5 reasons why Spanish are bad at learning English (according to some Spanish friends)

There I was, having a copa (Rum and Coke) on Sunday evening with some Spanish friends and a chap from Chile. There were a couple of smokers in the group so we huddled around a table with a heater when one of them asked me how to say ‘Bufanda‘ in English.


Before I could respond, the Chilean calmly uttered the word ‘scarf‘. His pronunciation was clear, there was no attempt to insert an ‘e’ sound before the ‘f’ and, unlike most Granadinos, he managed to form the consonant cluster ‘rf’ at the end of the word. The locals laughed and, buoyed  by the alcohol in their bloodstream, attempted to say this new word in English.

After 2 long and painful minutes of listening to repeated versions of ‘escar’, I had to stop them, write the word on a serviette and teach them how to say it. They gave up immediately and reverted to Spanish but used the incident as a launchpad for an extended conversation about the reasons why Spanish are bad at English.

According to most studies, there are fewer English speakers in Spain than in most other European countries. This survey suggests only 18% of Spanish speak 2 languages (compared to the EU average of 25% but better than us Brits with 14%) http://ec.europa.eu/languages/languages-of-europe/eurobarometer-survey_en.htm

Reason 1: Most of their English classes were taught in Spanish by Spanish speakers. A few of them had attended classes taught by native speakers and groaned about how difficult it was to be immersed in an English speaking environment. However, they all agreed being forced to communicate in English was a good thing to improve their speaking and listening skills but didn’t remember doing much, if any, unscripted conversation in class.

Reason 2: Native speaker teachers couldn’t answer their grammar questions. Learning about the finer points of English grammar was considered essential by a couple of people around the table. One was adamant that English grammar had to be explained by comparing and contrasting it with Spanish grammar. She really didn’t see how it could be learned any other way. When I mentioned (in Spanish of course) that people learn languages without formal grammar tuition, she looked at me as if I had suggested that we finish our drinks and go off and smoke some crack. Then again, I know some native speaker English teachers here who think a relative clause is Father Christmas’s aunt!

Reason 3: El miedo al ridiculo. After the next round of drinks arrived, my Spanish friends started to get a bit maudlin. They were ashamed of their poor English and didn’t want to look foolish in front of their peers. They identified this as a uniquely Spanish psychological trait. I got to thinking about the Spanish people I know who profess to have excellent English and wondered why they rarely speak to me in English. Indeed, they generally ask for tips about improving it but always speak in Spanish.

Reason 4: The ‘Oposiciones’ mentality. We were all now starting to shed our inhibitions. One of the group started to rage about oposiciones (public exams you need to pass to work for the state) and how the Spanish educational system encourages rote learning and memorisation of factual knowledge at the expense of developing critical thinking skills. She said that the main obstacle was getting Spanish people to see English as a tool for life and not just something to be used in order to increase your chances of being a funcionario (civil servants but this includes state school teachers, nurses and judges).

Reason 5: Version original (V.O). Remember the Chilean chap with the excellent English. Well, I asked him how things had changed in Chile because I went there in 2001 and don’t recall meeting any English speakers. He informed us that although Chileans studied English at kindergarten, he felt the main reason why Chileans spoke better English than Spanish was that films and TV shows were subtitled but not dubbed in Chile. He had grown up hearing English. The intonation, phonemes and stress patterns in the language were not unfamiliar to him. Unlike Spanish political leaders from Franco onwards…

All of us were fairly drunk by now, cheered by the beers and copas and the festive spirit in the air. Surprisingly, when I wished them ‘Feliz Navidad’, they were all happy to respond in English.

OK, they said ‘Merry Chrimas’ and avoided the ‘st’ consonant cluster, but at least they tried.

So, what do you think? It would be good to hear from you.

What other reasons might there be for Spanish struggling with English?

Are Spanish poor at English or is this a myth?


  1. Mother tongue (a.k.a. L1) influence has a great deal to answer for, regarding final consonant omission, ‘d’ and ‘t’ sounds, and all the other pronunciation differences (B-V, Y-J, W-G etc.) which regularly present themselves. And the bit you wrote about grammar-translation stalwarts made me smile rather ruefully. They might be able to explain what a third conditional is but they couldn’t ask for directions or have a simple conversation. So … well done for writing this page – I enjoyed reading it!

    I’d also make the point here that in any country, one gets people who are good at languages and others who are the opposite. People who are motivated, and the opposite. People who want to learn – and those who don’t. I’ve had the privilege to work with some great students but there are a number of opposite examples too – I’ve tolerated some* , and a Spanish friend of mine who is an English teacher in the public system can vouch for this much more than she would like to – and she finds it depressing.

    *Progress reports and timely feedback can work wonders!


    1. Hi Mark,

      Thanks for your comments. Good point about motivation – an extremely important aspect of learning – and I agree with you about progress reports and timely feedback. Something I’ve noticed here is that lots of students have instrumental motivation (they need to pass an exam to achieve their goal) and this means they see English as a means to an end and not something that’s necessarily of value in itself. I have a private student at the moment who thinks improving her speaking is memorizing her 2 minute presentation for her B1 exam. When it comes to engaging in conversation though, she just responds in Spanish to even the most basic of questions.


  2. Tell me about it! It’s always a fine borderline we have to tread with private students. If they insist on speaking Spanish (as in your example) I will answer if I have to – but sometimes reply with a question, “How do you say [whatever it is they’ve just said] in English?”.

    A few months ago I read an ELT blog where a profesor particular / private tutor was complaining about how he considered he had been reduced to almost being a “paid entertainer” (the author’s exact words) – with one or two who didn’t (/still don’t?) even spend a few minutes reading their notes between lessons. Perhaps he teaches a lot of young children, instead of a mix of ages and abilities. I seem to remember he was making his point about adult students, though.

    Then we have the Vaughan approach where they often emphasise the importance of studying between lessons. I’ve always agreed with, was taught and have used a few of their ideas – not in that company, but from a very good German language teacher who has her own school. One of the Vaughan YouTube videos or radio station presentations once mentioned that a private language tutor is to speaking as a personal trainer is to exercise at the gym – I smiled at that one! I think it’s a good analogy if the student is willing and able, and the teacher is experienced – and, equally importantly, both have a sense of humour.

    All that said, unless one is a millionaire (difficult to become one, teaching languages!) one has to keep an eye on student satisfaction, class ‘experience’ and …. (dare I say it) perhaps an even closer eye on one’s income from tuition fees. Think mortgage or rent payments!

    Hope I haven’t raised as many questions as answers (or perspectives) I’ve given! (?). I’d be interested to hear your ‘take’ on it too.


    1. Sorry for the late reply Mark.

      I think you have identified one of the main issues here and the personal trainer analogy is particularly apposite. A weekly session with a personal trainer will only help you get in shape if you are prepared to follow their training advice and do some exercise in your own time. If not, an hour a week with a specialist won’t make much of a difference. It’s surely the same with language learning. The student I mentioned – the one who can’t resist translating – desperately wants to improve her speaking in the shortest time possible but insists she cannot find time to do any homework, even listening to the radio, as she doesn’t have any time. I spend most lessons reviewing the previous week’s work!

      Encouraging learner autonomy is a fairly new concept here but I’ve noticed that ‘coaching’ seems to be all the rage. Maybe language teachers should try and promote themselves as ‘coaches’ rather than ‘teachers’.


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