And 70% of companies believe their staff ‘s levels of English are not enough to be able to deal with foreign clients, the national Chamber of Commerce reveals.
Professor Ainderias Fitzgerald, an Irish teacher who trains tutors at the Vaughan Centre in Spain, says much of the problem is that many of those who try to learn English are afraid of ‘looking stupid’.
“Teachers need to understand that the battle is not just that of learning the language in itself, but being daring enough to speak it in public,” Fitzgerald explains.
“Practical and oral classes should take precedence – in Spanish schools, too much theory and grammar is taught, whereas if you go to school in Sweden, there are hardly any books; it’s nearly all spoken.”
Many parents do not want their children to learn their English in the same way as they did, Fitzgerald reveals.
Madrid-born Paula Grau, 38, says: “I studied lots of grammar – we didn’t do any speaking – and there wasn’t much emphasis on language-learning. It was just another school subject.
“Nowadays, speaking another language is not just an advantage when you’re looking for a job, but a necessity.”
According to the recruitment site Infojobs, being able to speak a second language increases the chance of finding work by 19%.
But Paula says ‘starting out learning English’ is ‘scary’, and becomes even more difficult when you try to put it into practice.
More and more working-age adults are turning to private lessons to try to improve the low level of English they started with.
Ana Vozmediano, 25, says her generation has ‘spent its whole life’ learning English at school, but that this has ‘never been particularly useful’, as years of study still leads to a poor or non-existent level of the language.
She agrees with the 40% who told the CIS in a survey that the Spanish education system places ‘little’ or ‘no’ importance on language-learning.
As well as English, the majority of Spaniards do not speak any other language at all, unless they live in a region with a co-official tongue – the percentage able to communicate in French or German is lower still, the CIS says.
And the Chamber of Commerce says this lack of linguistic ability comes at huge cost to the competitive nature of Spanish companies, ‘reflecting the limited scope of the corporate fabric’.
Nearly half of all companies have no interest in their staff being able to communicate to any level in another language, which is ‘appalling’, says María Tosca, assistant manager of competitivity at the Chamber of Commerce.
“One needs to try to make one’s company grow a little – in general, firms are too small and too focused on the national market,” she says.
Even though the majority of Spanish adults believe language-learning is essential, only 10% of them currently study another tongue, the CIS reveals.
Dubbed films and serials and the ‘poor structure’ of language-teaching in schools, combined with lack of confidence on the part of students when they want to practice, are some of the main reasons behind Spain’s poor linguistic competence, teachers in general say.
But Fitzgerald says if students can get over their ‘fear of making a mistake’, they will be able to enjoy the ‘sociability and open character’ of Anglo-Saxon countries and northern Europe.
“Once a learner breaks through the embarrassment barrier, they will be able to communicate easily in English, because the English-speaking community is very talkative and open,” he explains.
As for the problems arising initially with the very different structures of Spanish and English, Fitzgerald says it is ‘natural’ that any learner will start by trying to apply their own mother-tongue system to the new language, but warns that this can only be overcome with plenty of effort.
“You won’t just pick it up in a few hours. You have to work really hard at it,” he says.
Training one’s ear to native speakers helps, he says, by watching TV and films and, where possible, get away for anything from a few days to a few months to a country where the language is spoken – ideally not with one’s friends and not to a centre where most of the students speak your own tongue.
“There’s no magic formula; you just have to make a big effort,” Fitzgerald stresses.
“In the case of Spain, the native language is already one of the most highly-spoken in the world.
“Small countries which do not share a native tongue with any other have no choice but to be at least bilingual, but in Spain you can survive perfectly well just speaking Spanish – and this is becoming a barrier to learning English.”