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Spanish Workers Scramble to Learn English in Economic Crisis

A man browses a book as other people walk by at a book fair in Madrid, Spain, May 28, 2010 (file photo)

Around the world, many workers are scrambling to learn English to find jobs and stay competitive in the economic crisis. An English learning boom is perhaps most pronounced in Spain, which has long lagged behind the rest of Europe in terms of English proficiency. With Hollywood movies dubbed in Spanish and a brisk trade with Latin America, Spain has not had the need to learn English - until now. Globalization and now a recession, though, have sparked a run on English classes in Spain.

Surf the television channels in Spain and you might find American films dubbed over in Spanish or news reports from Latin America. But one of the few English voices you hear on Spanish TV is this one.

Richard Vaughan is originally from Texas, but has lived in Spain for 35 years. He runs the country's biggest English teaching company, which has its own TV channel, called 'Aprende Ingles.' It is Spain's only national channel in English. Vaughan explains why he thinks so many Spaniards tune in to his TV channel and take his English classes.

"To get a better job," he said. "People don't learn English here for cultural reasons. Some do. But the motive is always, 99 percent of the time, professional."

Globalization has led to more people working abroad, often in countries where they cannot speak their native tongue. Now a recession is speeding up that process, as people search for work outside their home country's borders.

"People realize that they're not only going to have to be mobile out of choice, but they're going to have to be mobile because of necessity," said Nick Byrne, the director of the London School of Economics' language center.

"We found that, in our university language centers across the U.K. and indeed across Europe, that language learning is up," said Byrne. "We're not talking about people doing a whole degree in languages, but people going on evening courses - English courses particularly."

In Spain, some of those studying English are looking for jobs abroad, in Britain or the United States, but others want to work for multinational companies with offices here in Spain. Many companies now require workers to be bilingual.

Dominic Campbell is an American living in Madrid who works as a part-time English teacher. He says his students are trying to brush up on English in hopes of getting a better job.

"A lot of jobs now are actually mandatory that you know at least two languages, and a lot of them actually want at least Spanish and English," said Campbell. "And, a lot of them are asking for Spanish, English and French - especially airlines."

Compared to other European countries hard hit by the economic recession, Spain has one of the lowest rates of English proficiency. That is because for so long, learning English was not a necessity. About a fifth of the world's population speaks Spanish. There is a huge market for Spanish TV shows and movies, and Spain has long done a swift trade with Latin America - in Spanish.

Campbell said many of his students assumed they could get by in life speaking only their native tongue.

"They just think, you know, 'My English is poor, I don't want to speak it, I don't want to learn how to speak it. I've got Spanish, that's all I need.'"

But more than one in five Spaniards is jobless. Spain has the highest unemployment rate in Europe. Among people in their 20s, more than 40 percent are out of work. Iñigo Gomez is one of them.

"It's really difficult right now," said Gomez. He has a degree in education, but cannot find a job at a school.

"I'm a teacher, and I couldn't find a job here. So I think it's a good idea to go to the United Kingdom and try to find a job as a Spanish teacher," he said.

Gomez has trouble translating his thoughts about the past few years and about the economic crisis into English.

"I don't know exactly the right word. Globalization? So if you have a second language, you will get more possibilities to find a job."

While Gomez heads abroad, many of his classmates - Spaniards learning English - will stay in Madrid, slowly spreading bilingualism across their country for the first time.