Brett Hetherington, over at Standing in a Spanish Doorway, prints this map, without comment. The information is taken from the Special Eurobarometer 386 (PDF) and the map was compiled by Jakub Marian. Although the data seem to be from self-reporting, the methodologies used by the survey are standard on their own terms and the confidence intervals seem to be well-defined. Also, they’ve been doing this for a long time and there seems to be no political pressure to bias the survey.
All I really mean is that I am prepared to accept the results as broadly true, and to use them as a starting point for what I really want to talk about.
Spain has the poorest score on the chart, and I sort of think I know why this is, at least why it is so low. Schools do not teach children English. They say they do, they may think they do, but they do not. The final year exams in high school, and the university entrance exams, are pitched at a B1 level (Cambridge PET), which is not an independent user level. That is, even those who achieve that level and pass these exams well, have spent 3, 4 or 5 hours a week over the course of 12+ years, in order to learn half a language, which is no use to anyone. They have been wasting their time and it would have been better to study something else in those hours.
The 22% who can hold a conversation in English (let’s assume it means a B2 level, or Cambridge First Certificate, though in practice it probably doesn’t) have almost all acquired that level by attending private academies, hiring private tutors, spending summers in the UK or Ireland, or some such means. They, and their parents, have the motivation to find ways to learn English outside the schools, because they know they have to.
That motivation is a lot more than the realization that they will need English to advance professionally. It involves going out in the afternoon day after day and sitting in yet another classroom forcing yourself to pay attention when you are fed up with studying and there are many other things you would rather be doing. That isn’t something teenagers do lightly.
And it is the motivation that matters, not the means. If you have the motivation you will find the means. Not all my students have professional, comfortably off parents, but they all have parents who understand the importance of learning English, who have aspirations for their children and who can transmit the motivation to work hard. In fact, if all parents understood how important education is, and what it can achieve, they would be storming the schools, and stringing Ministers and bureaucrats from lampposts for making such a terrible mess of it.
English matters (which is very useful for me, otherwise I’d have to get a proper job) and it still is not well appreciated by people in general. But in the world of Engineering, international commerce, legal departments of large companies, the STEM areas of Academia, even in the hotel and tourist trade, if you don’t have an independent user level of English, at least a B2 level, employers won’t even look at you. You are no use to them. In some areas it is now the C1 (Cambridge Advanced) which sets the standard. Without out you are nobody. And this reflects the way things are done. I an international company a firm will not ask to talk to an English-speaking sales manager, or wonder how they’ll communicate with the engineer who’s come to look over the project. It’s just assumed that you can do it. It’s a basic tool, like being able to read reports and answer your email without help.
Whenever I visit those countries which score highest, and my experience coincides with the figures in the places I know about, I ask people how they learnt English. Most don’t even remember. They have always known it. But something you hear a lot is that they watch television in English. From the cartoons they see as toddlers to the kids’ series, the teen dramas, the detective series, the love stories and the blockbusters, the output of Hollywood is unmediated by local voice actors. This is one way that English becomes a natural means of communication to them before they even realize it shouldn’t be. It would, at least, be a start, and now with cable and TDT it’s easy for parents to switch their children into English. But again, motivation. And it’s only a start, of course.
Incidentally, the Spanish dubbing industry has a very good bunch of voice actors who frequently improve the films and series they dub, since Hollywood actors don’t seem to learn to speak any more. I hate to suggest that they must lose their jobs for the sake of the children, but it would not be a bad thing.