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Why Spaniards Aren't Learning English as Fast as the Rest of Europe

FILE - Victor Antu–a of Spain (top R) and Felipe Barbosa of Colombia (top 2nd R) attend an English class at an Adults Education Centre in Madrid.
FILE - Victor Antu–a of Spain (top R) and Felipe Barbosa of Colombia (top 2nd R) attend an English class at an Adults Education Centre in Madrid.

Lorenzo Beteta directed the last Star Wars trilogy as well as the children's smash hit Frozen but most people have probably have never heard of him.

That is because he is a dubbing director who makes it appear as if Darth Vader always spoke Spanish rather than the language of Shakespeare.

The dubbing plays a large role in Spain where many films, television series or even advertisements are rendered in Spanish, not the original language.

Its traditional prominence in cultural life, some scholars believe, is part of the reason Spaniards struggle to learn English.

A recent report by the foreign language company Education First, EF, which judged proficiency in English, placed Spaniards at the bottom of the ladder compared to the rest of the European Union.

Poor grades

The annual report's findings have given Spaniards' consistently bad marks in recent years, as have similar reports by Eurostat, the EU's statistical office.

About 45.8% of Spaniards between 25 and 64 could not speak a foreign language, according to a Eurostat report from 2016, the most recent data. In contrast, in Portugal, only 31% were unable to speak a foreign language, while in Greece the figure was 33% and Italy 34%.

According to experts, Spaniards' difficulty learning English can be explained in part by the size of the country, its relatively low GDP and number of people who speak Spanish worldwide.

Other critics put it down to faults in the education system and cultural quirks like dubbing.

The EF report said Spain, like France and Italy, were among developed countries in Europe where the ability to master English continued to lag behind other parts of the continent.

“The gap in English proficiency is particularly concerning because both Italy and Spain suffer from high rates of unemployment, particularly among the young, and could desperately use the new economic opportunities that faster, smoother communications with the rest of Europe would bring,” the report said.

FILE - A man walks past a sign written in Catalan, Spanish and English at a train station in Barcelona.
FILE - A man walks past a sign written in Catalan, Spanish and English at a train station in Barcelona.

Antonio Cabrales, a professor at Carlos III University in Madrid who has researched how English has been taught in bilingual schools in Spain, put the poor results partly down to Spain's comparatively poor economic situation and the size of the country.

“Socio-economic status influences language skills because the higher this is the more people are required to learn English for the jobs which are on offer and to travel,” he told VOA in an interview.

“Another factor is the size of the country. Smaller countries like Portugal, Greece and Holland are more dependent on exports which means the population will have to travel and need English to conduct business. Larger countries with a bigger domestic market will not have to worry so much about this.”

On the Iberian peninsula, the Portuguese are the stars of the English language class.

Portugal was ranked 7th out of 100 countries where English is not the first language, according to the EF report, which tested reading and writing.

Pedro Sánchez is the first Spanish prime minister with a high level of English.

The 48-year-old is among a new class of leading politicians who like to show off their language skills.

Age matters

Mark Levy, head of the English program at the British Council in Spain, said he believed levels of English speaking had improved considerably among younger Spaniards.

He pointed to two tests carried out by the British Council in 2017 among children aged 15 which found 72.5% in Madrid and 66% in Catalonia gained grades of B and above.

“There is substantially more energy and resources dedicated towards English in Spain now. I have a strong feeling that younger people's level of listening and other skills has improved,” he told VOA.

Levy said the Portuguese were better English speakers than the Spanish because dubbing of films was not as common.

“It cannot be the only factor but it must make some difference,” he said.

Another issue is the fact Spanish is the fourth most-spoken language in the world after English, Mandarin and Hindu, with 580 million people speaking it with varying levels of fluency, according to a report published last year by the Cervantes Institute, a non-profit organization set up by the government of Spain that promotes the Spanish culture and language globally.

Writer Ignacio Peyró, the institute’s director in London, believes having a world language – the result of three centuries as a great colonial power – may have hindered Spaniards' ability or willingness to master another tongue.

“Like the British we have also suffered from having a history which meant large parts of the world have been places where we could speak our own language without problem. Ours is a language that is spoken by millions of people around the world as is English,” he told VOA.

The future

However, Peyró said that while an older generation suffered because English was only introduced to schools in 1972, younger people are making real progress.

“It is true that we have made a lot of progress in recent years in learning English and anyone before that would not have learnt the language,” he said.

One of the recommendations of the EF report is: “Allow TV shows and movies to be shown in their original language, with subtitles rather than dubbing.”

However, Beteta insists dubbing is not to be blamed for Spaniards' linguistic failings.

“I think the education system is more at fault. I have children and they are learning English at school and their level is not bad – much better than mine – but perhaps we simply don't get enough in schools,” he said.