This is my response to the reflective task Exploring your context 4 from Sandy Millin’s ELT Playbook 1.
The task – The role of English
In this task, Sandy asks the reader (me) to reflect on the importance of English language learning in my current context, the impact English has on those who learn it, and how attitudes towards English have changed over the years (and how these might have affected people’s willingness to learn English).
The importance of English – Spain
A (very) brief history of ELT in Spain
English language teaching in Spain is a well-established profession – The British Council has been in Spain since the 1940’s and International House was started by John Haycraft in Córdoba in 1953. English has been here for a long time. We could even go further back and look at foreign language teaching in Spain in the 18th and 19th centuries – many immigrants and political exiles took up posts as teachers of their mother tongue – English, French, Polish, were among but a few (Viña Rouco, 2002); however, I’ll leave this for another post.
English didn’t really gain major popularity until the 1980’s, when it shifted from a minority language choice to one of the more major choices alongside French and German. In 1996, the El Ministerio de Educación in conjunction with the British Council approved a bilingual, integrated syllabus in public schools, and since this moment English has been the predominant choice for Spanish students (French in second place). What is interesting, though, is that, currently, English is not a the compulsory second-language subject in primary school (they are obliged to study a second language, but not necessarily English – this is dictated by the local governments), however it is in secondary school (González Villarón, 2017). At the end of their schooling, Spanish students are expected to have a minimum level of B1.
The current situation
In 2012, the European Commission conducted a European-wide study with the purpose of understanding European citizens’ experiences and perceptions of multilingualism (European Commission, 2012, pp. 2). I spent a good hour reading over this and looking at the data – massively eye-opening. Let’s have a look at some of the interesting things that I found.
- 82% of Spanish participants believe that English is the most important language for their own personal development, and 92% of Spanish participants believe that English is the most important language for the children’s development.
- 48% of Spanish participants say that they learnt English through lessons at school.
- 24% of Spanish participants responded with totally or tend to agree with the statement, You prefer to watch foreign films with subtitles, rather than dubbed.
- A staggering 85% of Spanish participants resonded with totally or tend to agree with the statement Improving language skills should be policy priority.
It’s clear, then, that English is viewed fairly positively and importantly overall. But, in terms of overall language proficiency, Spain ranks among the lowest. Jakub Marian has created these lovely language maps which takes the data from the study and makes it more ‘digestible’. Take a look:
Looking at another study (I pretty much went down the rabbit hole on this one) that focused on the teaching of foreign languages in the Spanish school system in the 2012/13 academic school year, it was interesting to note that there is a minimum number of hours per week that students need to spend studying a foreign language (generally English). Now, this study covered all the regions of Spain, but let’s have a look at the region where I am – Andalusia.
In Andalusia, students must study between three to fours hours a week of a second language in primary school, four in secondary school, and three in the senior years of secondary school, ‘Bachillerato’ (Arroyo Pérez, Vázquez Aguilar, Rodríguez Gómez, Arias Bejarano & Vale Vasconcelos, 2012, pp. 47). Taking this year as an example, that’s anywhere between 107 – 142 hours a year, not including the extra hours that schools are allowed to assign to English learning (e.g. conversation classes). Wow – that’s more than full courses at out academy (approximately 100 hours)!
Whilst the number is almost impossible to count, I would say that a large majority of Spanish children attend lessons at private language academies. This would then raise the average hourly exposure of English to somewhere between four to seven hours. That’s quite a bit of English every week.
Perceptions of English and English language learning
So, how is English viewed? I’ve already said that it’s viewed positively and as an important aspect of eduction, but why is it so? At the start of the year I always ask learners why they are learning English and the main answers are:
- Job prospects: Many learners realise that if they wish to work in the industry of their choice, they will need to have a good grasp of English. With that in mind, many see English as a necessary thing to have, although it might not be something they want to study.
- University: Many university courses in Spain require that learners have a minimum B1 level. Furthermore, Erasmus programmes demand a high-level of English, and the higher the level of English the more chances the student has at being accepted to the more highly-sort-after locations (e.g. Holland, U.K., etc.).
- Love of languages: Some of my learners simply love English (and other languages).
- Imposed study: Many learners, be them children or adults, are forced to come to lessons by other interested parties, e.g. their parents or their company.
