Visitors to Spain may notice and may be surprised by the generally low level of English spoken throughout the country.
Once, while living in Madrid, I was at the bus station buying tickets to go to Granada. The fellow before me in line, who German or Northern European, tried to buy his tickets in English once it was his turn. The woman behind the counter only spoke Spanish. He seemed shocked, outraged, and perhaps a bit panicked to discover that not a single counter agent spoke English. He spoke no Spanish. I stepped up and asked if he needed and translator; he looked relieved and said yes.
In Germany, Austria, and Nordic countries like Sweden, Denmark, and Finland, it’s common that everyone speaks English. You can go up to a police officer, ticket agent, museum employee, random person on the street, and the chances are good that they will be able to answer you question or give you directions in English without skipping a beat.
Why is it different in Spain? First, I think it’s important to note that it’s not just Spain that has a lower level of English acquisition. Italy and France also have notoriously low levels of English. It makes sense that the more economically prosperous countries in Northern Europe and Scandinavia have higher levels of English compared to their less wealthy Southern Mediterranean counterparts like Spain, Italy, Greece and France.
Students in countries like Denmark and Norway attend public schools that are taught in English, giving them a huge leg up over others. How this evolved and the politics and financing involved is another story.
There are some important differences between Spain and the rest of Europe that relate to its place in the world of English speaking. Spain was a dictatorship for over 40 years, from 1939 to 1975, when the dictator Franco died. During his rule, Franco did not allow languages other than Castellano, or Castilian Spanish, to be spoken publicly. This included the other official languages of Spain — Galician, Basque, and Catalan. Only films in Spanish were permitted and many films, even in Spanish, were simply not allowed because of censorship rules.
During these 40 years, Spain was mostly withdrawn from the international community. Spain did not join the European Economic Community until 1986, after applying to join in 1977, two years after the death of Franco. There was an attempted military coup d’etat in 1981, which I think drives home the newness of Spain’s democracy and current place in the world.
Spain’s 40 plus year dictatorship and isolation are major reasons why the country lags behind other European nations in English.
The good news it that for the past 10 to 15 years, there has been a major push to teach English and just about everyone understands how important it is to speak it. Bilingual public schools are common in many areas of the country and major universities have bilingual degree programs.
There are several programs that brings native English speakers to work as English Language Teaching Assistants is booming. While giving the participants the chance to live and work in Spain and improve their Spanish, it exposes Spanish students to native English speakers and piques their curiosity in American or British culture.
Parents enroll kids as young as a few years in bilingual pre-schools and in activity-based English classes.
There is a noticeable difference in the level of English from a decade or two ago and the commitment to improve the English level of Spaniards is clear.
In your travels around Spain, you will likely encounter people who don’t speak English, especially if you get off the beaten track, as you should! Don’t let this discourage you. There are plenty of ways to overcome a communication barrier and to enjoy your travels.