Tuesday 16 June 2009

Everyday English - In Madrid

By Richard Morley
Real Estate Agent's sign. Obviously they have more than one property.

I find it hard to imagine department stores and clothes shops in the UK thinking it would be a good idea to advertise in anything other than the native language. But I have stopped being surprised that their Spanish equivalents think it makes commercial sense to plaster their walls with signs in English. Would a London fashion house advertise its summer collection by putting a huge poster outside their premises with the single word “Verano”? Or would John Lewis, Britain’s largest department store chain, invite its fashion victim clients with the words, “Bienvenido donde la moda es arte”? Yet El Corte Inglés, Spain’s ubiquitous source of everything, thinks that huge placards proclaiming “Summertime” and “Welcome to where fashion is art” will pull the customers in.

While waiting for a bus recently I passed the time attempting to translate the words on a placard set in the window of a beauty parlour. I was doing ok except for a couple of words that had me shaking my head in bewilderment. It took a few seconds for my brain to register that these words floating amidst a sea of Spanish announced that the company offered, “Happy Prices”, in English.

At the time of writing, the perfume peddler, Diesel, has plastered the bus shelters of Madrid, and very likely all over the continent, with a hoarding proclaiming, “Only The Brave – The New Fragrance”. A whiskey distiller exhorts us to, “Leave an Impression”, Ray ban, advertising its sunglasses, tells us we can “Never Hide”, and a newspaper kiosk proclaims “We live in Financial Times”. Not a word in Spanish in sight. And I do not suppose the “Pink ‘un” informs the populace of London that “Vivimos en tiempos financieros”.

These are far from isolated incidents. A lawyer I mentioned this to told me that these shops like to appeal to the snob inside a certain sector of the public. That English has a certain “cashet”, in much the same way that some English like to prove their superiority by using French in their speech. See what I did there? In much the same way, he thought, using English make the esnob españoles feel exclusive.

Some of this might make sense in the parts of town frequented by the English speaking tourist, but I think I am the only guiri in my barrio and the area, as pleasant as it is, isn’t exactly posh! And I am sure they would, in these poor economic times, attract more buyers if they explained that “Nuestros precios son bajos”, our prices are low, as opposed to using a foreign language, even if the prices are “Happy”, whatever that means.

Madrid is not alone in having famous international names in its shopping districts, and several of their products have trademarked names. So, Spain has the Big Mac like everywhere else, and everyone knows what that is. But Burger King has a product called a “Long Chicken”, which does not describe what it is in Spanish. A “Pollo Largo” might not trip off the tongue quite so easily, but it would explain in the local language that the product contains parts of a dead bird. They seem to have no problem asking if you want “Patatas Fritas” with that?

I would bring Starbucks into this essay, except that that company uses its own language to describe its products. Checking their boards it seems they sell everything BUT coffee.

And what do shoppers feel about the names of shops in my pictures here. A sunglasses shop called “Sun Planet”, a clothes shop called “This Week”. I took these photographs in a Centro Comercial so snobby I almost got thrown out for taking them. However, the polite security guard just asked me to cease and desist. Do these names actually have any meaning for customers without a word of English? “Sol Planeta” and “Esta Semana” would surely have the same ring about them? Not that they still make any sense.

And why does a bookshop that sells mostly Spanish books bother to call itself “Top Books”, when it needs to describe itself with “Librerías” after its name. A shop which hires out tools calls itself the “Hire Shop” and would you buy some pretty bauble from a jeweller called “Trash and Soul”.

Many of the Spanish I meet are highly motivated to improve their use of English, but they need it to facilitate international business and contacts, not to improve their shopping experience in Madrid.

However, when I point this out to my Spanish friends, even the ones with little English, they look at me blankly and don’t know what I am talking about. You see, these snippets of English that appear in day to day Spanish life are regarded as perfectly normal. More, in some cases the English has supplanted Spanish in casual conversation. They leave their cars in a “parking”, exercise by “footing” or “trekking”. The national sport is Fútbol, not pelota de los pies. That's my translation, the actual real Spanish word is "Balompie".

And I expect this to increase. Schoolchildren are now taught English from year one. More than this, under an EU directive other subjects also have to be taught in English. I spent a couple of weeks earlier this year helping to improve the English of teachers in such diverse subjects as science, history and maths. It’s not just the subject, but the whole learning experience is in English, which means if the child wants the toilet etc, he or she must ask in English. If the teacher wants the kids to stop talking, she must tell them in English.

