Speaking English in Spain

I am back in Spain!

I arrived last Tuesday and have been super busy with work and organising the wedding. The Chinese wedding was a breeze because I didn’t need to do anything, but now I have to find the vendors and decide everything myself. Ugh! It’s going to be a hectic month!

Yesterday I attended the wedding of one of my primary and secondary school friends. I was very excited because it’s the first wedding I’ve attended in Spain in 14 years! Being in China meant I missed all my friends’ weddings when they started getting married. This time it was close enough to my own wedding to justify the trip and, more importantly, I can work from home!

The title of the post comes from something that happened at the wedding. One of our friends is living in England and brought his British girlfriend along. She couldn’t speak any Spanish and when I started talking to her she asked me if I had lived in England before. I took it as a compliment on my English because it turned out she couldn’t speak to many more people apart from her boyfriend and I.

An average Spanish person being talked to in English… ¿qué?

Many people (mostly native English speakers) have this idea that in Europe everybody can speak several languages. And maybe it’s true in northern Europe, but definitely not in the south. Don’t expect everybody to speak English in Spain, France or Italy! It is said that French people don’t want to speak English even if they can because they think everybody should speak French. Can any French confirm or deny this stereotype? I visited Paris many years ago and I cannot speak any French, so I guess I survived in English. I can’t really remember!

In Spain, people my age started studying English in school in grade 4. Nowadays I think they start either in kindergarten or in grade 1! But let’s focus on my generation, who are now in their early 30s. Someone who only studied the compulsory education, that is, until 16 years old, studied 7 years of English. If they continued on to high school, that’s two years more, up to a grand total of 9. But the sad truth is that… most of them can’t speak English at all, unless they attended extra classes or went to study abroad! Sometimes I don’t notice it, because most of my friends are language graduates and can speak several languages, but most people in Spain can only speak Spanish (well, and their regional language, if they have). Maybe some of them could if they tried, but there’s another thing to add to the problem: Spanish people have a very strong sense of shame! So they won’t speak in English if they are not very confident, fearing that they will embarrass themselves. (I think our sense of shame is also why Spanish people in China look at me like I’m crazy when I say I like going to the karaoke!). By the way, China has the same problem: they study English for years and then many of them can barely speak it!

Don’t let this keep you from visiting Spain, though! Staff in hotels and restaurants usually have a working command of English, and people are normally friendly and will try to make themselves understood, even if in the case of older people, that just means talking in Spanish very loudly! (Because everybody knows it’s not that foreigners can’t speak Spanish, it’s just that they’re a bit deaf haha!).

Do people speak good English in your country? Or, if you’re from an English speaking country, can people speak other languages?

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