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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Tom Watson rouses Labour's conference as he comes out fighting

The party's deputy leader exhilarated delegates with his paean to the Blair and Brown years. 

Tom Watson is down but not out. After Jeremy Corbyn's second landslide victory, and weeks of threats against his position, Labour's deputy leader could have played it safe. Instead, he came out fighting. 

With Corbyn seated directly behind him, he declared: "I don't know why we've been focusing on what was wrong with the Blair and Brown governments for the last six years. But trashing our record is not the way to enhance our brand. We won't win elections like that! And we need to win elections!" As Watson won a standing ovation from the hall and the platform, the Labour leader remained motionless. When a heckler interjected, Watson riposted: "Jeremy, I don't think she got the unity memo." Labour delegates, many of whom hail from the pre-Corbyn era, lapped it up.

Though he warned against another challenge to the leader ("we can't afford to keep doing this"), he offered a starkly different account of the party's past and its future. He reaffirmed Labour's commitment to Nato ("a socialist construct"), with Corbyn left isolated as the platform applauded. The only reference to the leader came when Watson recalled his recent PMQs victory over grammar schools. There were dissenting voices (Watson was heckled as he praised Sadiq Khan for winning an election: "Just like Jeremy Corbyn!"). But one would never have guessed that this was the party which had just re-elected Corbyn. 

There was much more to Watson's speech than this: a fine comic riff on "Saturday's result" (Ed Balls on Strictly), a spirited attack on Theresa May's "ducking and diving; humming and hahing" and a cerebral account of the automation revolution. But it was his paean to Labour history that roused the conference as no other speaker has. 

The party's deputy channelled the spirit of both Hugh Gaitskell ("fight, and fight, and fight again to save the party we love") and his mentor Gordon Brown (emulating his trademark rollcall of New Labour achivements). With his voice cracking, Watson recalled when "from the sunny uplands of increasing prosperity social democratic government started to feel normal to the people of Britain". For Labour, a party that has never been further from power in recent decades, that truly was another age. But for a brief moment, Watson's tubthumper allowed Corbyn's vanquished opponents to relive it. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.