Tourists at the Plaza Mayor in Madrid eating at an outdoor restaurants that serves traditional Spanish dishes.
Raquel Benito 06/30/2012 (06:00 AM CET)
Madrid and its people will be the best of hosts to the tourists if the city wins the Eurovegas megaproject, according to Esperanza Aguirre, premier of the region of Madrid.
She proudly announced it this week during the visit of a group close to the American multimillionaire Sheldon Adelson who wants to invest in a European Las Vegas in Spain, a project that Madrid and Barcelona are fighting over.
To argue for her cause, Aguirre said “the people of Madrid speak English,” a statement that quickly turned into one of the topics most talked about – and most ridiculized – on Twitter, where many people put it into question.
In fact, when it comes to foreign language skills, Spaniards lag behind many of their European neighbors. It is the fourth country in the European Union with the lowest number of people who speak foreign languages, according to Eurostat. Almost half the population – 46.6 percent – say they don’t speak a second language, which is above the EU average at 38 percent.
The only countries with lower numbers of people who speak a second language is Rumania and Hungary (75 percent in both countries) and Portugal (51 percent).
Speaking English in Madrid
Some of the tweets following Aguirre's statement made fun of how the names of traditional Spanish dishes would be pronounced with poor English or French: "Vermú of grifo with sandwich of calamareishons and torreznous".
Spanish food is indeed one of the main attractions that the country offers to foreign visitors. In the center of Madrid, however, tourists don’t necessarily need to use many words to get their message through, as they have learnt to pronounce the most popular dishes in Spanish.
“Las croquetas, la tortilla de patatas, el bocadillo de calamares and la sangría is what they ask for most,” according to waiters in the popular Plaza Mayor area. “To attend them, we don’t need to speak any languages, they are the ones who find out how to say it.”
“To know a few numbers, how to say thank you and a big smile, that is all the English we know, but everyone leaves very happy,” said José Luis, who has worked his whole life in a traditional Spanish bar in the tourist-friendly area.
In the nearby Puerta del Sol, at the heart of the capital, Antonio, who works with the city cleaning services, said he does not speak any English. “The tourists mostly ask how to get to the royal castle,” he said, “and as most of them have a map, and as gestures are the same for everyone, we understand each other.”
The bus drivers and metro service staff use similar technics. “If a tourist asks us we always do the same, we show them to the machines and get them their tickets, because to explain how to do it in English is too complicated.”
In the shops in the area, the salesclerks also receive many foreign clients. “If they speak English, most of us understand,” said Diana, who works in a clothes store. “They always ask about the same things; the size, the colour and price, especially if there are sales, so we have the answers prepared.”
Problem when job hunting
Not to know English can be a problem when looking for a job. “To know a second language, primarily English, is a requirement in 58 percent of the job offers to people with higher education,” according to Randstad. “It is 65 percent for middle-range management positions and 100 percent for the highest levels of management positions.”
According to the Eurobarometer “The Europeans and their languages,” half of the European citizens can speak at least one other language than their mother-tongue, and English is the most spoken second language. Among Spaniards, however, only 27 percent say that they can speak English.
The result from a poll in February 2012 by the Center for Sociological Investigations (CIS) shows even lower numbers. Only 21.5 percent answered that they can speak and write in English, while 65.2 percent said that they can’t speak, write or read in English. For 80.5 percent, the same occurs with French and for 95.8 percent with German.
The situation is not much better for the younger generations. A European study on linguistic knowledge presented in June 2012 showed that 63 percent of Spanish students don’t understand spoken English when they finish secondary education at the age of 16 and only 27 percent has proficiency level, far from the 82 percent among Swedes.
This summer, about 100,000 Spanish students will travel abroad on language study trips, primarily to English-speaking countries, according to ASEPROCE, a Spanish association for language studies abroad.
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