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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A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear