Tuesday 20 July 2010

Where Is Everybody?

By Richard Morley.

Photo Robsike

One of the more naive comments I hear from visitors to Madrid at this time of year is about how uncrowded the city is. How wonderful, they tell me, not to have traffic jams. How marvellous, they remark, that they can always get a seat on the metro. How relaxing, they observe, not to have to queue for everything.

(Small pause while I break down in sardonic laughter.)

I have an acquaintance who lives in a part of northern Madrid not well served by pubic transport. He often regales me with tales of how long he sits in traffic jams, both in and out of the city, during the week. I have a weekly lunch with some friends who luckily have a lunch break that starts at half past one, slightly earlier than other offices nearby. By two o’clock there is a line of would be diners at the door glaring at us through the window, wishing we would eat up and vacate out table.

If you are travelling by metro in the rush hour be prepared to defend your territory with stern glares and sharp elbows. A seat? You must be joking!

You see, like any other modern, bustling city, Madrid has its problems. But not in July and August. The population seems to evapourate.

People I see regularly here are now sending me e mails from California, England, Ireland and all other points of the vacation compass telling me what a wonderful time they are having. Not so rich people are escaping the heat of the city at their family homes in the mountains.

The English teaching community is devoid of teachers. They have all returned from whence they came and are sending tales of meeting old friends, finding food they left in the back of a larder at Christmas, and rediscovering that their language does not have to be spoken simply, slowly and they can make bad puns again.

Consequently the English teaching community is also devoid of students. I would despair if I had to rely on my income from teaching over the next two months. Why we don’t see desperate teachers standing behind signs that read, “Starving – will teach for food”, is simply because they are not here. Those of us that remain have to live off savings – or find some other form of employment. Would you like verbs with that?

If you have ever entertained thoughts of coming here to teach be very aware of this.

But an empty Madrid is a fantastic Madrid. I know people who claim this is their favourite time of year just because no one else is here. The million residents who have fled to far off beaches are hardly replaced by a few tens of thousands of tourists. So the art galleries are easy to get into, public transport is empty and there’s a seat in every restaurant. Assuming the owner of the restaurant has not also gone on his vacation. It is so annoying that your favourite eating house is closed just when you now have the time to take long leisurely lunches.

But there is no one to have those lunches with. At this time of year the offices of Madrid switch to different hours, known as “horario” or “jornada intensivo”. So, instead of the working day running (say) from 9am until 7pm with a lunch time that would be the envy of office workers elsewhere, (I have had several in excess of two hours!), summer hours might start a little earlier and finish around half past three or four o’clock. But there is no time off for lunch! That’s why you can always get a lunch-time seat in summer. Everyone is at their desks.

But there are plenty of other places where excellent food is to be had. And knowing that you don’t have to teach at eight o’clock in the morning means your lazy evening with friends at the cool midnight terrace doesn’t have to end.

I find this every year. For the six weeks from mid July until the end of August I am basically Billy-No-Mates. Or I would be if I didn’t also join the exodus. As I write this, an open suitcase sits on the floor. I am male – it will only take me five minutes to pack.

It is time to discover the rest of Spain. Maybe I should change the name of the blog!

The evocative photograph at the head of this piece by Robsike is taken from a collection of pictures taken in the streets of many towns in Spain during the World Cup final between Spain and Holland, which, as the whole world should know and rejoice, Spain won. You can find the complete set of these photographs here.

They are an interesting reflection on the passion and support that the people of this wonderful country felt for its team.

Tuesday 13 July 2010

English as it is spoke

By Richard Morley.

Since I have lived here I have had some amazing, interesting and funny conversations with some wonderful Spaniards. By necessity, because my Spanish is abysmal, these witty, pithy, marvellously amusing chats have been in English. We have discussed science, politics, the existence of God, and that most vexing of questions, why do women like to buy shoes? Yet nearly all of these wonderfully erudite Spaniards will apologise about their English.

I remember a student at one the of the English villages I attend bemoaning well into the wee small hours of the morning of her problems with the English language. At around 2am I said, “Bxxxxxx, you have been telling me that you cannot speak good English – in good English”. Indeed, when I can explain something in as fluent Spanish as the English she used that night, I will be ecstatic”.

That is not to say her use of my language was fault free. Far from it. But she managed to explain all her doubts and problems with English – and I understood everything she said. And also, she understood what I said.

Recently a friend who has been studying a particularly difficult course in something I have no hope in understanding phoned me to ask about the English Speaking Group I help run on Friday evenings. Her course had been all in Spanish and now with the diploma in hand had decided to reacquaint herself with English. She had found her old grammar and idiom lists from the school where she had obtained a Master’s Degree in English and complained to me that she had forgotten so much.

She told me this in a ten minute telephone call conducted in almost flawless English!

Mxxxxx had recently returned from an international conference in Germany. The lingua franca used at meetings like these is invariably English. I have known Mxxxxx for nearly five years and know her English to be of a good level. My test for this is whether I make concessions in my speech for her. Do I enunciate over-clearly? Do I speak slower than normal? Do I choose my words carefully? With her the answer is, no. I also know she has recently delivered an excellent English presentation in Brussels. So why was she complaining to me of her inability to understand other delegates at the conference. “My English is terrible”, she moaned fluently.

