Spanish Escape Clause in English

by Translation Guy on April 4, 2011

The one bright spot in Spain’s troubled economy is foreign language study, offering a hint at the direction of Spain’s labor force—out. Spain is the final letter in PIGS, the acronym used to describe those European Union countries overburdened with debt, and the Spanish economy, with 20% unemployment, is unlikely to get better any time soon.

So Spaniards have seen the economic writing on the wall, and have discovered that it’s not written in Spanish. More Spaniards than ever are seeking work in other EU nations. Problem is they don’t speak the language. The EU engine runs on English and German, and up until recently, it was all Spanish in Spain.

Raphael Minder reported from Madrid for the NYT: “The economic crisis is also forcing more adult Spaniards to return to the classroom—and not just to learn English. Applications to learn German this spring semester have risen 15 percent from a year ago, according to the Madrid office of the Goethe-Institut, which promotes German culture abroad. That follows a recent recruitment initiative by the German government to add about 500,000 engineers from other countries to keep its economy growing.”

For the kids, the focus is on English, in an attempt to reverse a decline in English knowledge reflecting a perceived general decline in education standards in Spain over the last generation. Richard Vaughan, originally from Texas and the owner of the largest English-language cram school in Spain, claims a Texas-sized English comprehension problem among Spanish college grads, where “fewer than 5 percent of the students graduating from schools of engineering, law or business posses a working knowledge of English.”

A new Madrid advertising campaign to promote bilingual education, “Yes, we want” irritates English purists (Dennis Baron writes long on this here), but is a sign of new language times for Spain.

With jobs short in Spanish, Spaniards have to learn other languages to work. The open employment market in Europe creates regional employment opportunities for those who speak the regional languages, and leaves monoglots stranded in-country. Eurostat has interesting numbers on foreign language learning in the EU. Paychecks are attractive regardless of the language they are printed in.

Learning a second language is accomplished for love or money. I suspect for most it is money, although in my case it was both. What about you readers? I wonder if those who learn for love learn more or less than those in pursuit of a paycheck.


  1. Ahem, localisation check: what is a “paycheck” in Europe?
    The word gets 14 million global Ghits, but only one and a half per cent of them are from domain UK – including lots of references to U.S. films and websites. And even the first few “images for paycheck” with UK domains show amounts denominated in dollars.
    Most people in Europe don’t get their wages or salary in the form of a check (nor even a “cheque”) anyway. Money is paid by bank transfer instead. In fact, even back in my salary earning days in the UK and in Germany, I never received a cheque. I won’t say how many decades ago that was, otherwise you would feel so young that it wouldn’t be good for you.
    Oh well, we have learned to live with Spaniards saying “Yes we want” and Germans saying “We can English”, so I suppose we’ll just have to grin and bear it.

  2. Lynn S says:

    Those who learn for the love of learning get both benefits. The reward of knowledge as well it doesnt hurt with the paycheck that comes along with having a second lauguage.

  3. Hot Lips says:

    it’s only a matta o time b4 they come round an start talkin’ like the rest of us – badly, very badly 😉

  4. After living there for six years, permit me one observation. Where there are tourists, English is taught/learnt in the schools and spoken daily by the Spanish. It is after all a work-requirement in a country where the population each year doubles to about 64 million, half of whom are tourists, 60% plus speaking English. The kids are taught in schools though, both state and private. In the UK, there are only a small number of tourist workers who are fluent in Spanish.

  5. If the german government is reaching out and looking for foreign talent for their knowledge based jobs i.e. engineers, they should realize that numbers are a language all of their own

  6. Gumpie says:

    Perhaps due to its size and because the Spaniards share only 2 borders (France and Portugal) there is no interest in learning anything but Spanish. The Swiss on the other hand, they share more borders and speak fluently in 5 languages (English, French, Italian, German and Romansh)

  7. John Smith says:

    5% seems incredibly low since I’ve heard upwards of 18% are capable of conversational english

    • Ken says:

      That 5% is for business English, John, where the bar is a lot higher than the ability to take cocktail orders poolside.

  8. Of the Jute says:

    John, I agree with you when you say that upwards of 18% can speak converstational english. Tourism is a huge industry in Spain and while I was visiting I didn’t have to go far to find someone that could at least understand english.

  9. Ralph Godwin says:

    They should be taking lessons from India…
    Do you have any idea of how many languages and dialects there are in India? There are hundreds.

    It is possible to travel fifty miles in any direction an not be able to understand the local dialect. THAT is why English is spoken. It is the “universal solvent” of Indian communication…as it should be in the EU

  10. Harry says:

    when I was in school german and spanish were offered as electives…neither of them were incredibly popular.

  11. The construction boom that preceeded the last recession should’ve set off a chain reaction amongst the skilled labourers in the country. Mexicans offer some of the highest quality and cheapest labour around (that’s a total oxymoron). If they really wanted to build i’m sure they can find a job outside the country. Skilled trades are in high demand these days.

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