Sitting on the Mediterranean coast, Spain is on of the most visited tourist locations in Europe, and is very popular with English speakers. But how many people speak English in Spain? Can you get by just speaking English, or should you try and learn some Spanish phrases when going on vacation.
A recent poll suggested that only 40% of people speak English in Spain. That means that over half the population of Spain do not speak English. This is quite significantly lower than countries like Germany, and even neighbouring countries the Portuguese boast a higher percentage of English speakers. Some estimates suggest that only around 1/4 of the population of Spain can speak English to some extent, but they are not fluent.
Of course, if you visit more tourist related areas of Spain, there will be a lot more English speakers than in the rural areas. Restaurants and shops receive many tourists from America and Britain in the main areas of Spain, meaning that they will mostly be able to speak English. The main areas that speak English are cities like Madrid and Barcelona.
You will also find popular tourist islands like Majorca, Tenerife and Ibiza can speak English, because they have a large number of tourists who visit each year. British people tend to get their tan lines from regions around the coast of Spain, like the Costa Del Sol and Marbella – so again, these areas will have more English speakers.
If you visit a hotel in Spain, particularly in the regions mentioned above, you will meet staff members who generally speak English well enough to understand you.
This can’t be said for every tourist location in Spain. Seville is a very popular destination for tourists, and yet it has been reported to have a significantly lower number of people who speak English there. If you’re planning a summer holiday to Seville, you will probably need to know some basic Spanish. Either that, or you should practice your charades, as you will likely find yourself gesturing for a beer instead of simply asking for one!
One thing that has been mentioned by visitors of Spain is just how friendly the locals are. Even though there is an obvious language barrier, the Spanish are always willing to help, and are very friendly and welcoming to tourists. If you can’t speak any Spanish, you will usually be able to get what you need by simply gesturing or pointing to what you want. Of course, learning some basic Spanish phrases will help you get by a lot easier!
TripAdvisor is a great place to get some information on people’s thoughts of Spain, and in particular how many speak English in Spain.
Here’s an excerpt from one post on Tripadvisor:
Spaniards are similar to the English as in not being big on second languages. Perhaps because hundreds of millions of people speak both languages around the world. Most restaurants and shops tend to have somebody that knows a bit of English.
Obviously more so in the city centre where the foreign tourists are concentrated. They obviously speak English in the tourists offices .
Youll be fine . The locals are very helpful and friendly.
We’ve also found this helpful post from TripAdvisor speaking about Madrid in particular:
In Madrid, there are increasing numbers of people who can speak English, the older generation perhaps not so much. It never hurts to learn a few key Spanish words and phrases before you go, and this would be appreciated.
Many Spaniards who do speak English will jump at the chance to practice once they realise you are an English speaker. There are often menus available in English in the main tourist areas. You could buy yourself a phrase book or download a translation app to your phone.
As you’ll see from the above quotes, English is not a common second language in Spain, apart from in the more touristy areas where English is required because of the number of visitors there.
Speaking English in Spain in the main cities
We’ve mentioned that many areas of Spain do not speak English, but what about in the major cities? We’ve put together a list of some of the main cities of Spain, and explained in more detail how many speak English:
English in Barcelona
Barcelona is one of the most famous cities in the world, and is very much an international city. Because of this, there are a lot of English speakers here, particularly with the younger ones. Students from around the world study in Barcelona. As well as this, there are millions of tourists who speak English that visit the city every year. If you visit shops and restaurants in the city, you will find most staff speak good English. Older ones, and even taxi drivers, tend to speak a little less. Although you can get by speaking English in Barcelona, you will do a lot better if you know a few basic Spanish words.
English in Costa Del Sol
The Costa Del Sol is incredibly popular with English speakers. Beautiful Spanish towns like Mijas, Fuengirola and Marbella can all speak English well. You can definitely speak English in Costa Del Sol in the restaurants, cafes and bars. Quite often, these locations will be full of English speakers on holiday, or expats who have moved to these areas. If you decide to venture outside the popular tourist towns, you may find English is spoken less.
English in Madrid
If you visit the areas in the centre of Madrid, then you should find a fair few people who speak English. However the number is not as large as some of the other cities mentioned, which is surprising as it is the capital of Spain.. Central shops and restaurants will speak a good amount of English. The office of tourism will also speak English well. As you start to venture out of the center, you will find a much older generation, and generally they do not speak English well. If you’re visiting, you can speak English in Madrid, but you should learn some basic Spanish phrases.
