It's a classic. The years pass, trends pass, governments pass, trainers of Real Madrid pass, and Spain never manages to shake off the reputation it has had since time immemorial of a country whose inhabitants have a medium-low proficiency in English.
This has been highlighted by the EF EPI report 2018, which has just been published: it gives the results of the EF Education First test, which evaluates the level of English among adults and classifies non-English-speaking countries in accordance with the results obtained in the test.
The result this year is that Spain has passed, but only just. In fact, the study has shown that not only has Spain not improved its knowledge of English, it has gone backwards; and in two aspects, as well.
In the first instance, on a scale of 0 to 100, it obtained an average mark of 55.85, slightly lower than a year ago (56.06) and even worse than in 2016 (56.66) and 2015 (56.8).
It has also dropped down the international ranking based on the same index. In terms of knowledge of English, Spain occupies 23rd place out of 32 European countries, ahead of only Italy, France, Belorus, Russia, Ukraine, Georgia, Albania, Turkey and Azerbaijan. Globally, Spain is 32nd out of 88 nations, having dropped four places compared with last year and nine compared with 2015.
It seems unlikely that there are fewer inhabitants with a knowledge of English than a few years ago, so the data suggests that the number of people who took part in the study in this country is probably lower. In fact, the report says that worldwide, for the first time, more people aged between 26 and 30 speak English than those between 21 and 25.
It is also the case that this year's test, carried out to internationally approved standards among 1.3 million individuals worldwide, included 30 per cent more participants compared with last year and 13 new countries have been evaluated, explained EF Education First, the international language teaching company which carried out the study.
"They can't speak it"
The results have "unfortunately" come as no surprise to Ana María Fraile, director of the English Language Department at Salamanca University.
"In our experience, when first year students who want to specialise in this subject come here they are supposed to have a certain level of English and a certain knowledge, but they tell us that at school the classes were very rarely taught in English and they hardly ever spoke it. They just did written exercises, which were very repetitive, to learn the grammar. They come here and they can't speak the language. In fact, their written level is pretty poor as well," she says.
Ana María says it seems that "the system and the teaching methodology is failing", even in schools which in theory provide bilingual tuition.
"There seems to be a similar situation with bilingual schools. Either we have devalued the meaning of the word 'bilingual' or there are hardly any schools which merit that description. Bilingual means you are equally at home in your native language and another one," she says.
She believes the root of the problem lies in the education system in Spain. "We don't have enough fully trained teaching staff, so they are not teaching English properly. Some of the teachers can't even express themselves well in the language," she says.
Around 650 students a year study for a degree at Salamanca University, with moderate success. "Quite a few have to repeat the course, unfortunately," explains Ana María. "They have to leave here with a C1 level, which shows a flexible, effective and spontaneous use of the language, and they don't all reach that level".
Everything she says is cause for thought. "In a situation where speaking English is key to being competitive, our average score, which is the worst in three years, shows a real loss of opportunities for the Spanish population," says Xavier Martí, the director of EF Education First in Spain.
"Although the level in Spain is above the world average, which is 53.34, for a European country it is very low and the results show that the level of English has dropped in the past few years," he says.
On this occasion his company evaluated more than 76,000 Spanish people through an online reading and oral comprehension test. The report, which is "used as a reference document by most governments in the world", does not analyse how many people among the whole of the Spanish population have some knowledge of English.
Navarra, top of the class
To improve the scores in forthcoming tests, Ana María Fraile says it is essential that the teaching methods used from infant school upwards need to be reconsidered, and teachers should be properly trained. She also believes the ability of teachers in bilingual schools should be carefully monitored. She applauds the efforts of some universities for introducing courses which are also available in the English language, "not only for our own students but also to attract others from abroad".
However, not every area of Spain just scrapes through. Four regions passed with better marks and reached the "high aptitude" level in English proficiency this year.
Navarra topped the list with 58.17 points, followed by Madrid (57.94), the Basque Country (57.88) and Asturias (57.75). La Rioja (51.87) and Extremadura (51.29 puntos) came bottom of the list.
In terms of cities, Barcelona and Madrid scored higher than any others, with more than 58 puntos. Bilbao, in second place last year, has now dropped to fourth.