In fact, some schools advertise that they only use English in the classrooms. I am not writing about fee paid private schools here, although there are lots of those, but state funded government schools. I attended a performance of Jack and the Beanstalk a few months ago and I was convinced the children on stage, some as young as seven, were English or North American. But no, they were all Spanish. What a brilliant start these kids get in life. The Spanish friends I went with, whose English is very good, were envious of the children’s natural and fluent accents.

When I walk by the morose gatherings of teenagers in my local plaza I hear English happily mixed in with their native language. If only this happened in England where the teaching of foreign languages is a disaster.

I have a school teacher friend who last year taught a class of immigrant children. Most of her pupils were learning Spanish well, but she had a problem with two English children who just didn’t want to learn. They were brother and sister and would keep themselves to themselves and not want to mix with the other kids. One day while upbraiding them for their reluctance to learn Spanish the 8 year old replied, “Why should we learn Spanish when everyone else in Spain in learning English”? “Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings”, as Shakespeare wrote. She said she had no immediate answer.

However, when those kids suddenly became motivated to learn Spanish in the summer term, because they realised they were missing out in all the games the other kids were playing, they went from fumbling to fluent in three months. Oh, I wish my brain was as nimble. There are children in Spain who were not even born when I arrived here who all speak better Spanish than me!

But back to English. I have a theory that in fifty years time nearly all of the Spanish will be speaking English. At that time, most of those who live in North America will be speaking Spanish!

And then someone will correct the meaning of this:
And they really tried! Sign at a metro station undergoing renovation.
Seen any other examples of English at work in madrid. Send me your examples to aviewofmadrid@gmail.com and I'll publish them if they are funny or interesting.
Otherwise, comment in the normal way below.


  1. SoCal has been speaking Spanish for 'centuries'....and I've never learned it...am I fighting a losing battle teaching ESL?

  2. Well, George Bernard Shaw declared that Americans haven't spoken English for years and I am told that the "new" spanish that is creeping into the states is beginning to diverge away from "standard" Spanish, so we might as well all learn Spanglish. Adibye.

  3. Here in Phoenix, I walked by our Palo Verde and Palo Brea trees on the way to my car. Last summer, we visited Mesa Verde National Park. Tomorrow, I will drive through the town of Casa Grande on my way to harvest saguaro fruit. Today, while at the BX (the Base Exchange is a department store for U.S. military personnel, military retirees and military families), the cashier's name tag said "yo habla espanol." Food City grocery stores have all their signs in both Spanish and English. In many neighborhoods, there are no signs in English. I have to remind Anglos that Arizona did not become part of the United States until 1848 for northern and central Arizona, and 1854 for southern Arizona. These territories were either Spanish or Mexican controlled for much longer than it has been under American law.

    It is not just Mexico. In northern Vermont (where we lived from 1987 to 2006), with buildings and towns that straddle the border with French speaking Quebec towns, highway signs say "Bienvenue au Vermont." Others direct us not only to the ferry to New York but also to the "Bateau au new York." Many stores have signs that state "On parle Francais ici." Most stores post the exchange rate for Canadian currency. And distances on highways are posted in both miles and kilometers. And when we go to Montreal, the signs are in both French and English.

    BTW, I nearly fell off my chair laughing when I read the construction sign.

  4. ... the motor industry in the UK has a penchant for inappropriate Spanish names - who in the hispanic world would want a Nova. I came out of work the other day to find the entrance blocked by a huge 4 wheel drive vehicle - I had a word and was treated with disdain by a man who had clearly signed up to the off-roaders in uban society charter to drive and behave like an arse. Mind I had to smile as he drove away with the word PAJERO shining brightly at the bottom right hand corner of his rear door...;-)

  5. Some of the funniest uses of English I've seen are in menus - papas arrugadas (sort of roast potatoes with the skin left on) were described as 'popes' wrinkled' helado de nata as 'scum ice-cream'!

  6. I consider myself to have an acceptable level of English, but now I'm feeling just like a fool because I DON'T understand what is SO funny about the construction sign... :_(

  7. Dear Anon, (I really wish commenters would tell me who they are!)
    There is nothing grammatically wrong with the construction sign, but the driect translation of the word "poder" (podamos on the sign) gives the impression that they are not trying to minimise the inconvenience, but are trying to do everything they can to make it inconvenient. Which is why it amused me. Remove the "can" and it makes perfect sense.