Wednesday 26 August 2009

A wasted Resource

The Problem.

Spain is trying very hard to improve the language skills of its children. As a country it knows that to succeed internationally its businessmen and technocrats need English. According to the last known figures only twenty-seven percent of Spanish natives speak a second language. This figure sounds pretty good until you realise that it includes speakers of Catalan, Euskera, or Gallego; regional languages spoken within the borders of peninsular Spain.

Consequently Spanish school children are being encouraged to begin learning a second language from as early an age as possible. This does not just mean the teaching of English as a separate subject. In Madrid there are many private schools that do teach all subjects in English and this is being taken up in the public sector.

Earlier this year I was a volunteer in a program attended by teachers from within the public school system where they were instructed, and put into practise, how to teach their subjects in English. As well as being taught how to prepare lessons, they were also shown how to run the entire lesson, which included asking pupils not to talk, giving permission to visit the toilet and, probably, to send the more disruptive pupils to see the headmaster in English.

This is very laudable and I have seen some excellent results. I attended a pantomime performed by children, some as young as seven years old, given entirely in English. I was very impressed.
More impressed, unfortunately, than with the English skills of their teachers.

Perhaps I don’t really understand the educational process, but to my mind I would assume that subjects should be taught by someone with an exemplary knowledge, but many of the teachers are just basically conversational themselves. It would be like me teaching Information Technology just because I know how to use a computer.

Worse! The bad habits of the teachers, no matter how fluent they think they are, no matter how long they spent living in an English speaking country, will be passed on to the students. I know the staff and have met some graduates from a school that promises to make the students bilingual. Listening to the graduates I can hear the mistakes of their professors.

There are also those students who wish to take their English to a higher level as needed in business, technology or science. I have met Spaniards who tell me that while their teacher is very competent in general grammar and vocabulary, they are having to explain to these teachers the specialised words they need in their everyday work environment – and in many cases this vocabulary is unknown by the teacher, even native English speakers who are often young or who have always been teachers, with no other life experience.

There is a program where the language expertise of the teacher of the class is supplemented by a native English speaking classroom assistant. Many young people from the US and the UK come to Spain for just that purpose. They are paid a pittance and stay, in most cases, for just a year, but they do bring the actual sound of the language to the ears of the young students. However, not everyone is suitable. One teacher complained to me last year that she had difficulty understanding the accent of her assistant. Apparently he pronounced “Hat” as “het”, “Sit” as “set, and the town he lived in as “Mer-drid”, elongating the first syllable and swallowing the second: “Merrdrd”. Not the best example to give to young students taking their first steps in a foreign language.

I am reminded of when my son’s French friend visited us in the UK and he attended my son’s school for a week. On his first or second day he returned from the school having sat in during a French lesson given by a British teacher. Not only was he rather uncomplimentary regarding the teacher’s accent, (Spanish cows came into it somewhere!) but she had totally failed to understand him when he spoke to her in his Vendee accent, which was actually quite clear. I was a little annoyed that this teacher was meant to be teaching my children French and not surprised when neither son advanced very far in the language.

And so it is with many Spanish natives teaching English in the schools of Spain. While I can have a very acceptable conversation with them, I do not think their level is high enough for a teaching standard.

The laudable objectives laid down in the “Disposiciones General” quoting the Royal Decree 22/2007 of the 10th of May regarding “, del Consejo de Go­bierno, por el que se establece para la Comunidad de Ma­drid el currículo de la Educación Primaria,” state that, “Para ello se requiere que los niños acrecienten la comprensión lectora, la capa­cidad de expresión oral y escrita, la soltura en el cálculo, aplicando en cada situación las operaciones aritméticas adecuadas, y los cono­cimientos esenciales en los campos de Geografía, de la Historia y las Ciencias de la naturaleza. Todo ello sin menoscabo del conocimien­to de al menos una lengua extranjera, fundamental si tenemos en cuenta el contexto europeo y la comunicación universalizada del mun­do en el que habrán de vivir, de la educación física y de la artística.” (My highlighting)

"Which requires a certain attainment of education …”without diminishing the knowledge of at least one foreign language, fundamental if we take into account the European context and universal communication of the world in which we live, …”"

Yet, because of the level of the teachers, and let me say again while perfectly good enough for general conversation, the students will not be exposed to a high enough standard of English and will continue the bad habits of those entrusted with teaching them.

These bad habits will be enduring. Not realising this, a Spaniard seeking work will truthfully have “Knowledge of English” on his or her CV and go on to make mistakes that could reflect badly on the employer. Recently the English translation of the annual report of a company that supplies electronic military hardware internationally claimed that it “pretended” to invest in future development. This was a bad translation of a Spanish “false friend”, pretender, which does mean “to intend”, but gave the wrong impression and although the real meaning would have been understood by those reading it, did not exactly demonstrate the professionalism the company desired. I could quote many more, but this proof reading is how I earn some of my living, so I won’t. But if the company had simply had the draft of the translation read by a locally living English native, that embarrassing mistake would not have happened.

The solution.

Last year the Comunidad de Madrid asked for volunteers to assist with activities for children during the long summer vacation. I went to my local library, as instructed on the posters, and volunteered. I didn’t have much to offer except my ability with the English language, but that was one of the things they wanted. I was refused because my Spanish was not good enough!

I can understand that to teach from zero knowledge it would be necessary for me to explain principles in Spanish, but that was not the case. Many school children have attained a reasonable level and just wanted practice with native speakers. I was happy to offer that – for free.

