Speak English? – Learning English in Spain


The topic of education is something that has always interested me, but even more so now that I have children. So, one day, I began to wonder what the problem with the Spanish education system could be. Why do we in Spain not learn languages?

Teaching English in Spain is like many other things: a botched job. How can you hope to teach someone to speak a language without ever actually letting them speak?

But, obviously, teachers are scared of letting students interact in class because they may lose control. So, they continue with this top-down model of education, the teacher thinking: “I know it, so I’ll speak and the students will listen and repeat”.

Apart from the fact that you can’t learn any language like that (as I believe we have proven beyond all reasonable doubt over the past 30 years of language teaching in Spain), the education system has a very negative secondary effect, by which I mean the reward-punishment method.

As Merche rightly says (thank you, Merche, for giving me the idea for this post), the reward-punishment method has a negative effect on motivation (which is one of the big difficulties with classical education: motivating students to learn something that a lot of the time doesn’t interest them). As a solution, Merche suggests refraining from punishments and only using rewards. The problem with this is that giving rewards can be just as demotivating as punishments.

Let me explain. If I always tell you how well you structure sentences in English, and one day I don’t tell you (because on that particular day, you haven’t done so well), you will take the lack of praise (the reward) as a punishment. And if I’m always telling Joe how much effort he makes or how good he is, but not you, you may take it as a punishment, which could demotivate you. In other words, the reward-punishment method is inseparable: you can’t reward without punishment, or punish without reward.

Aside from demotivation, giving punishments or rewards according to what a student says has yet another negative effect, and this is what concerns me most. Teaching using this method puts an end to creativity, as Ken Robinson explains in this ted talk and Peter Gray in this post. When a student worries about the feedback they are due to receive (the reward or punishment), they don’t only struggle to learn, but they also daren’t take risks, which is the basis for creative thinking.

There are, of course, other obstacles apart from teaching methods that make learning languages difficult for Spanish people. You can read about them here, here and here (but only if you understand Spanish…).

  1. As well as not differentiating between long and short vowels, many English sounds do not exist in Spanish (try saying in English that you want to go to the “bitch” instead of the “beach”).
  1. The vast majority of films in Spain are dubbed, which is great for the translation industry, but makes it even more difficult for our ears to adjust to English (all this may lead the attentive reader to ask: is it the translators, after all, who are conspiring against Spanish people speaking English?)
  1.  In Spanish, you say things as they are written. It’s anyone’s guess how you say “although”, “schedule” and “rhythm”!
  1. Spanish people themselves. Not to discourage anyone, but below is an extract from the book by Richard Vaughan, a very famous English teacher in Spain, who has taught here since 1974 and has had over 6,000 students.

License: GFDL; Source: Wikipedia


how many of your students have truly managed to learn English?

Answer: Ten.

Question: Does your method not work?

Answer: No, it’s not that. In order to learn English, the most important thing is having the right attitude*. Treat it like a job. Most people treat it like a hobby, thinking that a couple of hours a week is enough.


I don’t know if Vaughan’s marketing team read these paragraphs of his book before it was published, but they definitely should have said something when they found them!

Anyway, good luck to him. We already know the importance of learning languages thanks to our last post on how to fine-tune your brain.

And hey, as a last resort, there’s always our English translation service ;-).

Now it’s your turn: How have your experiences with other languages been? How is language teaching in your country?


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