I have a small confession to make. As a native English speaker, reasonably well educated and, I like to think, well read, I sometimes have to look up English words I don’t understand in the dictionary. Last year, at one of the English villages, I met a man from South Carolina. He, like me, is a native English speaker. Yet all week long I was constantly asking him to repeat what he said because I either didn’t understand his accent or he was using English is a way with which I was unfamiliar.

Was this his fault, my fault, or no one’s fault? The answer is the last. We both spoke our version of English. The Spanish students of the week were quite amused by our mutual incomprehension and feeling obviously relieved that their inability to understand this man shared by another English speaker.

So why should the linguistic world of those who have English as a second language be any different? Like the gentleman from South Carolina and myself it depends on where you learn your English, and, from whom. Even here in Spain, students learning English could have teachers that hail from every part of the English speaking world. Those students will become familiar with the accent and word usage of their teachers. And I know English teachers here in Madrid that I find difficult to understand.

I flippantly examined this problem in a post last year and, in truth, I worry about the English received by students of one particular teacher I have met here whose accent is definitely not “mainstream”.

However, in common with many people around the world, I have learned a lot of my Spanish from the podcasts of a Scot – and I recommend them whole-heartedly. So the differing accents of Teachers of English as a Second Language should not really matter. With diligence, all their students will master the language.

But when those students get together, will the English they speak be similar enough for them to comprehend each other?

I occasionally meet with another guirri who is also learning Spanish. Once, over a long lunch, we thought it world be a good idea to practise our (lack of) language skills, but it soon became clear that we had a different vocabulary. The conversation became peppered with pauses while we explained “our” strange new words to each other.

And that, I suspect, is what my Spanish acquaintances are going through. It’s not that they don’t have a perfectly good level of English. It’s because they don’t have the same English.

Now, out there in the business world is an English substitute. It’s called “globish” and has been described as the “world dialect of the third millennium”. It consists of around one thousand five hundred English words that is it thought that all Speakers of English as a Second Language should know and hence act as a reduced vocabulary lingua franca. There have a been a number of articles written about it, including the article in last month’s El País that first brought it to my notice.

Those one thousand five hundred words would give anyone a useful vocabulary, but I am not convinced Globish is the solution. In the words of the song, “It’s not what you say, it’s the way that you say it”. Which might well depend on who taught you. I have three lovely people who seem to have taken on the responsibility for improving my Spanish, but they don’t pronounce Spanish the same way and one will correct an error in my speech deemed acceptable by the others.

Spain has a television channel devoted to teaching English. The main presenter, Richard Vaughan, who owns the channel, is from Texas. There are other teachers from quite diverse parts of the English speaking world and there have been times when I have shouted at the screen, screaming, “No, it’s NOT pronounced like that!”

But really, that’s only my south eastern England opinion talking. The guy from South Carolina mentioned above probably does not have neighbours and colleagues asking him to clarify. And I know that some have a problem with me. I also know an English teacher here from the south of England who I think speaks clearly and yet some Spaniards have told me they have a problem with her accent.

I truly think that with many learners of English the problem is not one of mastery of the language, it’s one of confidence. There is also a difference of opinion about what it means to be “Bilingual”. To me the word describes a person who can competently converse in two languages. Many language schools here promise to make their students bilingual and, given the diligence of the student, they succeed – in my definition of the word. But many Spaniards who reach this level do not think themselves bilingual because they do not speak with a native accent, regardless from where that accent is meant to derive. Consequently, their confidence in using English is, wrongly in my opinion, low.

Here is a home truth: Unless you started learning from native speakers at a very young age you will never have a perfect native accent. If you learnt your English from a non-native after the age of eleven, the most you should strive for is clarity. You will never speak like the Queen of England, or me! So, don’t worry if you don’t!

Consider this definition of my language: A series of noises intelligible to speakers of the English language. That’s all any language is, if you substitute the word “English”; A series of noises. Once the noises have meaning, you can speak the language. I know two Spanish ladies, and they will recognise themselves from this description, who have amazing discussions in fast paced English and then complain to me that that are not confident with the language. They are nuts!

What they should realise is not that what they don’t have is a good level of English, but a non-agreement of learned vocabulary. Familiarity with Globish would be a start, but not the solution because the second thing for them to realise is that any native English speaker they talk with will naturally have a far larger vocabulary than that listed fifteen hundred. In the same way that any ten year old Spanish child has a larger Spanish vocabulary than me.

Having a lesser number of words in your mental dictionary does not make you stupid. (And incidentally, native English speakers having a conversation with a Speaker of English as a Second Language should realise that and choose their words accordingly. Because native English Speakers are so good at foreign languages, aren’t you – NOT!) It just means that until you learn the meanings of these unknown noises, you have a gap in you vocabulary. I have been told of English language conference calls where all the second language speakers understand each other and not the one English speaking native. And they think it’s their fault. The native should try harder. (And try to learn another language if he/she is a Brit or American, just to experience a little empathy!)
Conference Call Confusion

Of course there is nothing wrong with increasing your vocabulary. Indeed, it is devoutly to be wished, even in your native tongue. But just because someone knows a word you don't doesn’t make you stupid.

