A recent European study gives an indication of how countries do in terms of ability to use foreign languages. At the bottom of the list of countries where people don’t speak a foreign language are England, Ireland, Hungry and Italy. Spain is down there too of course and a recent article in El Pais analyses why.
One interesting factor is the fact that the Spanish language itself is of such importance on the world scene that there is less motivation to learn another language (presumably why in Ireland and England native English speakers are equally unmotivated to tackle foreign languages). Another reason given is that few parents of today’s children actually speak English; in other words there is little tradition of having English speakers in the family. In fact, given the predominance of French throughout the Franco period, English is a relative newcomer on the scene and this has obvious implications for its growth.
Socioeconomic and cultural aspects also play a role. Navarra, one of the richest regions in Spain, has a much higher success rate than poorer regions such as the Canary islands and Andalucía.
Of course, the article also points to the education system itself as one source of failure highlighted by the fact that students who have access to extra language classes out side normal school hours fare much better and achieve much higher results.
The article ends with a curious and, for many, perhaps a surprising statement: the survey shows that over half the students who study English reach an acceptable level because of its usefulness across Europe but also because it is relatively easy to learn! Spanish is at the other extreme with only 8% of students reaching a level of reasonable control of the language of Cervantes.
Full article (in Spanish) http://tinyurl.com/86g6c3b