empty narrow cobbled street in small spanish village with typical houses on both sides

Do People Speak English in Spain?

  1. What are the main languages spoken in Spain?
  2. What is the English level in Spain?
  3. Do they teach English in Spanish schools?
  4. Can tourists get by just speaking English?
  5. How do Spanish people feel about communicating in English?
  6. Can you live in Spain just speaking English?
  7. How has the English level changed over the years?
  8. Thinking about travelling to Spain
  9. Conclusion

If you’re curious if people speak English in Spain, chances are you’re either planning a trip there or possibly even thinking about relocating. And why wouldn’t you? Spain is one of the most popular destinations in Europe for Brits and Americans alike, and for good reason.

panoramic view of Barcelona
Tourist enjoy the city and sea when visiting Barcelona

Spain provides visitors with a wonderful combination of sun, sand, sea, and cities. Many people even go there to ski!

In fact, if you end up in Granada in the south of Spain, you could hit the slopes in the morning and spend the afternoon sunbathing on the beach.

I guess the only thing you’re wondering is: will the lovely people of Spain be able to understand me and can they speak to me in English?

Well, the good news is that English is pretty widely spoken in Spain, especially in major cities like Madrid or Barcelona.

English proficiency in Spain is highest amongst the younger generations, so if you’re looking for directions to the train station Señor Gregorio is unlikely to be able to assist you, but Paco with his gang of scallywags loitering outside the shopping centre should be able to help you out!

What are the main languages spoken in Spain?

If you decide to stay away from the big cities and want to visit the real authentic Spanish towns and villages for some traditional “croquetas de jamon”, then your chances of bumping into someone who can speak English are somewhere between slim and none.

spanish croquettes of jamon
Croquetas de jamon are one of the best dishes in Spain, but not so good on the waistline!

Obviously, Spanish is spoken and understood throughout Spain, but there are also other languages and dialects that are common in certain areas.

According to a 2019 survey, Spanish is the main language spoken at home in 81% of Spanish households. After that comes Catalan which is the main language in 8% of households, followed by Valencian with 4%, then Galician and Basque with 3% and 1% respectively.

Even though Spanish is the primary language spoken in just 81% of households, the remaining 19% are almost certain to be fluent in the language.

So if you’re thinking of learning a bit of the local tongue before going on your adventures, then you would be crazy to learn anything else but Spanish.

Aside from these main languages, there are a few other minority languages that are spoken in Spain including Aragonese, Asturian and Leonese, but I certainly would bank on any of those being useful when asking for the bill in a restaurant.

What is the English level in Spain?

The English level of people in Spain varies greatly according to age and location. It’s the youngsters that lead the way in English proficiency where even back in 2007, half of those aged between 18 and 24 knew how to speak English, compared to just 17% of people between 55 and 65 years old.

English levels are also much higher in the main autonomous communities of Madrid, Asturias, Cantabria, Canary Islands, Basque Country, Balear Islands and Catalonia.

So if you’re a 22-year-old American wanting to travel to Madrid for a few months, but have forgotten everything “Señora Martin” taught you in high school Spanish, then chances are you won’t have too many problems finding some Spanish comrades to chat to in English.

The English Proficiency Index produce a report every year detailing the level of English in Spain which also supports the idea that English is fairly widely spoken there, albeit maybe not as much as in other European countries like Austria or Denmark.

They rank 112 countries and regions based on the English proficiency of 2 million adults who formed the basis of the study. Each country is given a score out of 800 to illustrate the general level of English.

If you’re used to the CEFR framework then you can see how the English Proficiency Index’s scores match up below:

CEFR ScoreEPI Score
C2700-800
C1600-699
B2500-599
B1400-499
A2300-399
A1200-299

Out of the 112 countries, Spain was 33rd on the list with a score of 540 (B2 level).

Sounds pretty good right? What’s interesting though is that out of the 35 European countries, Spain was actually ranked 25th.

Rather than a direct reflection on the level of English in Spain, I think this really shows that the overall level of English in European countries is very high.

The Netherlands topped the list with a score of 663 closely followed by Austria, Denmark and Singapore.

The EPI also has some data on the English level in some of the major cities around the world.

You may be wondering whether Madrid or Barcelona has a higher level of English. Well, according to the EPI study the level of English in Madrid and Barcelona is exactly the same with both having a score of 569.

Do they teach English in Spanish schools?

The focus of English in Spanish schools has increased dramatically over the last 10 or 20 years.

Children start their English education as soon as they begin primary school at six years old. It’s a compulsory subject with many students having multiple classes every week until they finish high school.

school children in spain
Spanish children are taught English from a young age

Even with ten years of English classes at school, many Spaniards still believe that the education system and the way children are taught English are not up to scratch. Back in 2017, it was claimed that just 13% of high school graduates had an intermediate level of English.

It seems that Spain is putting the effort and backing into schools to improve the level of English, but the results are sub-par.

Many parents in Spain have lost confidence in the public education system’s ability to teach their children English, and decide to send their children to private English academies which are scattered all over the major cities and towns of Spain.

Can tourists get by just speaking English?

If you’re coming to Spain as a tourist, then you certainly won’t be alone. Spain is used to receiving tourists, and its economy relies heavily on the tourism industry.

In 2019, before the COVID pandemic, 18 million British tourists visited Spain and over 3 million Americans made the long trip across the Atlantic.

Estadística: Número anual de turistas con residencia en Estados Unidos que visitaron España entre 2001 y 2020 (en millones) | Statista

Encuentre más estadísticas en Statista

What does this mean for you, as a tourist visiting Spain? It means that people working in, or closely related to the tourism industry, will most likely have at least some level of English.

