Thursday, June 26, 2014

The Spanish siesta, as taught in Korean students' English books

I'm currently residing in rural South Korea, where I teach English at a public elementary school, but something that happened in class today that needed to be shared here. Yes, it directly involves Spain.

Near the end of a fourth grade class we had a few extra minutes to fill. So my co-teacher played the unit's "We Are the World", a short video clip from the textbook's CD-ROM that teaches various topics about world culture.

I hadn't seen the clip before we watched it in class. Although the speaking was all in Korean, I could tell what was going on by following the visuals and the brief English phrases interjected every now and then.

World culture lesson

It began with this family:

The boy says in English, "I like Spain". That's when my ears perked up. Oh cool, this will be about Spain!

All of a sudden the children are hungry, obvious because of the red squiggly lines coming out of each child's stomach area. 

The boy goes to tell his parents of their predicament. Then a clock appears on screen showing the time. It's one in the afternoon.

Next a picture of paella pops up in the top left corner. Time to eat lunch.

But when the family gets to the restaurant, they all have shocked looks on their faces! Oh no!

What could possibly be wrong?

Is the restaurant closed? 

No, that's not it.

Is everything in Spanish and the family doesn't know what to order? 


Perhaps they're vegetarians and are therefore shocked by all of the hams hanging from the ceiling.


What is it then?  

Oh right, the chef is sleeping. (Gasp!)

He's taking a nap because, as the pie chart next to him clearly shows, Spaniards take siestas (naps) from 1 p.m. until 4 p.m. every day.

(*eye roll*) Ah!

I was waay more shocked than the family ever was when I saw what was happening in the video clip.

Once it finished my co-teacher turned to me and said, "Oh wow, so in Spain they nap every day?"

"No!" I said immediately. I didn't care if it was best to keep it simple for the children's sake - the children whose English level is very basic. I was not going to let this misconception be spread to fourth graders in Korea! (Though for every other fourth grade class in the country, I wasn't able to stop it. My apologies.)

Here's what I'll say about the often misunderstood Spanish siesta.

The Spanish "siesta"

Now, most shops and stores do close from about 2:30 to 5:00 every afternoon in Spain. Why? Go to Madrid in July and you'll see one reason: it is so incredibly hot. Hardly anyone will be out in the streets because the heat at that point in the day is simply unbearable.

The other reason is that it's Spanish tradition to eat meals together as a family in a calm, relaxed fashion, which usually means a long meal. I'll never forget the day in Madrid that I met a friend for lunch at three, and we had to be asked to leave by the owners because it was six thirty, and they'd closed a half hour ago!

If businesses close during that late afternoon break, workers can return home for a lunch together with their families. If they're lucky perhaps they can catch a few minutes of shut-eye afterwards, but that's really not the case for most Spaniards nowadays. The number of people who go home for lunch is also declining, as many businesses are adopting the half-hour or hour-long lunch break.

Why Spaniards eat late lunches

But why do Spaniards eat lunch so late in the first place, usually at two or later?

I just read a great post earlier this week by Erik at American in Spain, that answers this very question. Surprisingly, it has something to do with Nazi Germany. Erik's explanation is fantastic, so go there and read it first, then come back here.

What it comes down to is that Spain is in the wrong time zone. Spain eats lunch the same time as other European countries do, but for the Europeans the time is one o'clock, but in Spain's time zone it's two o'clock.

This also explains why Spaniards on average get the least amount of sleep among European countries. They're up just as early as everyone else, but dinner isn't until nine or ten at night, with prime time television following.

There has been recent discussion to change Spain's time zone back to what it once was. Here are two articles published within the last year about attempts to change Spain's time zone and "end" the siesta:

"Adiós, siesta? Spain considers ending Franco's change to working hours" (The Guardian, September 26, 2013)

So the next time you find yourself teaching a class of Korean fourth graders, and their English book teaches that Spaniards sleep for three hours every afternoon, you'll know what to say!

Had you heard of the Spanish siesta? Did you know the real reasons behind the afternoon "break"?


  1. Haha, that's hilarious! Luckily you were there to set the record straight.

    1. Hah, yeah. Unfortunately this seems to get taught way too often, the simplified: Spaniards nap every afternoon. I'm not sure if any of these kids will remember those few minutes of their fourth grade English class, but I tried!

  2. Hahaha, I love how Spanish the chef looks as well.

    Strange I just landed on this post, because I was just explaining the Spanish siesta to an Australian coworker over lunch!

  3. Hello. I'm a teacher in South Korea. Can I ask you a question about siesta? Do spanish elementary school students still have a long lunch time and take a nap after lunch? If so, at home or at school? Actually I heard that they go back home(from school), eat lunch with family, take a long break and go back to school? Is that true? =)

    1. Hi Lim! Generally the kids stay at school to eat lunch in the cafeteria, but there are schools that give students the option of going home to eat there. So some will go home to eat lunch with their family or a relative and then go back for the afternoon. They don't take naps at school—unless you're a young child in daycare or something, someone who would need to nap during the day. Hope this helps!

    2. Thank you for your comments. This helped me a lot.=)