24 Jun, 2012 @ 10:46
1 min read

Have you been in Portugal?

AS a teacher of English in Spain, reading the news recently that Spain ranks lowest in English proficiency in the whole of Europe brought me to despair.

I spend half my classes trying to convince my students that their English level is not that bad in a constant attempt to boost their confidence, to allow them to experience a trust in the language, and me, so they don’t give up their valiant embarkation on this language we call English.

Whilst offering excuses such as: “The Portuguese speak better English than us because they don’t dub the TV programmes. They are exposed to the language when they are children. Spanish only has five vowels,” their worried exam-ridden faces look to me for reconciliation, advice and agreement. Of course, I give them this, even though they’ve just asked me “Have you ever been in Portugal?” A phrase that, despite my futile attempts to quash (as well as my niggling feeling that it doesn’t really matter anyway), continuously comes my way, followed swiftly by “I recommend you going”.

I often tell them about all the different Englishes in the world, quoting my sociolinguistics lecturers about how loads of variations of English exist, just as the Queen’s one does. Indian English, African English, Chinese English are all recognised and understood, therefore European or Hispanic English is just as viable – reinforcing the idea that effective communication is key for this lingua franca we’re so lucky to have as our first language.

Having said all this, their C1 examiners will cringe with imperialist rage at this mistake, therefore I continue to drill it out of them like a military sergeant.

I hear a distant cry for Esperanto… but it’s far too late for that now. The world is in the grasps of globalisation, that unstoppable viper. And a positive result of this is that English language resources are in such abundance it would be illogical, and basically impossible, to try and convert us now.

I often reiterate that their learning of English is courageous. So what if I can’t hear the difference when you say “work” and “walk”? The startling and shameful statistics of foreign language learning in Britain is another one of my arguments. According to Eurostats, 5% of Spanish children don’t learn a foreign language, in Britain the percentage is 50. Fifty percent. It’s embarrassing, frankly.

Furthermore, my guilt at their belief that learning English will get them a job (and subsequently keep me in work and make Cambridge a lot of money) is just another uncomfortable ripple of anger I feel towards English. These damning reports against learning English in Spain are not helping my plight.

Please, give ’em a break!


  1. You write, “I hear a distant cry for Esperanto… but it’s far too late for that now.” No, it’s not, Kate. Esperanto works well! I’ve used it in speech and writing – and sung in it – in about fifteen countries over recent years.

    Take a look at “http://www.lernu.net”

  2. Many ill-informed people describe Esperanto as “failed” – other ignorant people say that if human beings were meant to fly, God would have given them wings.

    Esperanto is neither artificial nor a failure however. As the British Government now employs Esperanto translators it has ceased to be a hobby. More recently this international language was used to address the United Nations in Bonn.

    During a short period of 125 years Esperanto is now in the top 100 languages, out of 6,800 worldwide. It is the 22nd most used language in Wikipedia, ahead of Danish and Arabic. It is a language choice of Google, Skype, Firefox, Ubuntu and Facebook.

    Native Esperanto speakers, (people who have used the language from birth), include World Chess Champion Susan Polger, Ulrich Brandenberg the new German Ambassador to and Nobel Laureate Daniel Bovet. Financier George Soros learnt Esperanto as a child.

    Esperanto is a living language – “see http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-8837438938991452670

  3. we moved shoreditch to spain for this reason… all three kids speak and write (writing correctly is different, they do) french spanish english and catalan… and they are learning japanese and cantonese… these are young children, but they have more opportunity here even in rural andalusia… and we don´t help them much as parents as we only learnt spanish… english tourists come here and shout louder and louder in english to be ¨understood¨all red faced.

    It doesn´t cut it with the locals they just walk away.
    So do I now.

    Teach your children when they are small it is fast, but better in another country if you dare.

  4. and my daughter just took the highest oxbridge exam in english literacy here ¨in a village¨ and passed! she was the youngest ever to be allowed to take it. Much better education in Spain.
    (and much better football too)

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