Why won’t the Spanish…

Once a week we buy the Costa Blanca News, partly for general information of interest to British expats, and partly to shake our heads at the insular lives some British expats lead here, especially on the coast.  Of course that is their choice, but I do wonder if they realise what they are missing by not integrating more.

The letters page is usually where this attitude is highlighted and most weeks there is at least one letter to incense me, however last week was the first time that it actually drove me to replying.  The title of the letter was “Why won’t the Spanish try to speak English?”  The writer (who was anonymous – why do you think that was?) went on to say that most Spaniards now have compulsory English lessons in school so they have little excuse for not trying to speak English. 

Good point.  I think that those Spaniards who learnt English at school should try to speak English  – when they go to the UK.  The writer’s argument is based on the fact that he and his wife learnt French at school, so when they visited Paris for the first time in their forties they were bursting to try French for real.  Right.  So if you learnt French, you should try to speak French in France.  If you learnt English, then you should try to speak English in England.  I hope that you are following me so far, as everything is nice and logical.  Million dollar question is coming up now: does that mean therefore that if you learnt English at school you should try to speak English in SPAIN?

The classic quote from “Enquiring citizen in the Hondon Valley area” now follows. “The Spanish appear very resistant to even coming half way to meet you and this, I fear, is more to do with their unfortunate history and insular attitude to foreigners.”  I think there is a very good case for substituting the words “Enquiring citizen” for “The Spanish”, don’t you?

He follows this up by saying: “Moreover, there can be no doubt that they get exposure to English in their everyday lives in the shops and streets of Spain.”  This is probably because there are so many other British people like “Enquiring citizen”, who walk around the shops and streets of Spain expecting everybody to speak English to them and complaining when they don’t. 

He adds: “It seems most Spaniards who must have studied English in school don’t want to venture an occasional “good morning” to me.”  I suggest that it would be more appropriate, and courteous, for him to venture an occasional “buenos días” to them.

In my reply, which was one of five responses published in Friday’s paper, I stated that we live in Jumilla, and cannot walk down the street without niños calling out “Hello” or “Good morning”.  Young people are always apologising for their English not being good enough, to which we usually respond “it is far better than our Spanish”!  We don’t expect anybody to speak English as we are living in a Spanish area, so we are trying to learn Spanish at the local adult education centre.  Local people appreciate our efforts to speak their language, and those who speak some English show their appreciation by occasionally speaking our language too.  When we venture into Bar Canarias, we never know whether the owner will speak to us in Spanish or English.  I think it all depends on what mood he is in that day.

We also organise occasional intercambios, with Spanish people trying to improve their English and British friends (plus John and me) trying to improve our Spanish.  I suggested that “enquiring citizen” might want to try that in Hondon where he lives.

I finished my own letter by saying that, contrary to his experiences, “Jumillanos on the whole have been very welcoming; many people here do try a few words in English (though we don’t expect them to), and our Spanish neighbours have been very friendly and helpful. Dare I ask whether it is more to do with the attitude of individual British retirees rather than the attitude of the local Spanish people?  What do other readers think?”

I would love to hear your thoughts on this too especially if, like us, you are an expat.

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  1. Jack Scott’s avatar

    He or she is an idiot. My Turkish is hopeless though Liam is a little better. Turkish is difficult language to learn as it has Asiatic roots, the word order is different and there are few familiar words. Also, English is widely spoken here in Bodrum. But we try and are slowly getting better.

  2. Danny’s avatar

    My Cantonese is hopeless also. Maggie (my wife) and the rest of the family speak fluent Cantonese. People in Hong Kong can speak English but they are scared to sometimes say hello or goodbye for fear of “saying it wrong”. I have tried to learn Cantonese but it is very tonal and very difficult for a tone deaf Australian like me to learn.

  3. Sue Walker’s avatar

    Thanks for your comment. I think that what you say about people in Hong Kong also applies to many Spanish people who speak a little English, but appear reluctant to try. What annoyed me though was the arrogant attitude of the letter writer. It’s not easy learning another language, especially for those like John and me who are “mature” (i.e. over 60!) but at least we try. We don’t think that it is up to the local people to speak our language though!

  4. Sue Walker’s avatar

    Picking up on another point that Jack and Danny made: European languages are on the whole easier to learn as they have latin roots, and we are now finding that we can understand the written word pretty well, especially as we both learnt French at school. However when Spanish people start talking rapidly to us it’s a different matter….