When in Spain, do as the English do

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To the uninformed citizen, it is a slow Wednesday night at J &J Books and Coffee in Madrid. The quaint bar is vacant except for two men with thick Irish accents, chatting to one another about the latest soccer game over cold beers. The blue-eyed bartender joins in the conversation and laughs, tossing back her long, golden blonde ponytail. As the three discuss Cristiano Ronaldo’s most recent impressive play, the real party is happening at the bottom of a small staircase, leading in the bar’s basement. There, about 15 people are engaging in multiple, lively conversations. What is unique, at least for Spain, is that they are all speaking the same language: English. A small chalkboard reveals the occasion: it is intercambio night at the bar. Bright-eyed Spaniards and foreigners crowd around a table, practicing their past participles between sips of wine and beer.

“I’m going to come here each week,” attendee Sandra proudly announces. “I´m really happy I found this place because I really need to work on my English. It´s so important. ”

A popular practice in Spain, intercambio, which means interchange or exchange, is a term used to describe a meeting with others to practice a foreign language. It is set up in a casual environment, such as a bar or a restaurant, and the requirement is simple: have conversations with other people.

Spaniards and native English speakers take turns speaking the other´s language. Intercambio opportunities abound at Irish pubs and cafés like J & J books, near the Saint Louis University Madrid campus. The SLU Madrid bulletin board even lists names and telephone numbers of Spaniards looking for language exchange partners.

Many SLU Madrid students seek out intercambios to improve their Spanish, to better communicate with their host families and navigate the city, or to simply meet Spanish friends. And the local Madrileños are eager to oblige. For Spaniards, the intercambios are just of many one methods aiding in the drive to learn English in Madrid. Many may believe that a Spaniard´s ability to speak English is more of a hobby or helpful skill. However, over the years, things have changed. Unemployment rates have significantly risen in Spain and the economy continues to suffer, shifting the ability to speak English from a skill to a necessity, as it can be the gateway to better job opportunities for Spaniards.

This is good news for SLU Madrid students who want to earn some extra money teaching English. Spaniards of all ages seek native English teachers for private classes so that they, or their children, can have an edge in the job market.

Most citizens were initially taught English in grade school. However, due to many years passing since they first learned the language, not everyone realizes that “You are America?” is not the proper way to ask if a person is from America, or that saying “I am constipated,” is certainly not the correct way to say that your nose is congested.

Nowadays, public schools in the city and suburbs of Madrid are being forced to become bilingual to start Spanish children on the path to learning and using English early, to aid in competency and retention of the language.

On a bright, sunny Thursday afternoon, two young law students at Universidad CEU San Pablo, a block from SLU Madrid, sit on the steps in front of a campus building, relaxing after a day of classes. The two young women, both aged 20, speak English very well, as they were initially taught English at age 6. Studying throughout grade school, they would take the opportunities to practice the language outside of class with their peers and incorporate it at home with their families. Pilar Cortina, one of the two students, took it to the next level, travelling to the U.S.

“I spent a semester in Virginia,” she explains. “I wanted to put my skills to the test. It was so different in America but it definitely strengthened my English and made me feel more confident.”

Júlia Isernn, a junior and fellow student, considers herself average at speaking and understanding English. She remarks on the challenge of learning English in Spain: “I think it’s pretty difficult because everything here is in Spanish, from the people speaking to advertisements, to food labels. When you’re young you don’t think it’s very important. It was just a subject you learned.”

However, as she grew older, Isernn began to discover the importance of English competency in Madrid, and the effect it has on her receiving a job after graduation. Both she and Cortina worry about youth unemployment in Madrid. “If you want a good position, you really need to know English,” Cortina says.

Many jobs in the city either highly recommend or even require that applicants know English, as they can communicate with the thousands of English-speaking travelers or English speaking clients abroad, therefore creating more business. Itio, a spunky, sharp tongued Hungarian man who is a regular at J&J’s intercambio, points out the irony of the situation, quipping, “They have to interview in English, for a Spanish job, at a Spanish company.”

Knowing English is not only expected from young adults seeking to soon enter the career world. It is also demanded of those already working in their fields. Today in Madrid, many businesses are urging their employees to strengthen their English skills. How workers go about it is their responsibility.

Luckily, J & J Books and Coffee is rather accommodating, holding intercambios three times each week, hosting many adults that are looking to improve their English on the insistence of their employers.

Soft-spoken, timid Ima is a middle-aged woman, working in engineering. She takes short sips of her wine and smiles softly as the attendees around her shuffle from one person to the next, loud chatter filling the J&J basement. She has previous knowledge of English, learning the language when she was a child. However, she, like many other Spanish adults, were not required to practice the language as often and for as long as today’s generation. This has now come to put her at a disadvantage, as she now has to play catch up. She quietly reveals that although she has been working in her field for quite some time, she is now being required to brush up on her English, for the threat of not receiving a promotion. She therefore sought an intercambio as an efficient solution.

Other Spanish professionals must improve their English to simply keep their job, let alone receive a promotion. Mar, a 30 year-old (Spaniard teaching) computer science teacher is one of them. She is desperate to improve her English. The high school where she works is considering making the program bilingual and therefore is requiring faculty to take an English competency exam. If she fails, she will lose her job. In her determination to pass the exam, she stopped SLU Madrid student Ivana Osmanovic as she was walking to the metro one day. “I heard her speaking in English with her friend Samantha,” she remarked. Having the threat of losing her job, Mar is keenly aware of Madrid’s push to learn English: “The standards are changing and more. If you don’t know English, you’re behind.”