English in Malaga
The city of Malaga in the south of Spain has a good number of English speakers, because it is popular with tourists. Staff in hotels and waiters in restaurants can speak English usually. In some restaurants, you will find English menus also. You can speak English in Malaga and many will understand you, particularly if they are in hotels and restaurants. But you should learn some Spanish words to help you get by.
English in Seville
As mentioned above, Seville is very popular, but not known for having a lot of people who speak English. Many say that English speakers have increased in the city over the last few years, especially since the education and school system started teaching English to young ones. With a generally older generation living in Seville however, you will find a large majority of the country do not speak English. It will be difficult to speak English in Seville, so you should definitely learn some basic Spanish phrases if you want to feel comfortable.
English in Valencia
English is much less popular in Valencia, as the city is not so well known for tourism. If you visit Valencia and stay in a hotel, or go for a meal out, you will find staff can speak some English, but not to a high standard. Valencia has its own language also, so you will find many signs in the streets are written in both Spanish and Valencia. The Valencia city guide has information on this. You will not get very far if you speak English in Valencia, so you should try and learn a few phrases.
Speaking English in Spain if staying for a longer period of time
If you’re planning to visit Spain for a longer period of time, maybe to start working or to become an expat and retire, then you will need to learn Spanish. If you’re planning to move to Spain, you should weigh up the pros and cons. Here’s a great YouTube video that does that:
If you want to fully immerse yourself in Spanish life, you should learn the Spanish way of living. You should immerse yourself in how the Spanish work, live and play. You will do well to make some good Spanish friends. To do all of this stuff, you will need to speak Spanish.
Spanish is a difficult language to learn, as the verbs can be complicated. However it is still possible. A positive aspect of the Spanish language is that the language is usually easy to read. Spanish words are generally pronounced the way you would expect them to be.
It is considered polite to try and make the effort to speak and learn Spanish, even if you decide to live in the popular expat areas of Spain. In these areas, such as Malaga, Marbella and Alicante, you will find English in many places. Even the TV and Radio stations are aimed more at the English audience.
If you plan to live or work in Spain for a long period of time, it is highly recommended that you learn Spanish, even in the more touristy locations. This will help you to settle into the culture and community better, and will be a life-saver for the many times you speak to someone who does not speak English.
Languages other than Spanish
English is a mandatory language to learn in Spanish schools now, so it comes as a bit of a shock that English is not very well known in Spain. One main factor for this is practice. In countries that surround Spain, like Portugal, English is very prevalent, particularly in the media. However this is not the case in Spain. Films and TV are dubbed into Spanish, rather than subtitled. The Spanish locals do not often get a chance to practice their English, unless they work in the tourist sector.
Interestingly, French is much more common in Spain than English. Recent reports suggest that nearly 48% of the Spanish population speak French as a second language. This is likely because French has been taught in schools for a long time, whereas English has only recently been put into the education system as a mandatory lesson.
We mentioned at the outset of this article that just over a quarter of Spanish locals speak English. The majority of this number will be younger ones, particularly those under 40 years old. This is because they will have been taught English at school. A recent survey of younger ones found that only 10% of parents of young ones can even speak a second language!
Because of all of this, if you decide to visit the quieter areas of Spain, with less tourists and an older population, you can expect to find it more difficult to speak English and be understood. The large cities and popular tourist spots will have a much greater level of English speakers, but the rural areas of Spain will have a much older group of locals, meaning less English!
If you visit Spain and find that English is not going down too well, you can try speaking some French. You could also try Italian. These languages are much more similar to Spanish than English is, and they also are closer to Spain geographically. The best solution however is to try and learn some Spanish words and phrases. This will help you converse with the locals, even if they speak English.
Learn basic Spanish words and phrases
It is possible to get by speaking English in Spain, particularly in the tourist locations, but you will do a lot better if you can speak some Spanish. The locals will be much more interested in helping and talking to you if you at least try some Spanish before jumping straight into your native English tongue. The Spanish people are incredibly friendly, but they are just like all of us; they appreciate when someone makes an effort to speak their language.
We’ve dug out a useful youtube video that teaches some Spanish phrases.
In summary, if you are planning a holiday, you will likely find it difficult to speak English in Spain unless you are in the tourist areas. Most restaurants, bars and cafes will speak English to some degree, but you will find it much easier to get by if you can speak basic Spanish. The exception to that rule is in high expat/tourist areas like Marbella. You will find many English speakers here and you will have no problem speaking English in these areas, although it would still be polite to learn a little Spanish!