By Emma Mitchell •
Updated: 16 Nov 2023 • 15:50
Benefits of learning Spanish. Credit: Image by rawpixel.com on Freepik
EWN recently posed the question, of whether speaking Spanish should be a requirement for residency, and outlined what formal language requirements other countries in Europe have for people wanting to reside there permanently.
As always, our readers came up trumps with their opinions on the subject and we’ve analysed their comments to pull out some highlights and questions.
Julia – UK “No , also we have google translate now”
Dianne – UK “No! i don’t think so. Most of the people that live in Benidorm, camposol dont.”
Chris – UK “I think there would be alot of people leaving if it was made law, Spain would lose alot of money if they bought it in”
Sandra – UK “No. Stupid idea.”
Steve – UK “Totally ridiculous and unworkable! Who makes up this c**p???…”
Dennis – UK “No as its not in uk”
Andy – UK “Don’t be absurd”
Trinidad – Spain “Yes, of course. Just like in UK. You need to know the History of Great Britain and speak the language”
Ingrid – Iceland “At least A2.” (A2 is a Europe-wide level of language exam)
Eleni – Holland “Of course it should be! Isn’t this what we ask from immigrants that come to our countries!”
Lauri – Finland “Yes it should”
Bridget – UK “People should, at least try to, learn the language of the country they are living in!”
Caroline – UK “I think it is important to integrate as much as possible & if that means speaking the language then that is what you must do.”
Tony – UK “So many narrow minded people just do not want to integrate and they’re the ones usually complaining about foreigners in their own country not speaking the language, sad”
Opinions from EWN readership broadly reflected the findings of a number of studies about language learning and attitude in the UK compared to the rest of Europe.
It has long been the case that the British are known to be poor at speaking other languages; in fact, the British are officially the worst in Europe. As reported in a Eurostat study, only 34.6 per cent of British people speak another language (the next lowest being Romania at 35.8 per cent) and that compares with the highest, 96.6 per cent of Swedes speaking another language. Over 90 per cent of Danish, Finnish, Norwegians, Lithuanians, Latvians, Estonians and Swiss speak another language.
In fact, the only countries where less than half the population speak another language are Albania, Romania, Hungary, Bosnia, Bulgaria and the UK, the only country in the bottom of the rankings from Western Europe.
Why are the British so terrible at learning other languages? Some of it comes down to attitude; a number of surveys over the years highlight that many British people feel that learning another language simply isn’t that important because English is the global ‘lingua franca’, the language most commonly used by people of different nationalities wishing to communicate with each other.
There are several reasons why English has become such a widespread tool for communication, particularly in business. The first is historical; the British Empire colonised large parts of the globe which resulted in English being the language which has the most number of countries recognising it as an official language. The second is the global industrial might of the United States from the early 1900s to current times; if a country wants to trade with the US they do so in English.
The UK and US have also had the most cultural spread with film, literature and music in English dominating globally for many decades.
In the case of the UK, another reason for the predominance of monolinguism is simply a one of ‘island mentality’; not only is the UK physically cut off from the rest of the world by the Atlantic and North Sea, but in 2016 it also chose to cut itself off from the rest of Europe politically.
This lack of British language acumen is a worry to the government in the UK whose own figures state that the economy loses in the region of £50bn a year in failed contracts because of a lack of language skills in the workforce.
Despite the UK government having a target of 90% of pupils studying a GCSE in a modern foreign language from September 2024, the reality is that the language skills of the UK’s future work-age generations are on target to be even worse than today’s.
Research shows that two-thirds of English state secondary schools teach only one foreign language and only around half of pupils in England are taking a language at GCSE level. One out of ten state secondary schools in the UK report that all their pupils are taking a GCSE in a foreign language.
Foreign language learning in UK schools has been on the decline ever since 2004 when the government decided that it should no longer be compulsory past Key Stage 4 (14-16-year-olds). With the UK now out of the EU, with the result that living, studying or working abroad is now a bureaucratic nightmare for British young people, the motivation to learn another language is likely also on the wane.
One of the most common reasons EWN readers gave when saying that speaking Spanish shouldn’t be necessary to live in the country, was the real or perceived difficulty in learning a new language later in life.
Sarah – UK “Think we should try but bear in mind the older you are it’s retaining information of any kind gets harder.”
Ann – UK “We should try to speak basic Spanish,as we get older it gets more difficult.”
Brian – UK “No! It’s a very difficult language, particularly for older people to remember.”
It’s a valid concern. During one of the largest linguistics studies ever conducted involving two-thirds of a million people, researchers from three Boston-based universities showed that the ability to learn a new language is strongest until the age of 18. After that, there is a decline.
One reason for that decline is simply lack of time; below the age of 18 children’s time is dedicated to study, whereas above that age the focus tends to swing to work and family and fitting in formal learning of anything becomes more difficult.
Another is that every language has rules and they become second nature for native speakers, but learning the grammatical rules for a new one can be frustrating and confusing.
There’s also a biological reason; as we age past our twenties the brain becomes less able to form new neurons and neural pathways, which is a process that occurs when we learn new things. It’s called neuroplasticity and this ability decreases as we age.
So we know that learning a new language is difficult, especially as we age, but what are the benefits of trying hard to do so?
There is a good biological reason for in a study of 648 Alzheimer patients, researchers at Edinburgh University found that patients who spoke no languages outside their native one developed dementia earlier than those who spoke two or more languages. Learning a foreign language at an older age literally helps to exercise the brain, making it more efficient and flexible and improving focus and memory as a result.
In addition, learning the native language of an adopted country helps with mental health since the ability to communicate socially, even at a basic level, improves feelings of social connection and inclusion. Non-Spanish-speaking migrants who settle in rural parts of Spain where a low level of English is spoken regularly report feeling isolated and lonely, particularly if they suffer the loss of a spouse or partner.
For working-age people the benefits are also fiscal; speaking another language opens up more work opportunities and more business opportunities. It also allows one to broaden one’s horizons and learn more about other cultures and attitudes.
We know that, whilst certainly harder, learning a language past our school ages and particularly later in life, isn’t impossible. There are, however, some great tips and advice from the experts on the best way to go about it.
We would love to hear from you!
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Emma landed in journalism after nearly 30 years as an executive in the Internet industry. She lives in Bédar and her interests include raising one eyebrow, reckless thinking and talking to people randomly. If you have a great human interest story you can contact her on email@example.com
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