People on Puerta del Sol square, Madrid, Spain.
Puerta de SOl in the centre of Madrid where many people will be able to speak English

It also means that they are used to speaking in English thanks to the influx of English-speaking tourists into the country every year.

Many jobs in places such as bars, restaurants, and shops often require a basic level of English to be able to get a job, and as the people working in these places are often part of the younger generation in Spain, their English level is usually quite high. This is especially true in major cities like Barcelona or Madrid.

Someone recently asked the question on TripAdvisor “How bad exactly is the language barrier in Madrid?”. Check out some of the replies below:

I am sure you will have no issue making yourself understood, the people working in the service sector in Spain are used to dealing with visitors from the world over, even if they do not have a great command of English.

LivvyMad

You’ll be fine, most locals that I’ve encountered in shops, hotels, and restaurants have at least a basic knowledge of English.

David H

We are in Madrid at the moment and have spent 6 weeks traveling throughout Spain. We know basic (very) Spanish and have gotten along, for the most part, just fine.

TravelBug

Even if you are travelling to the more rural parts of Spain, chances are you will be able to speak in English to the hotel receptionist, but you might have problems in the local grocery store.

empty narrow cobbled street in small spanish village with typical houses on both sides
Spanish villages are wonderful to visit, but you are unlikely to find many English speakers

If this is your plan then it might be a good idea to learn a bit of basic Spanish before arriving.

Here are 5 top tips to remember for English-speaking tourists visiting Spain who hasn’t quite mastered Spanish yet:

  1. Download a translation app on your phone
  2. Learn some basic Spanish (at least know how to say, “sorry, I don’t speak Spanish, can you speak English?”)
  3. If you need information, look for young people to ask. They are much more likely to have a good level of English and are usually more than happy to help.
  4. Most restaurants will speak English and have a menu in English so don’t be afraid to ask
  5. Taxi drivers usually can’t speak English, so make sure you write down where you want to go and show it to the driver.

How do Spanish people feel about communicating in English?

English is a huge part of everyday life for many Spaniards, and although sometimes frustrating for them when it comes to things like job interviews and business meetings, most are always happy to practice their English with native speakers.

On the whole, Spanish people are also extremely friendly, and even if they don’t speak English well will always try to help you and use hand gestures to try and explain themselves.

If you approach people in a friendly and courteous way, without an expectation that they should speak your language, then you will almost always be met with a warm response.

Can you live in Spain just speaking English?

If you intend to live in Spain, things will get more difficult for you, and you will most likely need to grasp at least a low intermediate level of Spanish to get by (or find a nice Spanish person to help you!).

On a day-to-day basis, you will still be able to get by with little to no Spanish, but when it comes to things like renting a property, registering for social security, seeing a doctor or any governmental process you will be expected to communicate in Spanish.

The good news if you are planning on moving to Spain permanently, is that there are now an abundance of ways you can practice and improve your Spanish, from local language exchange meetups to private online classes.

Check out the video below where Lisa explains her experience living in Spain as an English speaker. She talks about how learning even some basic Spanish can open so many doors and improve your quality of life.

Check out Lisa’s youtube channel here: https://www.youtube.com/c/LisaSadleir/videos

How has the English level changed over the years?

According to the EF English Proficiency Index Spain has gone from a low proficiency in 2011 to a moderate proficiency in 2021.

Statistically, this does show signs of improvement, however, Spain’s overall position when compared to other European countries has remained unchanged.

Even though the overall level seems to have improved in recent years, it is still interesting to see that Spain is not further up the list when compared to its European counterparts.

This is especially surprising given the emphasis that Spain is putting on learning and improving English in schools and the education system in general.

The reason for this is not fully understood. Some believe it is due to factors such as the dubbing of popular TV shows, which doesn’t happen in other European countries where the English level is much higher.

Thinking about travelling to Spain

If you’re thinking about taking a trip to Spain then here are a few things that you should definitely make a note of in case you get into any trouble or find yourself in a bodega without an English-speaking person in sight!

Emergency numbers

If you’re in need of help, the emergency number to call is: 112

When you call 112, the operator will be able to speak English to you, and they will divert you to the emergency service you require.

You can also call the individual emergency services directly on the following numbers:

  • Ambulance: 061
  • Fire brigade: 080
  • National police: 091
  • Local police: 092
  • Civil Guard: 062

There is also a special foreign tourist service run by the Spanish police that is specifically designed for foreigners to report a crime. The number is: +34 902 102 112

UK Embassy

The British Embassy in Madrid is located at Paseo de La Castellana, 259D. Contact number: +34 917 146 300.

The UK also has Consulates in Alicante, Barcelona, Ibiza, Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, Santa Cruz de Tenerife, and Sevilla.

US Embassy

The US Embassy in Madrid is located in Calle de Serrano, 75. Contact number: +34 915 872 200

The US Embassy in Barcelona is located in Paseo Reina Elisenda de Montcada, 23. Contact number: +34 932 802 227

They also has Consulates in Las Palmas, Málaga, Palma de Mallorca, Seville and Valencia.

Facebook Groups

There are many forums and Facebook groups for English speakers in Spain. Here are a few of the most popular ones:

https://www.facebook.com/groups/traveltospain.info/

https://www.facebook.com/BritsInSpain/

https://www.expatforum.com/forums/spain-expat-forum-for-expats-living-in-spain.2/

Conclusion

Overall, Spain is a great country to visit for English speakers.

The main cities and tourist areas welcome a high number of tourists every year and as such people are used to speaking English and there will always be someone to help you out if you get into difficulty.

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