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Sunday September 15, 2013

Why Spain should wake up and smell the coffee

It’s been a tough old week for Spain and in particular Ana Botella, the Mayor of Madrid. A combination of misplaced hubris, wishful thinking and naivety led to national disappointment when in Buenos Aires a shock result – for the Spanish at least – saw Madrid lose its 2020 Olympic Games bid to Tokyo. Actually even Turkey trumped Spain as runner up.

To add to the Spanish government’s humiliation, the Mayor of Madrid was lampooned by her countrymen for her lamentable linguistic performance at the international Olympic Committee’s press conference. Not only did she fail to understand English speaking reporters – shunning translation headphones – but delivered a nonsensical answer and even fluffed statistics, claiming that 80 per cent of Madrid’s required infrastructure was complete which she later changed to 90 per cent. Worse still was the reaction to her unintentionally amusing speech for the bid delivered in less than perfect English. One of her particularly ‘Spanglish’ phrases, ‘Nothing like a relaxing cup of café con leche’ has subsequently been mercilessly parodied on Spanish satirical TV shows, the internet and via Twitter.

In fairness to Ana Botella at least she really tried her best and although her exaggerated, almost manic facial expressions were proof enough that she had been rehearsed to death by some communications apparatchik, one felt the poor soul was speaking from the heart. Let’s face it, Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy is no linguist and his Socialist predecessor José Luis Zapatero had no apparent grasp of English at all. As for British and American politicians few appear to have any real linguistic ability. The point is that rather like most Britons and Americans, the Spanish do not find speaking a foreign language easy and the Spanish educational system does little to support those who genuinely want to get to grips with English.
Having lived in Majorca for more than a decade I’ve encountered few locals teaching English in schools who don’t sound like a cross between Manuel from Fawlty Towers and the cartoon character Speedy Gonzales. Farcically, English native speakers living in Majorca are only allowed to teach in local schools if they have sufficient qualifications in the Catalan language – a subject not taught in British schools. It’s therefore not surprising that a survey conducted at the University of the Baleares concluded that two thirds of its students did not understand English.

And somewhat worryingly the Balearic government has recently decided to turn Majorcan schools tri-lingual with English leading the way alongside Castilian Spanish and Catalan. Majorcan teachers themselves are not at all happy about the concept, freely admitting that most state schools simply do not have the resources to teach English at a sufficiently high enough level. Last year and to my great surprise, I met a Majorcan secondary school teacher in Palma who spoke excellent English. When I complimented her, she laughed and said that she was in the minority and that few indigenous teachers of her acquaintance had proficiency in the language. She had, off her own back, spent several summers in the UK to ensure that she had the necessary linguistic skills.

And now Majorcan teachers have decided to go on strike over the issue and quite frankly I can’t blame them. It’s simply not fair to expect them to teach in a language that is in effect alien to them – without offering resources and in-depth language training – and cruel to inflict such a disastrous linguistic experiment on the island’s children. Much as Majorcan parents are keen for their offspring to learn English – given how widely spoken it is – they don’t want them to be offered a dog’s dinner of an education where they emerge from school life neither able to write nor speak properly in Catalan, Castilian or English.

It seems that it’s not just poor Ana Botella and her fellow politicians that need to wake up and smell the coffee, but the regional Balearic government too.

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