Spanish,the language and culture

Author: Chris Perriam


The article offers a statistical overview of the growth and current status of Spanish teaching in UK HEIs. It covers in detail current practice in the teaching both of Spanish for beginners and for Honours level students, paying particular attention to ways in which courses build on the customary "four skills" paradigm. It examines Spanish as the sole or major component in degrees and as part of joint and combination degrees, and indicates the ways in which the language is studied as relating to the cultures and identities of contemporary Spain and the language's wide global context.

Table of contents

1. Introduction

1.1. Patterns of provision of Spanish in UK universities are complex. There are many hundreds of degree combinations--some apparently more exploitative of the growing interest in Spanish in schools than based in vocational or academic coherence--and in 95% of cases Spanish is offered not only at post-GCE A/Highers level or equivalent but at beginners’, false beginners’ and intermediate levels. Taking into account post-entry choices (which can more than double first-year intake), there has been a steady rise in numbers since 1992 (and earlier in Northern Ireland), accelerating substantially to around 20% in the period 1999/2000 to 2002/03. Some departments/sections report rises of up to 50% for this period. In 2000/01 total student enrolments in post-A level Spanish language, literature and culture had overtaken German at 1355 full-time (a 5% increase on 1999/2000) and 1645 part-time (HESA 2002). This overall trend continues, although some departments estimate that internal beginners’ enrolments have peaked. In terms of student head-count the provision of the latter in some cases makes Spanish the largest of a given institution’s language subjects. Hourly-paid and fractional contract-based staff--including, in all but a few mainly post-1992 universities, teaching assistants from Spain and Latin America--widen the range of accent and usage experienced by students and sharpen the cultural perspectives of most departments. Where universities maintain Languages For All programmes, Spanish is usually the language most in demand.

1.2. Spanish language is widely offered as a minor or optional element in joint, major/principal and minor/subsidiary and combined degrees. French is the most common other language subject for joint combinations with Spanish, and Business/Business Studies and Politics/International Relations the most common non-language subjects. In the pre-1992 universities in Scotland the pre-honours general degree structure--which is essentially modular--generates substantial and complex flows into and out of Spanish, as do multi-subject first year courses in some English universities.

2. Beginners

2.1. As well as the large numbers of Spanish beginners’ courses offered as a minor part of degrees across the sector, most universities also feed their Spanish honours streams by intensively teaching beginners and false beginners in the first year. In many cases this virtually doubles the numbers of those eventually graduating with honours Spanish.

2.2. There have been three main patterns of progression here (with isolated variants): (1) those without A level or equivalent (but at various starting levels) follow a one-year course relatively heavy in independent learning and contact hours and in their second year join post-A level and equivalent students who are in their first year; (2) the same pattern, but with streaming of those with and without GCSE Spanish or AS Spanish at Grade C or above; (3) types (1) and (2) students following separate pathways all the way to graduation. While (1) and (2) continue side by side--offering an interesting pedagogical conundrum which is yet to be fully debated--(3) is largely in abeyance, probably due to deficient resourcing (although there are, of course, strong pedagogical arguments for mixed ability--or mixed trajectory--classes).

2.3. The continuing upturn in numbers may prompt a revisiting of the issues underlying this diversity of practice, including, prominently, issues relating to language ability thresholds and access to contextual or linguistics courses taught wholly or partially in Spanish.

3. Teaching and learning to honours level

3.1. By no means uniquely, in the case of Spanish a no-nonsense adherence to the notion of there being four main skills to impart in an integrated fashion (reading, writing, listening and speaking) is widespread. The real interest lies in how statements about integration are contradicted or in how courses attempt to move beyond and enrich these basic skills.

3.2. On the contradictory side, “grammar” is treated as a set of skills different enough to merit a separate class in the first two years of study in as many as a third of departments; and the majority have separate oral classes.

3.3. Going beyond the basic skills, though, training in translation theory is explicitly provided at Queen’s (Belfast) as a sequenced pathway, Exeter, Kent, Durham, Roehampton, St Andrews and Swansea; Spanish<>English interpreting is a focus at Queen’s (Belfast), Heriot Watt, Salford, Sheffield and Strathclyde (which has an exemplary statement of what an integrated Final Year Spanish course might be--see listing in Related Web Sites below). The skills of producing and understanding non-verbal but culture-specific communication and of understanding subtexts and silences are in the main left out, although Bristol offers an interesting module on “Language Through Theatre”, and the emphasis on performance in Pym and Allinson (2002), if adopted, is promising.

3.4. Literary texts are still widely exploited as a useful source of training in the understanding of ambiguities and the complexities of coding, especially so outside the post-1992 universities; but convincing, explicit statements about the impact on linguistic and cultural competence of reading and working with texts are far more common in relation to journalistic and social scientific sources. CALL packages, with a few exceptions--Queen’s (Belfast), Bristol, St Andrews--are off-the-peg and still concentrate on grammar, structures, and the acquisition of vocabulary.

3.5. It is striking that links to drill-, problem- and category-based grammar material on the Web are still more common than are links to authentic texts and contemporary essays, articles, discussion boards, and sound and image archives or real-time streaming. Essex, Southampton and Bristol (see Kitts 2001) are among those which--on the back of Blackboard (see and similar packages--are teaching students to use the Web dynamically and as part of a semi-autonomous learning package. Leeds (which, with Manchester, has developed collaborative teaching programmes with the Instituto Cervantes) is piloting a web-based autonomous learning scheme (see related Websites, below). Durham, Cambridge, Manchester Metropolitan and Swansea offer some good examples of guided or succinctly classified access to web resources.

