Spain is an extremely popular tourist destination for English speaking tourists, especially the Brits who love to travel there to escape the grey weather of the UK, but just how widely spoken is English in Spain?
As a general rule, English is not very widely spoken overall in Spain, with around 27% of the population able to speak English to some extent, but many of these cannot speak it very fluently at all. However, English is very widely spoken in the main tourist areas, especially in the south of Spain.
And then flipping it round a bit:
Recent polls also suggest that around 60% of Spaniards cannot speak, read or write in English at all. Therefore, English competency is not widespread across Spain as a whole, but it is spoken more in the center of major tourist cities and also in regions popular with retirees, such as the Andalusia and other parts of Southern Spain.
However in the areas more dominated by tourism, you will find that English is widely spoken in shops and restaurants, since these areas receive so many British and American tourists each year. Some areas where you will find English more widely spoken include:
- Madrid (central parts)
- Malaga (tourist parts)
- Coastal resorts dominated by Brits like Marbella, Torremolinos and Costa Del Sol.
- Islands like Ibiza, Majorca and Tenerife which also receive a lot of Brits.
- Expect most or all hotel staff in these regions to speak English.
Interestingly, Seville stands out as a tourist destination which has a noticeably low level of English speakers, so holiday makers planning to visit here will need to be prepared to use some basic Spanish and perhaps some gesturing to get by here, since English speakers are quite rare.
However, much like the Portuguese, many tourists who visit Spain note how friendly and helpful Spaniards seem to be in spite of the language barrier, always welcoming and accommodating and willing to do their best to help you out. Even with no English, you can get by with pointing, gesturing and some basic phrases which we will cover below.
Here is a great summary of the prevalence of English in Spain from the Tripadvisor forum.
“In major tourist cities such as Barcelona, Madrid, Malaga and Seville many people speak good English and it is widely spoken in major tourist coastal resorts.
Inland towns and villages, and coastal areas with fewer foreign visitors, can be a different prospect however where Spanish – or local languages/dialects such as Catalan and Andaluz – may be the only language spoken.
Even with the only the odd word of Spanish you will generally get through with the aid of gestures and a smile – and any attempt to try to speak some Spanish is nearly always appreciated. Therefore, as you know some Spanish – which is more than most visitors – you will be fine”
And another summary of the low overall prevalence despite large amounts of money spent on English teaching in Spain:
“First and foremost, Spain is not an English-speaking country so many individuals feel no obligation to speak it despite spending the income of a small country on English classes and exams for themselves and their children….
On the Coast (East and South East especially) you will find lots of store clerks and taxi drivers who speak English. This makes sense but remember it is revenue-driven and not a love of the language or desire to get a qualification.
Outside of these areas, use or knowledge of English is scant. Despite spending small fortunes on learning “languages” (usually English ) as I suggested above, most Spanish people are extremely reluctant to use it for fear of “ making fools of themselves”. The situation is improving, especially with the increased international mobility of young people, but Spain is still light years from Northern and Scandinavian countries in terms of using English.”
That said, as with most of the major European countries, if you are dealing with people who are dealing with tourists, then you should be fine in most parts of Spain.
Spoken English in Some Major Spanish Cities
Here is a quick summary of the overall tourist accounts of the prevalence of English in some of the major Spanish cities.
Barcelona – A very multicultural and cosmopolitan city with a decent level of English, especially among younger people. Has many international students and receives millions of English speaking tourists each year. Restaurant and hotel staff in the main areas like Plaza Catalunya and Las Ramblas will usually speak good English. Taxi drivers and older people speak less English. Walking tours of the city are also done in English. I’ve been there and you usually don’t strictly need Spanish when visiting (or even living there sometimes), though a few phrases will help as always.
Madrid – A decent level of English in central areas, but not as high as some other more touristy cities. Most restaurants and shops in the center will have someone who can speak English, as will tourist offices. Outside the center and with older people, the level of English is less. Not the most tourist focused city in Spain so some basic Spanish will help, especially if living there longer term – see further below.
Valencia – Relies less on tourism so less English spoken overall. Staff in central hotels and restaurants may speak a little but do not expect overall proficiency to be high. Street signs also double written in standard Spanish and the local Valencian language which can confuse matters for tourists. See here for a good article on this. A good idea to have some Spanish phrases when visiting Valencia.
Seville (and Andalucia in general) – Has a reputation for not having very many English speakers, though some argue fluency has improved greatly in the last decade or so as it has started to be taught in schools. Older people were not taught English and so struggle to speak it more. With younger people and in bigger shops and restaurants you should be OK. Have Some Spanish phrases ready through when visiting here or anywhere else in Andalucia like Almeria, Granada, Cadiz, Jerez or Corboda.
Malaga – Malaga is a slightly more tourist focused city than others in southern Spain and so spoken English is more prevalent. Most people in the hospitality industry – hotel staff and waiters – will speak some English. Sometimes menus will also be in English. Can usually get by with English when dealing with anyone in the service industry, though a few Spanish words may help you out every now and then, as English isn’t widely spoken by the locals outside the main tourist areas.
Costa del Sol – Includes tourist towns like Marbella, Fuengirola, Benalmadena, Torremolinos and Mijas. Receives a lot of British holidaymakers and expats so English levels are higher. Will be fine using English in any of the central bars, cafes and restaurants, and will often meet plenty of Brits as well who’ve lived there for years and not needed to learn Spanish. In more remote and smaller towns and villages, English proficiency will fall off.
Language Considerations For Living in Spain Longer Term (Expats, Work, Students, etc)
Visiting Spain for a short term holiday is one thing, but what about English speakers who are going to be moving to Spain longer term, either to retire or work? What are the language considerations here, and is it worth learning Spanish in these cases?
