Speaking English in Spain

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I am one of those individuals who finds languages (even my native tongue) very difficult to learn. Consequently, on my first visit to Spain I had anxiety that my meager Spanish might not be enough to get me by.

English-speaking travelers of Europe are often surprised at how few Spaniards speak English compared to the other countries they visit in Europe. Still, it is possible to travel in Spain just using English. As a mandatory course in school, many Spaniards speak some English, but many older Spaniards do not.

 
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I found most English-speaking Spaniards in the main tourists areas of Spain, around Barcelona, and along the Costa del Sol, but other tourists have report different experiences.

With the exception of a couple of "El Corte Ingles" clerks, when I have attempted Spanish in Spain, Spaniards have always gone out of their way to be of assistance.

Very little Spanish is needed to move about Spain:

If you can handle "una habitacion por la noche", you can get a room for the night. "Menu del dia" will get you a large lunch and "La llave" will get your room key from the hotel clerk.

Speaking a little Spanish opens up cheaper accommodations and the opportunity to go off the beaten path. And of course, if you stumble across an out-of-the-way shop with that perfect something, a little more Spanish can help you haggle on the price.

Are you traveling on the cheap? If so, you will find the cheapest accommodations where only Spanish is spoken.

For more information on ordering meals in Spain (in English or Spanish), go to What to Eat in Spain.

 

In May of 2004 Samantha of Ashland, MA sent me the following note - "about the places where English was or wasn't spoken - we were amazed that virtually no English was spoken in any of the cities that we visited. Almost all of our hotel receptionists spoke some English; however, we often had problems in museums, with taxis, at restaurants, etc. Madrid seemed to have the least tourists, and hence the least English spoken (even in tourist spots such as the Plaza Major). We had one of our worst encounters in the Plaza Rieal in Barcelona (the beautiful plaza right off of the Rambla), where the cashier at a Jazz bar criticized my husband for paying for two tickets in English. . .She told him, in English: 'You're in Spain. You should speak Spanish or Catalan, not English.'

Samantha finish her note saying; "Not to complain too much - the food was generally wonderful and we had some of our favorite experiences at these Spanish-speaking restaurants! Also, the Spaniards were very accepting of my husband's 'novice' Spanish and were always able to understand him."

In October 2003 during my visit to Barcelona, I had the opposite experience of Samantha. On visiting the city, except for a "Hola!" greeting, I soon stopped using my Spanish as it became obvious to me most Barcelonans preferred to speak to me in English rather than try to converse in my poor Spanish. Many of the people I encountered (such as storekeepers) were not originally from Spain and for those raised in Catalan I suspect Spanish is as much a second language to them as is English. Nevertheless, Samantha's report demonstrates how travelers can have significantly different experiences depending on whom they happen to encounter.

Occasionally I receive and e-mail about the accuracy of this article. The e-mails go, "I have traveled all around Spain and found English everywhere I have been" or "you are misleading people to think they can travel around Spain speaking only English" or "your in Spain why should you expect to speak English?". I should note the last comment came from a British citizen not a Spaniard. While I have tried my best to be balanced in this article, these other perspectives are also valid. I suspect a business travelers, staying at high end hotels and meeting with Spanish business men, would never need to understand or speak Spanish. Someone staying in the least expensive accommodation and visiting the most out of the way places on the other hand would likely find speaking a little Spanish necessary. Lastly, Spanish is the language of the land, the music of the streets, experiencing the language is essential to experiencing the culture.

My goal in writing the 'I don't speak Spanish' article is to provide the non-Spanish speaker and limited Spanish speaker with information that will, hopefully, help them plan their own independent travel with in Spain.

Some Tips for those with limited or no Spanish:

English-speaking hotel clerks are found in moderate to expensive hostales and hoteles. If you speak no Spanish, it is best to stick to high end hotels and the tourist areas. You might also consider using my recommended travel agency in Spain, that way you will have an English-speaking agent, right in Spain, to call on for assistance.

When using a taxi, write down your destination name (address if you have it) and hand it to the driver.

Chances are, some times, actually most of the time, in your trip you will encounter very limited or non-English-speaking waiters. The What to Eat in Spain page, should help you navigate restaurants. In tourist areas, menus in English are generally available.

Eating last resort: I personally believe while in Spain it is best to frequent native (non- chain) food establishments. If you want burgers from you-know-where, get it when you return home. That said, here are the facts: Most American fast food chains are present in Spain--Burger King, McDonalds, Pizza Hut, etc. Most staff at these food chains know enough English to get you a meal. Learn more at What to Eat in Spain.

Learn a basic Spanish vocabulary, if the only Spanish word you learn is "Hi" (Hola, the "h" is silent, pronounce like "O'la") use it.

Learn about avoiding pickpockets at the Safety page.

Next: Spanish you can use at the train station

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10 Spainish words you must know for Spain
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What to Eat in Spain

 

 

 

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This page last updated January 2012
The information on this page comes from my five visits to Spain.