3.6. Spanish in a business, professional, or vocational context is offered more usually by the post-1992 HEIs; although Imperial (London), Leeds and Queens (Belfast) also have such strands within their mainstream language provision.

3.7. There is considerable variation across universities as to which textbooks, if any, are placed at the core and nearly all courses use recently culled authentic materials. Although some textbooks cast passing glances in the direction of the more than recent past, in effect most Spanish culture studied in tandem with language is that of the post-Franco period (from 1975 onwards). In grammar reference and exercise books two or three hold sway (although at least two more exciting ones are in preparation as this page goes to press, by authors at Liverpool/St Andrews and Newcastle).

4. Language, culture, identity

4.1. Most Spanish is spoken outside Europe, often alongside powerful indigenous languages and, in the case of the USA, alongside (and hybridised and code-switched with) English. But even without this factor the dynamic linkages between language and culture in relation to Spanish in Spain are highly complex and politically fraught (Mar-Molinero 2000). In Spain itself only about three quarters of Spaniards speak Spanish (or, more properly, Castilian) as their mother tongue. The other main languages are the official languages of the Spanish state, given here in order of the number of speakers: Catalan, Galician, Basque. Bable (Asturian), Valencian (officially, but not always happily, subsumed into Catalan) and Aragonese may also be considered strong, distinct language communities. Of these only Catalan and Galician are taught in UK HEIs although all are of active interest to linguistics specialists, and the cultures of all the component areas are covered.

4.2. Many departments make use of source materials in their language teaching which offer intellectually demanding ways into deep contextual knowledge, and Essex, Glasgow and Strathclyde are among those which explicitly insist on the multidisciplinarity of language learning through clear statements on the interconnectedness of language and the study of cultural and political texts.

4.3. Generally speaking, once Spanish is offered at post-beginners’ level for more than three hours per week of contact time then elements of the culture (understood in the widest sense) shift from being treated as an integral but auxiliary part of the language course to being treated as objects of study in their own right (see Iberian Studies in the UK ). Spain’s recent political history and trends in cultural and social theory in the 1990s have given rise to a large number of compelling courses and course elements on national, social, and gendered identities.

4.4. For information on the Period Abroad see French Studies in UK higher education (Spanish differs only in as much as students on some courses may spend the period in Latin America on one of the three types of placement).

4.5. For information on taught Masters programmes see Iberian studies in the UK

5. The way forward

5.1. A number of features specific to the learning of Spanish contribute to student enthusiasm: the world context and importance of the language (with some 400 million speakers of Spanish as their mother tongue across two continents); the relative facility with which the first steps in learning may be made (especially with regard to reading and pronunciation); attractive if scientifically inexact notions of the liveliness and openness of the culture; the intellectual challenges of the multiple cultural and linguistic complexities involved in the study of Spanish beyond the elementary stages.

5.2. As Spanish rapidly catches up with French in terms of numbers, popularity and prestige, staffing structures are beginning, slowly, to change. It is not simply a case of responding to relative growth in numbers (especially at the lower levels) but also one of allowing the issues and agendas of Spanish and the wide cultural range of the Hispanic world to lead the changes being made to joint curricula as “modern languages” continues the long task of defining itself.


Davies, C. (2002). What is ‘Hispanic Studies’? In C. Davies (ed.), The Companion to Hispanic Studies. London: Arnold.

HESA (Higher Education Statistics Agency) (2002). Online Information Service: Student Tables. (accessed 3/11/02)

Kitts, S-A. (2001). Caminos a la expresividad: A Constructivist Approach to Computer-Based Language Learning. In Higher 3 (September): 15. At (accessed 17/12/2002)

Mar-Molinero, C. (2000). The Politics of Language in the Spanish-Speaking World. London and New York: Routledge.

Mar-Molinero, C. and A. Smith (eds.) (1996). Nationalism and the Nation in the Iberian Peninsular: Competing and Conflicting Identities. Oxford: Berg.

Pym, R. and M. Allinson (2002). !Te toca! A New Communicative Spanish Course. London: Arnold.

Related links

Asociación para la Difusión del Español y la Cultura Hispánica (ADES): (accessed 20/12/02)

Canning House (Hispanic and Luso Brazilian Council): (accessed 20/12/02). Information on courses, business, educational and cultural links, and LLAS-related resources and seminars/talks.

Foro del español, Foro didáctico and Foro TIC: via (accessed 20/12/02). Discussion lists on questions of contemporary usage, on teaching methodologies for Spanish, and on ITC terminology in Spanish maintained by the Instituto Cervantes.

Hispania: (accessed 20/12/02). Moderated discussion list and notice board on Spanish language teaching.

Leeds University (accessed 20/12/02)

Linguanet virtual language centre (accessed 20/12/02)

Recursos para el estudio del español: (accessed 20/12/02). Authored and maintained by Michael Shade, University of Brighton.

Spanish On-Line: (accessed 20/12/02). Major outreach teaching and resource project by Manchester Metropolitan University.

Strathclyde University: (accessed 20/12/02). A good example of outcomes and rationales at Final Year level.

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