I should also mention that generally the school system is viewed as inadequate with regard to the teaching of foreign languages, hence why many learners attend private language academies. Whilst this post is not about this topic, I will say that the main ‘reason’ people perpetuate this thought is that the majority of teachers that the English in school are non-native. Now, first and foremost, the idea that being native is the prerequisite for being a good teacher is absolutely absurd and there is no evidence to support this claim. Secondly, having worked in the schools myself and seen and worked with the teachers, I can confidently say that all of them seem to possess a high-level of English (B2+). In my opinion, it is the inflexibility of the syllabi imposed, the largely prescriptive focus, and the classroom dynamics themselves that work against the teachers and the learners. My thoughts are reflected in González Villarón’s 2017 study, a study which anyone working as an English teacher in Spain should most definitely read!
One last point would like to include here is the exam mentality that is very much present in Spain. Everything is exam-focused – it’s almost like if there is no exam, it doesn’t really count. In a world where qualifications mean everything, I can’t really say I’m surprised. That being said, I do think that this has certain effects on learner motivation and learning results (perhaps a point for a future post?).
Where do I fit in?
We’ve been looking at the context of Spain overall for the majority of this post, but now let’s focus on me and my specific teaching context. I work as a teacher trainer in a private language academy in Almería. This language academy is part of an association called ACEIA. Being apart of this association enables our school to partake in many teacher training events such as the annual ACEIA conference in Seville. What is also good is that to be part of the association, certain standards must be met – teacher salaries, correct contracts, etc. Personally, I would like to see more schools be part of associations such as ACEIA, so that higher standards can be in place across the board. Why do I think this is relevant? Well, in our academy alone we have around 2,500 learners, so the impact that we make is substantial. Remember that I said before that most children attend a private language academy? Well, the demands of the market mean that private sector teachers such as myself are needed, and will be needed for some time – it would be great to see the private sector’s standards raised!
The future of ELT in Spain
What do I see for Spain in the future with regard to ELT? Well, firstly, I think there will be shift in focus from nativeness versus non-nativeness to competent teaching versus incompetent teaching. I think this will be an important change because qualifications, experience and development will be valued more and, thus, teaching standards will rise. Plus, it will make the job market more attractive to all teachers!
What else can I see in my crystal ball? At a pedagogical level, I think there will be a great number of changes to the current syllabi to make them more flexible, interactional and communicative. Teachers in the public sector will be given more freedom in the classroom which will hopefully ensure the increased development of productive skills. I also envision more subjects being taught in English (and other languages) – CLIL already has a foothold at the moment, but I think this will take off.
In short, Spain is a great place to teach. – English is valued and English teachers, both native and non-native, are needed to meet the demands of the market. English is important to people here – their jobs, studies, etc. rely on it more often than not. And, considering how English is developing globally, I don’t see this changing.
This task has certainly made me reflect a lot more on the learner as opposed to myself, something which I should do more of. It was really interesting to read the studies that have been conducted, to realise that my own opinions and thoughts are held by those conducting the research, and to try to visualise the future of ELT in Spain – this part made me think about my future job prospects! A great task, although it took a lot longer than the 60 minutes recommended – but every minute was a minute well spent.
Arroyo Pérez, J., Vázquez Aguilar, E., Rodríguez Gómez, F., Arias Bejarano, R. & Vale Vasconcelos, P. (2012). La enseñanza de las lenguas extranjeras en el sistema educativo español Curso Escolar 2012/13. Colección EURYDICE ESPAÑA-REDIE.
European Commission (2012). Special Eurobarometer 386. Europeans and their Languages. Retrieved from http://ec.europa.eu/commfrontoffice/publicopinion/archives/ebs/ebs_386_en.pdf.
González Villarón, M. (2017). El inglés en educación obligatoria. Una mirada comparada a los casos de España y Holanda. Revista Española de Educación Comparada, núm. 30, pp. 61-76.
Viña Ruoco, M. (2002). The teaching of foreign languages in Europe: A historical perspective of foreign language teaching in Spain. CAUCE, Revista de Filología y su Didáctica, núm. 25, pp. 255-280.
Marian, J. “Index of Knowledge of English in Europe by Country.” Jakubmariancom Index of Knowledge of English in Europe by Country Comments, jakubmarian.com/index-of-knowledge-of-english-in-europe-by-country/.
Absolutely fascinating! Thanks for taking the time to respond to the task and write about it in so much detail – I feel like I really ought to do this for Poland now, as you’ve uncovered so much more than I expected when I wrote the task!
Thanks for the inspiration,
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It was an absolute pleasure, Sandy. Highly recommended for all teachers. There was so much that I didn’t know!