Shortly after, I had the chance to relate this experience to a member of the Spanish government. She was astounded at the attitude of the person I had approached and, being left wing PSOE, blamed it on the right wing PP who run Madrid. After ascertaining that I was sincere in my offer, (the Spanish don’t really understand the idea of volunteering in quite the same way as British or North Americans), she offered to use her contacts to place me somewhere where a few hours a week of voluntary service would be appreciated. Despite a reminder, I never heard from her from her again.

This might sound arrogant, but to my mind, considering the emphasis the Government places on learning English, that was a lost opportunity.

There are many native speakers of English who teach for pay in Spain. My volunteering would no way undermine their earning a living. However, they should take heed of the point I made earlier regarding their limited knowledge of specialist vocabulary.

The last figures I can find regarding how many British Residents live in Spain claimed to be in excess of 105,000. Some of them, affected by La Crisis might not be here any more, but that still leaves an awful lot of native English speakers living in Spain.

This is a mostly untapped reserve of linguistic expertise that could benefit the country greatly. Although I have to admit that the dropped aiches and double negatives I heard used by some Costa Brits down in a part of Murcia I visited earlier this year are not part of the English legacy I would want to see held up as linguistic excellence. In fact I will state that the level of grammar of my two Spanish companions was probably higher than the British native, although, of course, the Brits spoke their language fluently.

But surely it is not without the realm of possibilities that many British residents would be happy to give up the odd Bridge game to assist for a couple of hours a week at their local school. I would even hazard a guess that among that number would be some ex-schoolteachers who would like to feel useful.

There are also engineers, scientists and others who have used all their professional lives the argot and specialised language that Spanish students of these subjects need.

The department of Education is happy to pay the classroom assistants imported from North America, so I am sure a small emolument could be found to pay for this knowledge that the government deems so important. Recent falls in the value of the British Pound will have some British residents jump at the chance to subsidise their income.

Private Spanish individuals keen to improve or maintain their level of English already know the importance of meeting with Native speakers. I see many of them every week at the English speaking group (See the notice in the sidebar), which is run on a completely voluntary basis. Many exchange their language during intercambios throughout the week. Others pay for lessons or just conversation in their offices. So I am not suggesting anything radical.

The department of Education has declared the importance of teaching a sound, working knowledge of English. To many companies this knowledge represents a crucial advantage in international markets. Counting all the native English speakers who live in Spain, this is a valuable resource government and businesses cannot afford to ignore.

This article sprang from several conversations I have had with Spanish professionals who are desperate to improve their English. I asked them what they did to maintain their language levels outside of a classroom and the answer was often a shrug of the shoulders. When I pointed out that all over Spain there lived native English speakers and some of them would be happy to meet for a beer or coffee and converse, these intelligent people seemed surprised to find this resource in their midst. I am happy to report that I have been able to introduce Spanish and native English speakers who reside in the same town and who now meet regularly.

What do you think? Is Spain missing out on a golden opportunity?


  1. I have plenty to say on this, but I don't have time!!!

    Simple answer - yes. Languages are best learnt from native speakers. End of story.

    I was lucky enough to learn French at a young age from both my parents, but neither of them are native. It taught me a lot, but when I was 16 and started my A Level French, we got a new oral teacher. A French guy - he was about 12 as far as I could tell, and very sweet. But it was the first time I had been taught by a native speaker and it made a huge difference. I learnt more in those 2 years than I had in the previous 16, even with parents with very good levels, and lots of school French teachers, all of whom were English.

    We're a resource. Use us.

  2. Richard: I agree with you and Em. I learned German from Germans while living in Germany. Native speakers are the way to go. I am glad that you help organize the Friday evening sessions at Lacondita - that allows Anglo visiters to meet Spaniards and share our English.

  3. I'm a native English speaker from Bristol, UK. I've got a CELTA certificate and still find it really difficult to find work teaching English here in Madrid. People say it's really easy if you have that, but it's not! I'm still looking for a position for this coming academic year.
    I give private classes and have a lot of interest. I like giving these because I get to the know the families and enjoy helping people improve their English. Nearly every family says that English is taught really badly in schools, and most don't even have native teachers. The result is that the students forget their English quickly, and can't really use it later in life. I also have some spanish friends who say exactly the same. I do think that the government is underusing the resource of native English speakers. Other than teaching, there are not many other fields of work where jobs for native English speakers are available but i'm sure could be put to good use. Especially in the tourism sector, loads of foreigners come to Madrid every year and speak no Spanish.

  4. I agree entirely, foreign languages are best learnt from native speakers. I went to private English classes since I was quite young and in the last two years at school I spoke better English that my Englush teacher -a Spaniard- who used to look at me for reassurance!

  5. I agree that language teaching here sucks. There's been a bilingual project going on in the junior schools for years, in association with the British Council. When it was in the pilot stage, the BC selected native teachers for schools participating in the scheme. Now it's in a more full-blown phase, these supposedly bilingual teachers are selected willy-nilly from within the school, regardless of their level of English (I know, I've had a few come to me in desperation for private classes), with predictable results. The "Oposiciones" system here effectively works as a form of protectionism, keeping native language teachers out of the Spanish state school system. To make matters worse, as far as methodology goes, the Spanish system is light years behind, still relying on chalk and talk methods with no skills integration. I don't see this changing anytime soon.

    The positive side is that it means there is plenty of work in the private sector for native language teachers and translators. I have a feeling that many of us here would find ourselves with a lot of time on our hands and not much money in the bank if the Spanish system improved!