn English. Applications to learn German this spring semester have risen 15 percent from a year ago, according to the Madrid office of the Goethe-Institut, which promotes German culture abroad. That follows a recent recruitment initiative by the German government to add about 500,000 engineers from other countries to keep its economy growing.

Meanwhile, Miguel Flor de Lima, who teaches the Portuguese language in Madrid, said that a growing number of multinational corporations were cutting back marketing and other activities in Spain and Portugal, two of the most crippled economies in Europe.

“The crisis means that more companies are treating Spain and Portugal as a single Iberian market and then asking their people to adjust to that,” he said. “And that leaves employees with no other option than trying to master both languages.”

Some thoughts

For the most part I really agree with this article. It makes me really happy to see that people outside of Spain, especially in the United States (which in itself has plenty of issues with learning foreign languages), have stood up and taken notice of what’s going on in Spain. There are thousands of Americans living in Spain, either working, studying, lounging or teaching. The program that I am doing this year (auxiliares de conversación) has become very popular with recent college grads who studied Spanish; for those either looking for a way into becoming teachers, putting off their student loans, having another study abroad year, or just to have the chance to live in Spain. Most likely a combination of all three! That was certainly my route here.

Spain has definitely realized it needs to step up its game in terms of learning English if it wants to compete on an international scale. I totally agree with the quote “Spain has to take seriously the need to reform its education, particularly in terms of teaching English.” They should also be given props for recognizing that this change needs to start with the next generation of young people, and by creating bilingual schools is perhaps one of the best ways to move towards this goal. However, change takes time, especially in a country that has an incredibly lax definition of time.

On the other hand, I do have a problem with this article in the sense that it has somewhat idealized the study of the English language in Spain. Bear in mind that the school that was interviewed in Madrid is in a nice area and has probably been bilingual for a while, and I can imagine they have some of the best teachers in Spain. The way to become a teacher here is a very complicated and convoluted process which I won’t bother trying to explain because it is not logical and I will probably confuse myself in the process. I will also add that their is a huge surplus of teachers without jobs in Spain, which is fascinating because it is just the opposite in the rest of the world. I think it has something to do with the fact that it pays really well, you get long holidays, and you work less than 30 hours per week. Anyways, my point being that this article is somewhat biased in the fact that it interviewed one of the best schools, and thus is not an entirely accurate reflection of ESL in Spain.

In Andalucía the region where I work, and probably the region that needs the most help when it comes to learning English, it is a completely different story. The term “bilingual” school is loosely applied here, and I’m pretty sure my 10 year olds don’t know how to say esophagus in Spanish let alone in English. Down here I have only met one English teacher who has studied in an English speaking country, let alone the United States. I have only met 2 people here who have even BEEN to the United States or even the UK! I don’t really understand how you can have so many people trying become English teachers yet hardly any of them actually have spent any significant amount of time in an English speaking country. People may disagree with me but in my opinion there is only so much you can learn in a book, and the best way to learn a language is to go to that country and integrate yourself there. Second best way is to recreate that environment in the classroom, thus the creation of bilingual schools.

This is one of my biggest problems with Spain’s education system. I think it’s mostly about appearances, and how good they look on paper, but they don’t have much to back it up with. Teachers spend loads of time planning government outlined lessons but then they don’t actually follow them in the classroom. Teachers have all sorts of English tests and what not, but then they can hardly speak the language and yet they are supposed to be “bilingual’? How can you have a bilingual school without bilingual teachers? How many of these bilingual schools are actually bilingual? Spain really needs to step it up when it comes to forcing these kids to use a language and actually having teachers who know the language well enough to teach it and use it a lot in the school. The whole point of having a bilingual school is so that the kids become bilingual and that one day they will have a functional level of English and can work in competitive international markets. All they have now is paper English. The focus has to shift from written language to oral if they are ever going to obtain a high level of English.

They weren’t exaggerating about the heavy accents. Again this all comes back to having teachers who have heavy accents. For example, my kids have been working hard on preparing a theater performance this week. They have all learned their lines marvelously well, and are so excited to put on the show Friday. As we were rehearsing today, all I could think about was what if my parents or sister were here to see it. They would not understand it because of the accents. Pronunciation is very poor here, and unless you are a fluent Spanish speaker too and understand why they are pronouncing things the way they are, you won’t have a chance of understanding them.

And as for the ad campaign about “Yes, we want!” I think it’s just another example of Spain’s level of English. If any native English speaker were to see that, they would laugh and see that it’s a huge mistake. If any native English speaker were to see the slogan “Think positive,” they wouldn’t see a problem.

All in all, I think that it is just a slow process, and the most important thing is that Spain is trying to move forward and advance itself in terms of language acquisition. However, change needs to happen in terms of how the system is run, and I think it all comes down to training English teachers better. Blast! I have gone on and blathered a bunch again. I really need to learn brevity. I always just have to much to say!

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6 Comments on “English in Spain

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  1. Thanks for a very interesting article. One point I’d like to make about schools in Madrid is that the Cambridge English exams used to assess primary age learners are a customised version of the “Young Learners Exams”, not strictly exams, since there is no pass or fail grade, only an overall assessment. That might explain the 90% pass rate (other exams such as KET and PET require a 70% score to pass). I say “customised” version, since the YLEs Madrid-style have no listening or speaking component (initial testing showed that pupils fared very badly on these skills) so there can hardly be a clearer example of window-dressing and dumbing down.
    State school teachers as civil servants or “funcionarios” upon passing their memory-based exams enter a profession for life, are unsackable, with 100% salary paid during time off for illness (meaning an incredibly high rate of absenteeism owing to genuine or not so genuine illness) and are under no obligation to hone their skills throughout their career. Worse, most have language skills officially “validated” by “Official Language Schools”, again staffed by non-native civil servants. It is still possible to study for a Philology degree (essential for secondary and higher education teaching) with no contact with the language, no validation by a “foreign” examining body such as Cambridge or Trinity and not one single day spent in an English speaking country.
    I teach English to teenagers and more than a few have higher language qualifications than their teachers,who are perfectly entitled to fail a student, not because of a poor exam, but because of a personal dislike of the student, often fuelled by insecurity.
    There are some truly excellent teachers out there but the “system” is inefficient, badly run and rotten right through. Inept, monolingual politicians in the 17 (17!!) autonomous regions who know precious little about other languages and cultures do not help things at all!
    Where oh where to start unravelling all of this?

  2. Thanks for your post and comments. It was very interesting to read. Especially as I am on the verge of flying over to Spain, to the Andalucian region too. With the economy I was trying to weigh up whether it’s the right thing to do. Is there still a boom for learning English or has it declined now? Do you think there will be less opportunities in private classes and schools due to the economy? I was thinking while there is an increased desire to learn English, due to the economy perhaps less adults can afford to take English classes, be it in a private school or private one-to-one classes.

    Is it still an economically viable option to make the move? In the question of cost of living vs income vs opportunity I mean or would Mexico be a better option?

    It would be great to hear what you think, being there.


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