JOIN THE DEBATE: Should You Learn Spanish If You Want To Live In Spain?

Woman holding up a sign to learn Spanish

Benefits of learning Spanish. Credit: Image by 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.

Team ‘NO’: Migrants To Spain Shouldn’t Have To Learn Spanish

  • 37 per cent of EWN readers giving an opinion felt that learning Spanish shouldn’t be a requirement for living in Spain.
  • 100 per cent of the ‘No’ opinion came from British people.

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”

Team ‘YES’: Migrants To Spain Should Learn Spanish

  • 63 per cent of EWN readers, felt that migrants should learn Spanish if they’re resident in Spain though not all of them felt that formal examinations were right. 
  • 56 per cent of ‘Yes’ opinions were from countries in the EU and 44 per cent from the UK

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”

The British Are Most Resistant To Learning Languages

man screwing up his face and holding out hands in a no gesture
No to languages. Credit: Image by cookie_studio on Freepik

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.

The Difficulty Of Learning A Language When Older

hand correcting Spanish verbs on a whiteboard
Struggling with Spanish. Image by Freepik

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.

The Benefits Of Learning A Language

watering can watering brains
Feeding the brain. Credit: Image by Freepik

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. 

Top Tips For Learning A Language Later In Life

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.

  1. Motivation to learn is essential. Many people like the idea of learning a new language, but aren’t really motivated enough to put in the effort it requires
  2. Immerse yourself in the language. The more one hears or sees a language, the more things start to click into place; some ideas for immersion are:
    • Turn on Spanish subtitles for English TV programs so that you see the Spanish words for what you’re hearing
    • Take the time to listen to Spanish radio
    • Look at some Spanish newspapers online; using the Chrome browser enables you to highlight words you don’t understand, right-click and select ‘Google Translate’
    • Always try to speak in Spanish to Spanish people; if you know what you want to say in advance but not how to say it, look up some words
    • Learn some Spanish language songs. Spanish people who speak English often remark that they learned a lot of words through their love of music
  3. Use sticky notes to label items in the house with the Spanish word for it so that every time you see it you form a connection
  4. Listen to podcasts in Spanish that are specially made at a very slow talking speed for learners, such as News in Slow Spanish
  5. Enquire about free Spanish language lessons at your local town hall;  a weekly class with others in the same boat is not only helpful, but you may make some new friends
  6. Download free European Spanish apps such as Busuu where native speakers give feedback and pointers on your efforts, or Ella Verbs which teaches you about the all-important Spanish verb conjugation. 
  7. Repeat, repeat, repeat. Scientific research has proven that repeating key information at spread-out intervals is the best way to retain the information. 
  8. Make it fun. If you live with someone else who is also trying to learn, challenge each other to learn some thematic words every week (e.g. numbers, colours) and quiz each other. Placing a bet on the outcome helps with the motivation to win.

Join The Debate

four people standing holding speech bubbles in front of their faces
Give us your thoughts. Credit: Image by on Freepik
  • Are you someone who doesn’t think learning Spanish is necessary or do you think that learning, or trying to learn is essential?
  • If you are learning Spanish, what are your top tips for retaining the information?
  • If you are British, what do you think about the state of language learning in the UK?
  • What are you highs and lows of your journey to learn Spanish?

We would love to hear from you!

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Written by

Emma Mitchell

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