Why is Spain experiencing an English language boom?

Twenty-seven per cent of Spain's population is unemployed - over six million people. In a ferociously competitive job market, Spaniards see learning a foreign language as the best way of distinguishing themselves from others.

Take a trip on Madrid’s Metro during the morning rush hour and you will be struck by two things: the number of suited commuters burying their heads in English language textbooks, and the amount of wall space taken up by private schools, or academias, advertising English courses.

Twenty-seven per cent of the population is unemployed; that’s over six million people. In a ferociously competitive job market, Spaniards see learning a foreign language as the best way of distinguishing themselves from others. While many here struggle to make ends meet, while angry protests against politicians, austerity and banks take place almost daily, English language schools have never had it so good.

Andalusia has been hit very hard by the crisis. With a local unemployment rate of 35.4 per cent, the demand for English lessons is high. Until last July, Pilar, a resident of Seville who studied law at university, worked for a property development company. “I was there for six years, during the construction boom,” she says. “When I started there were 44 of us. Now there are only two.”

Out of work and applying for jobs, she is investing time (three to four hours a day, not counting homework) and money in an intensive English course. In Spain, this can cost upwards of €600 – a large sum if you are unemployed. “My course is demanding, and expensive,” Pilar says. “But I need to differentiate myself from other candidates. If I have a good level of English, I will have more opportunities to get a job.”

Pedro, a 37-year-old father-oftwo, lives in Dos Hermanas, a 20-minute drive from Seville. He lost his job as a construction manager last year and is struggling to find employment. “The last job I went for, 700 other people applied,” he says.

At the beginning of the year Pedro signed up for heavily discounted English classes in Seville, taught by trainee teachers who in turn had paid over £1,000 each to the academy to obtain a teaching qualification. It cost only €20 for a month’s worth of lessons.

His course finished in March, but he is still working hard on his English; still trying, like Pilar, to stand out from the crowd. “At the moment, I’m studying English on my own, using the internet. And every day I’ll watch a programme or a movie in English, with Spanish subtitles. My favourite at the moment is The Big Bang Theory.”

Our conversation soon moves to the problems gripping Spain. “The worst thing is that I can’t see things changing,” he says. “The politicians aren’t doing anything, the unions aren’t doing anything, and people don’t feel things are getting better. Every weekend you meet with your friends and relatives, and eventually you speak about the crisis. Nowadays, nobody has a secure job.”

The English language boom in Spain ensures a healthy profit for the academies. It does not guarantee Pilar and Pedro work. What it does offer, though, is some sort of hope. “Things will change for the better,” Pedro says. “I don’t care how many years it takes me.”

Protesters in May 2013 carry a banner with the latest jobless figure. Photograph: Getty Images

This article first appeared in the 08 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The world takes sides

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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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