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Thursday, January 08, 2015 (read 848 times)

Spanish Schools Go Bilingual

by David

There is a common expression used by the Spanish to describe Spain: "España es diferente" or Spain is different. This phrase was created by then Minister of Tourism, Manuel Fraga, who would later become a popular politician and regional leader during the democratic era of post-Franco Spain. This slogan was meant to appeal to outsiders as an invitation to visit a part of  Europe that was different from it neighbors, a place that was a little more exotic and relatively undiscovered.

Today, this expression is used sarcastically by Spaniards to highlight the differences Spain has compared to other countries with regards to its customs or behaviors that are perceived as anachronistic or archaic. You can hear people mumble "Spain is different" when the subject of one of  Spain's greatest perceived weaknesses—but an advantage to a Spanish language learner—comes up: the lack of a generalized knowledge of a second language.

I'm by no means a polyglot—I barely speak decent Spanish in addition to my native English—but travelling in Europe has made me appreciate the need to be able to speak another language or at least try to. There is nothing worse than not being able to express oneself, if only to order something to eat. That's why whenever I travel I always try to learn a few common words and expressions in the language of where I'm going. I have seen many examples of the "ugly American" stereotype (once I saw a young American student get angry with an elderly Italian shopkeeper because she didn't understand what cheese she wanted to order for her lunch--that she was demanding in English) and it ain't pretty. In Spain 30 years ago it would have been difficult for a non-Spanish speaker to get by but things are starting to change here.

Today in large cities, especially the areas where tourists are commonly found, English is understood by many and with limited Spanish a visitor can get by. Travel around the country and you will notice that knowing a bit of Spanish will go a long way in making your trip more comfortable. Spanish people are always willing to help and, when faced with a non-Spanish speaker, they will make an effort to try to communicate in any way possible. They also appreciate it when they see someone making an effort to communicate in their language before falling back on their native language and resorting to sign language. I've found this to be universally true in all the countries I've visited—even France! But all of this may change in the coming years.

Over 40 years ago Spain closed itself to English. It was argued at the time that Spanish needed to be defended from this foreign onslaught and, as an example, since then all English language movies were and continue to be dubbed into Spanish. In addition to shutting out English culturally, Spain made French the obligatory second language to be taught in schools.  This educational dynamic began to change in 2008 when English language education became compulsory starting in the first grade. With 65% of Spaniards acknowledging a lack of understanding of English, Spanish authorities realized that this language gap was no longer acceptable. As one of the 15 largest global economies, not having a population with some knowledge of English—lingua franca for business and travel (for now)—is an incongruence that could weigh heavily on the country in the future.

Today, Spain has made great strides in a short period of time in second language knowledge. From being one of lowest ranking European countries in second language knowledge, Spain is now at or above the European average. In fact, Spain ranks ahead of France and Portugal in English language understanding with Madrid and the Basque Country considered the two areas where the most English is Spoken. Today, many primary schools not only offer English language classes, they are also offering a bilingual education by imparting a third or more of the classes exclusively in English like Art, Science and P.E. While there are still wrinkles in the educational system that need to be ironed out (teachers not being fully prepared to teach a bilingual class, frequent changes in curricula) Spain appears to be on the right track to achieve a meaningful second language education.

Language is something that can't be stopped; it is always evolving and taking different forms. Today, the global language is English but that doesn't mean it will always be that way. Remember that there are more native speakers of Mandarin and Spanish than there are English speakers. In countries like the United States and the United Kingdom, it would be to their advantage to take a look at Spain and see what can be done to improve language studies—possibly starting language education sooner. In the United States, language education typically starts in junior high or high school—too little and too late for serious language study for most students unless it is coupled with an immersion course abroad. Not surprisingly, Spanish is the most popular language offered in schools in the United States and in England it is a language that is growing in importance so much so that it may soon surpass French as the most popular foreign language there as well.

Spain looks to be firmly on course to become a European leader in the knowledge of a second language which says a lot for a country that only a few years ago was among one of the worst ranked in this area. Now other countries should take note as well.

Keywords: education in spain,language in spain,spanish education,second language learning,language education,english in spain,spain is different

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