Why do the Spanish learn English but the English don't learn Spanish?
An interesting question. Even more interesting given that it came from the mouth of one of the 10 year old boys in my class on my first day of teaching in León, Spain. Even more tricky to answer, given that the teacher had told the children that I speak no Spanish (a white lie, told in their best interests of course). Stood in front of a class of 20 eager young English learners, members of the generation that is expected to build the international bridges of the future through their bilingualism, I clearly did not appear the best ambassador for learning foreign languages.
Nevertheless, children need answers as much as they need fresh air, five portions of fruit a day, and a favourite sweet shop. My immediate reaction was a smile, as I was amazed at how insightful this young boy had been with a question that, perhaps unknown to him, lifted the lid on a worldwide debate. I noticed that the teacher next to me was also smiling, as she struggled to find a response that did not belittle the Spanish language, nor that glorified the English one.
Could she have said that there are more people in the world that talk English than Spanish? After a quick Google check, it appears that English comes just above Spanish in the list of most spoken languages worldwide. Nevertheless, Mandarin is number one, yet who has ever been forced to study Mandarin at school?
Could she have said that English is the language of commerce? It is true that, as the official language of more countries than any other language, English is often the first port of call for official international relations and business. Nevertheless, does this mean that British kids should forfeit the opportunity to learn Spanish because it is only an official language of a mere 20 sovereign states?
Could she have said that English is more important than Spanish? I think you’ll agree with me that no. How can one language be more important than another, as long as there are people that speak it?
In the end, she settled for a simple, yet awkward, ‘because English is spoken in more countries, but the English learn French too you know!’. Guessing from the face that the boy pulled, he was either very unsatisfied with the response, or he just didn’t understand a word she said.