I take great pride in something two of my students have remarked to me recently. One, after attending an international conference, proudly told me he had been congratulated on his English, while another, working for a multi-national reported that a visitor from head office in the US commented how much her English had improved. I like to think I have had a small part in their progress, but they are both determined to succeed, so the credit is theirs. The second one, incidentally, on a return from delivering a presentation, in English, to the US branch of the company, did remark that she had experienced a problem with the natives, but that once she had asked for clarification, (ie, say it simpler without US football/baseball metaphors and obscure Americanisms), had understood nearly everything.

Spain is a country that realises the importance of needing English to do business. Without that skill, jobs in international companies are scarce. Many have it, really you do! You speak every day on the telephone to other countries, you send and receive e-mails, you negotiate and buy and sell – all in English. You are cleverer and more skilled than you realise.

You make me jealous!

I am well aware the title of this post is ungrammatical. It comes from an old quotation.

Sunday 4 July 2010

New Rules for Using the Metro

By Richard Morley.

For the past couple of weeks the Madrid Metro has been hosting an exhibition of paintings which are the work of its own employees. The exhibition, named for one of the paintings, is called, "The Rose that Broke the Vase", which is another way of saying "The straw that broke the Camel's back". Considering that the continuing strike is trying everyone's patience, the exhibition is incredibly apt.

A new publicity campaign, (which is hardly needed - they have a rival??), claims we can travel rapidly and arrive on time wherever we want to go. I really think that those who are holding the working people of this town to ransom have a lot of work to do to win back the support of the public.

A veces (Sometimes!)

For two days last week we had no services at all until the drivers, faced with prosecution, returned to providing the contracted "Minimal Services". To give them their due, they are providing a normal service to allow the revellers of the Gay Pride weekend to get around the town, but this is no comfort to the two million commuters who face another week of threatened disruption.

“Servicios mínimos” is meant to mean only half the usual number of trains on the Metro will be running, so mathematically one could expect there to be twice as many passengers travelling on each train that does run. So why does it seem like much much more? Thanks to the drivers who sit alone in their spacious air-conditioned cabs up front, us poor people behind them have been pushed, squeezed, bent, folded, spindled and mutilated like grilled squashed sardines in a crushed can.

In the light of this new way of travelling I suggest there should be some rules that would make journeys on the metro more comfortable for all.

#1. On arrival at a platform that is obviously already packed from edge to wall, do not try and barge your way through. This applies double if you are carrying, pushing or pulling something larger than a reasonably sized handbag, such as a suitcase, backpack or large overstuffed bag filled with things you think you might need during the day. If you are carrying such items please avoid all stations during rush hour or walk. Honestly, you don’t need all that stuff.

#2. As the train comes to a stop check the inside of the carriage through the windows provided. If existing passengers have their faces squashed against the window it is probably full. If you open the doors from outside and passengers cascade onto the platform in a heap it was overfull. To gain entry to the carriage do not tread on these passengers. Push them gently to one side. Do not kick them. Do not use elbows. Do not use your suitcase, backpack or overstuffed bag filled with items you don’t really need as a battering ram. See rule #1

#3. You will find more room in the carriage if you allow passengers who actually want to get off to do so before you attempt to barge your way on. Nothing is gained if you try to push alighting passengers further into the train. Please bear in mind the law of quarts and pint pots. You are not conquistadores raiding some far off country. A few “Perdones”, “discúlpenmes”, “por favores” and “lo sientos” would make your new fellow passengers accept your presence in a better light, you mal educado zoquete!

#4. Given the fact that you will be standing much closer to fellow passengers than normal please bathe or shower before leaving your house. Before entering the station sniff your armpits. If you stink of sweat, please walk home and desist from using the metro until you have bathed, showered and changed your clothes. The exercise will do you good. Regard this as your good deed for the day.

#5. Vests and shirts that reveal sweaty, hairy armpits, of either sex, should only be worn during athletics practice or while running the Madrid Marathon. If I am forced to have a close encounter with your strap-hanging hairy smelly armpit I would prefer there were at least a single layer of cloth between it and my nose.

#6. If you have just eaten a meal containing garlic, onions or curry sauce please refrain from boarding until a completely empty carriage appears. It would be quicker for you and better for us if you walked. Ever heard of mints?

#7. Metro carriages are public areas. You cannot claim the part you are standing in as a sovereign country. It will not be recognised by the United Nations and so you should be prepared to move to another part of the carriage. This rule particularly applies if you insist on standing just inside the doors. Remember, you are not aboard ship. It is not your job to repel all boarders. Give others a chance.

#8. Finally, spare a thought for the hard-working drivers that have given up their valuable strike time to bring you their personal train. As they slow down along the crowed platform all those on the edge should wave at the drivers to thank them for their efforts. How many fingers you chose to hold up in this salute of thanks and welcome is up to you.

Long-suffering queues on Friday.

I am open to other suggestions ..........?