Some years ago, encouraged by Spanish friends, my husband and I opted to send our nine-year-old son, Ollie, to a newly opened private Majorcan school that their son Juan would also be attending. Having previously studied in the English language at an international primary school in Palma, we knew Ollie would be facing quite a challenge as the only English pupil of a school that taught in the dual language system of Catalan- compulsory in the Balearic islands- and Castilian Spanish.
My memory of the first year was of all three of us sitting late into the evening in the kitchen, hunched over various dictionaries and text books trying to get to grips with Catalan grammar and vocabulary. At times in desperation I would cave in and call a close Majorcan friend, protesting that a word simply didn’t appear to exist in any Catalan dictionary. ‘Oh!’ she’d exclaim cheerily. ‘That’s Mallorquí dialect. You won’t find it anywhere. There is no Mallorquí language dictionary.’ Sometimes you just couldn’t win.
At school Ollie’s lessons were divided between the two languages so for example maths was taught in Castilian, geography in Catalan, biology in Castilian and so on. This was unusual because in the state system in the Baleares it is compulsory to teach in Catalan with Castilian Spanish being relegated second place and English third. Private schools had found a loophole. They could teach more or less 50 per cent of their classes in Castilian which pleased many local families keen for their offspring to have a good grounding in the language most widely spoken on the mainland.
According to Majorcan friends, cunningly, many private schools now teach the ‘crunchy’ subjects in Castilian Spanish and sport, art and less academic subjects in Catalan. Children in the state system still don’t have that choice and continue to learn in Catalan meaning that when it comes to further education, they are mostly restricted to studying at the Balearic University or in Barcelona where subjects are taught in Catalan.
In recent years, education in the Baleares has rested woefully low on the international league tables of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). PISA, an independent study launched by OECD which measures student success in more than 65 countries globally, gave Balearic education a 457 point score, 24 fewer than the mainland, and 38 points behind the UK. An independent report showed that Balearic schools needed to be empowered, to improve to a minimum level, and to initiate performance evaluations. The level of immigration in the islands was studied and how that might affect class sizes and teaching but no one seemed to bring up the nitty gritty issue of Catalan versus Castilian Spanish in the classroom.
Now the recently installed conservative regional government, the Partido Popular (PP), has announced that within the next year, state primary schools in consultation with parents will be able to elect to have their children taught in the tri-lingual system of Catalan, Castilian and English. It’s a brave concept but many wonder how it can possibly work in practice. The majority of teachers on the islands prefer to teach in Catalan, their native tongue in which they have greatest proficiency, and very few have a genuinely competent level of English.
Having taught a group of local children for some years, I can bear testimony to the poor standard of English taught in Majorcan schools. Part of the problem is that the regional government will not employ native English speakers unless they have passed exams to a very competent level in Catalan. Recently I spoke with a Majorcan teacher who had surprisingly good English. She told me that she was unusual in that she had studied in the UK. She told me that most of her colleagues who taught English in local schools had never even visited the country and had a poor grasp of the language.
Having spent long holidays in south Wales as a child I remember how my father’s parents would effortlessly switch between the Welsh and English language. In Wales the language is kept alive because it is compulsory in every school, although the main language is English. Perhaps a similar system could work over here in the future.
For now, the question of language is a hot potato in the Baleares, debated passionately by locals and expats alike. Of course, those least consulted on the issue are probably the children themselves whose future rests in the hands of a lot of warring politicians and adults.
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