Before coming to Spain, the Portuguese warned me that speaking English in Spain is a tough mission. I am slowly finding out that they are right. The Spanish speak Spanish, and people who are able to communicate in English are scarce. Everybody can answer the question `do you speak English?` - most answer `poco` ? but that`s where the English part of the conversation usually ends. I`m trying to find out today how such an otherwise advanced country can do without foreign languages.
Instead of English, people have to deal with the regional languages in Spain. Product packaging, newspapers, street conversations: all of those happen in at least four different languages across Spain. Castellano is what outsiders know as the Spanish language, while Catalan, Basque and Galician are recognised as second official languages in the territories of their origin. People from these regions have the right to be addressed in their own language. Most street signs, news papers and product advertisements will be adapted in each region, oftentimes without marking the Castellano version.
..DOES speak English
Willy (25, photo) is one of the exceptions to the rule. He is one of the few Spanish people who manage to have exposure to English, which is easier said than done. Willy has reached fluency in English and Norwegian. English thanks to his frequent travels, Norwegian by spending a year of intensive studying in Bergen.
Getting exposure from TV is difficult. All foreign programs on the regular ten channels are dubbed. The art of dubbing is a lot more developed than in for example Poland, where one male voice does all of the dubbing for all of the people involved in a film or series. Foreign In Spain, one actors usually has one fixed Spanish voice associated with him/her, which remains the same in any next film the actor plays in. Carlos (23) tells that when `the voice` of Homer Simpson died some time ago, it was a major news item and almost a national tragedy.
If you want to see a film in its original language, you either have to go to Madrid or carefully check the schedule of cinemas in other cities across Spain. International TV channels are available only to those who have cable access, which Willy estimates to be about 50% in the big cities.
Travelling and music
The Spanish like to go on holiday, but they often travel within their own national territory. In summer, people head for the beaches of the Mediterranean See or the Canary islands. In winter, they go skiing near Grenada or in the Pyrenees. The former colonies are not particularly popular holiday destinations and neither is the rest of Europe. Even travel agencies mainly offer packages inside Spain.
Beside travelling, listening to music could also expose people to foreign languages. Isabel (25) tells me that English music is popular and many people like to sing a long with it. Without knowing the lyrics to the song, or even the subject of the song in general. They simply try to reproduce the sounds.
Willy explains that Spanish is the second language of the world, measured by economic importance. That, in combination with people`s preference to stay within their own country, is not a good promoter for learning foreign languages. Although kids enter language education when they are sometimes barely even six years old, the school system is by no means able to teach them to use foreign languages in practice. Pablo (23) tells me that most people are attending classes in English for no less than 12 year, but all of that is written with no room for oral practice or even understanding of spoken language. The classes can hardly be called interactive and very few people who ask questions are quickly thought of as Pelotas, teacher`s pets.
In neighbouring France, political movements are making fun of themselves by innovating artificial French words for English phenomena. The Spanish would probably do that if they had to, but there simply is no need for it. The word `STOP` on traffic signs is about the closest to English it gets. `Big Brother` is called `Gran Hermano` here, while Idols is known as `Operaci?n Triumfo`. Immigrants, except the ones who really don`t need to because they only come to pick fruit, are all encouraged to speak Spanish. Or rather: made understood that they won`t get anywhere with just their own language.
Those who really insist on learning a language do so in a language college or abroad. Both are costly alternatives for the failure of regular language education and parents often push their children to complete the regular school curriculum first. Although a view on the Spanish invasion in Ireland during the summers may suggest otherwise, international adventures between studies and/or jobs are usually frowned upon. The small international-minded part of the population is therefore very jealous of the Australians and Scandinavians for having opportunities to take sabbatical years or do something different.
Speaking a foreign language is not often required of those who look for a job. It will give them an advantage in many cases. But it only makes a difference if you already know the right people in the company and if you meet all of the other requirements.
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