For the answer to this question, we found an excellent resource from the Spain Speaks YouTube channel, where the issue is covered in detail for longer term stays in Spain. See the video embedded just below; we also summarize the main key points made below.
Should you learn Spanish for longer term stays in Spain?
Key Points From Video:
- Whether you learn Spanish living in Spain depends in general on how much you want to integrate fully into Spanish life and culture (getting into politics, media, working at a Spanish company, making Spanish friends etc. For all these things, you will need to learn a good level of Spanish).
- If you do decide to learn Spanish, one positive is that it is largely a phonetic language – meaning that words are often pronounced as they read, unlike English. This makes it easier to learn.
- Learning Spanish verbs is a little more complex, but it still completely possible.
- If on the other hand you decide to settle in expat communities, like Almeria, Malaga, Alicante, Marbella etc, you will not need to learn Spanish to get by. Radio, TV and Supermarkets are all available catered to English speakers in these areas. You can get by with English in these areas.
- However, regardless of where you settle in Spain, it is still considered courtesy to make some effort to learn the local language, even if just for basic greetings and formalities. Locals will always appreciate this as in any country.
- Overall, learning Spanish if you live in Spain longer term is perfectly achievable, and recommended regardless of where you settle. See the last section below for some resources on learning Spanish.
Prevalence of Second Languages in Spain
This figure of 60% of Spaniards not speaking English is quite surprising given that English is actually now a compulsory language in schools in Spain. However, whilst young Spaniards now study English, they don’t get much chance to practice it in the sense that the neighboring Portuguese do for example, in that very few TV programs and films are in English, but instead dubbed into Spanish.
The most prevalent second language in Spain is actually French, with 48% of those who speak a second language there speaking French, whilst only 40% of those have English as a second language . This is because English was only made compulsory in schools fairly recently, with French being the primary second language taught before that.
Therefore of the quarter or so of the Spanish population who can speak English, the vast majority of those will be younger people under the age of 40 who have had a chance to learn at school. 90% of these younger people surveyed reported that their parents do not speak a second language at all, so you can see the divide there between the younger and older Spanish population in terms of English proficiency.
As a general rule, expect that the further you go from the main tourist areas, plus the older the people you are dealing with, the less likely they will be to speak English. Expect a higher prevalence of English in built up areas and major cities, but a very low level of English in remote and rural areas with older populations.
As years and decades pass, English will become more prevalent as the younger generations come through who have been taught English from an early age.
If you are having no luck with English, then knowing some French may help, and perhaps even some Italian if spoken slowly, since there are tangential similarities there with the romance languages. However, ideally it will help to have some basic Spanish phrases in the locker to pull out when needed. Let’s look at some of the more common ones below.
Learning Some Basic Spanish Phrases
Whilst you can get by with English and gestures/pointing where needed, it will help to have some basic Spanish will make it easier and also endear you to the natives, who like the natives in any other country do appreciate tourists making a little effort to converse in Spanish, despite their inherent friendliness.
See the video below for some of the more basic commonly used Spanish phrases a tourist might need. We also have a table below that for people that prefer text.
|See you later||Nos vemos||Nos vemos|
|Good morning||Buenos dias||Bwenos dee-ass|
|Good afternoon||Buenos tardes||Bwenos tar-dez|
|Good night||Buenos noches||Bwenos notch-ez|
|See you tomorrow||Hasta mañana||Asta man-yana|
|What is your name?||Cuál es tu nombre?||Kwall es too nombrey?|
|My name is.....||Mi nombre es||Me nombrey es........|
|How are you?||¿Cómo estás?||Co-mo estas?|
|Nice to meet you||Encantado de conocerle||Encan-tardo deh cono-therley
|Please||Por favor||Poor favoor|
|You're welcome||De nada||deh naa da|
|Sorry||Lo siento||Loh see en-toh|
|Sorry? (didn't hear something)||Perdon?||Per-dohn?|
|Excuse me, do you speak English?||Perdon, yo sólo hablo Inglés?||Per-dohn, yo solo hab-low in-glaze?|
|Menu of the day||Menu del dia||Menu del dee-a|
|How much is it?||Cuánto es?||Kwanto es?|
|Where is the bathroom?||¿dónde está el baño?||Don-day estah el banyo|
|I don't understand||No lo comprendo||Noh loh comprendo|
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Language & Travel Essentials For Visiting Spain
- Essential stats on Spain:
- See our Michel Thomas page for a more verb based approach to learning languages. They have a course in Spanish.
- Luggage allowances – see here for an excellent guide on luggage allowances (checked and cabin) for all major airlines worldwide.
- Banking – If you’re using a foreign bank card to draw out euros at an ATM in Spain, you’re likely to get stung with high fees. See our guide on some good multi-currency card options to spend in euros for free, and also withdraw money from ATMs cheaply in Euro-using countries.
- SIM Cards – If you’d rather not be messing about with physical SIM cards, E-SIMs (digital SIM cards) are now available. If your phone is unlocked and E-SIM compatible, you can take advantage of Airalo‘s cheap, data only (no calls/texts) E-SIM cards, available for 200 countries, which you can download to your phone. With customized cheap E-SIM packages tailored for your data needs and length of stay. Click here to view Airalo’s E-SIMs now (almost all countries covered). Pay for what you need, for how long you need – no getting ripped off with tourist SIM cards and roaming charges.
- For visiting Spain, but also especially for moving there longer term, the Spain Speaks YouTube Channel is a great resource. Binge watching this channel will provide a great overview of daily life in Spain for an English speaking expat (daily life, bureaucracy, pros/cons, paperwork, language, work, city guides, shopping, financial issues etc).