No Love Lost for English in Spain

Yes, after several years of teaching English as a foreign language in Spain, and after months of trying to inspire my students to love English for its versatility, liveliness, richness, and even playfulness, I have come to terms with the hard truth: Spaniards don’t like English.

Maybe there is no likability there; maybe that is a moot point; maybe there are several reasons to it. But the fact stands. I am not trying to make it a general statement, to fly this slogan over all Spaniards, or to impose my opinion on just about everybody. Let’s just say I currently don’t see any love lost for the English language in Spain.

From what I could gather, English has always been what Spaniards call la asignatura pendiente – a booed curriculum subject of sorts that pupils and students alike had to stumble upon at some point and that is doomed to never be ticked off the list. For some, the rejection started with the very first primary school English teacher who did not speak English and yet forced irregular verbs and plurals, tenses and adjectives on their pupils. For others, the resentment grew when once on a highly competitive and at the same time relatively restrictive labour market, they found themselves served with the mandatory English exam. To some, English is just the foul-smelling pill they have to swallow to have a chance at a job for life in the public sector. To others, it is just something they have to have in their resumes, since you know… you never know.

To my mind, this originally comes from a lesser need for languages in general. Spain already has an international language, spoken by more people than the whole population of the US or that of the EU countries gathered up. A couple of years back, I once read Spanish was the number one language used on the Internet and the second most spoken language in the world, after Chinese, thanks to its hundreds of millions of users. Yes, it’s that huge. Even more so: if you stop to think, contrary to popular belief, you choose pretty much any place in the world and it’s more likely you run into a Spanish speaker, whether native or not, than an English one. Spanish is the language of a majority culture, former imperialistic even, already spread all over the world, with both economic and political intricacies.

It’s true that many nations in this world have English as a second language on a higher ground – but those are mostly minority cultures, with native languages spoken by one people, generally limited within one state’s political borders. Simply put, there is a survival reason to it: these peoples need to learn English to be able to go out in this wide world. So this is how a legitimate question ensues: just like an American or a Brit who regularly learns foreign languages in school as remedial subjects, on the outskirts of a general curriculum, why would a Spaniard need to learn another language – especially an international one such as English? What is more, there is no tradition to language learning, there is no love of English, and there wasn’t even a need for English as a second language just until recently. So there is no reason to be seen as to why Spaniards would willingly and massively learn English.

Yet, as it happens… The market offer for English classes is huge; the number of English teachers on that market is also close to immense; the demand for English classes under different packages and based on learning objectives seems to grow every single year. Unfortunately, the reality in the classroom is grim, at least from a teacher’s point of view: students don’t like English; they don’t come to class because they want to, but because they need to. And that is just sad.

But I think there is a certain amount of passion, motivation and even charm to be spilled by the teacher that could change this in the classroom. It’s all about a change of perspective: cast a spell, make English the carrot, and stop using it as a stick altogether. Yes, prepare and learn hard for an English exam, for oposiciones or for an interview with the British partners, but watch the favorite series in the original English with English subtitles. Sure, teach your students there are as many as twelve verb tenses in English and make them own them, but work on the English lyrics of some evergreen at the end of the class. And definitely practice the modals and plurals and adjectives and phrasal verbs, but then let the students use them and remind them English doesn’t stop working when they go out the class.

English is such a versatile language, evolving every second, giving speakers the opportunity to amend it, to enrich it and to own it, I think it would just be a pity not to take advantage of the chance it gives its learners and speakers. I grew up in a family that had books and languages among its most appreciated valuables, above many other earthly possessions. So I guess it’s only natural for me to have grown up reading and learning languages. And I dare say this has endowed me with a different sense of what a language is. To me, it’s not just a means of communication or a way of earning a living, for that matter. I like to believe my students are as enthralled as I am by the origin of some words I sometimes share with them, by the word plays I tell them with every chance I got, by the tongue twisters, idioms or sayings I recall in between one listening practice and the other reading test. And what I try to tell them all the time is that, whereas nobody can teach you how to love a language, everybody can learn how to include that language in your everday likes. Just so as to later discover it as a second nature, a second choice of hobby and a constant presence by your side.

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