Monday, July 26, 2010

Trilingualism at Work in Portugal

Having just returned from a few days in Oporto, it was interesting to see how a Portuguese city seems to be leaving its Galician counterparts behind in terms of trilingualism. The manner in which many Portuguese working in the public service sector can switch to English (and Spanish) at will is impressive.

This reinforced my belief that young Portuguese have better general levels of English, and most notably, infinitely superior pronunciation to that spoken in Spain. Their willingness and confidence in their ability to switch to English or indeed Spanish is striking. For me personally, this was not a great help as I was in Oporto with the intention of practising my Portuguese. However, I also learned that my own Portuguese seems to have been infiltrated by Spanish pronunciation traits, since on more than one occasion in cafes and hotels, I got a response in Spanish to my foreign accented and laboured Portuguese!

Never having taught there, I cannot comment too much on the role of English (or Spanish) in the Portuguese education system, but as I have said before I don’t think formal education is the main issue here. I am in no doubt that the heavy presence of English in its natural state (i.e. original version with subtitles whether for films, news reports or TV programmes) has had a huge impact.

Coincidentally, while travelling on the bus down to Oporto, I read an article in El País about this very subject by Fernando Galván (a professor of English philology and Rector of Alcalá University).

Here is a summary of the cultural, educational and linguistic reasons why Spaniards are struggling to master English:

1. Naturally speakers of Latin-based Romance languages are at a disadvantage to speakers of Germanic languages (Swedish, German, Dutch, etc.). English belongs to the latter linguistic grouping and therefore speakers of Germanic languages have a big head start in terms of grammar, vocabulary, syntax and so on.

True, but why is it that the Portuguese appear to speak better English than the Spanish?

2. The difference in the Portuguese vowel systems has to be taken into account. With only five vowel sounds, Spanish speakers are going to struggle to recognise and replicate the dozen vowel sounds (excluding diphthongs) of English. If in your native language you know the letter A is not always pronounced in the same way, it becomes easier to overcome this difficulty.

In my opinion, this is a minor factor. While studying Portuguese with Galicians, I felt the wider range of vowel sounds I was familiar with gave me an advantage in pronunciation that helped to make up a bit for the huge disadvantage I had in terms of vocabulary, grammar and syntax. Also it was easy for me to distinguish between the letters B and V or C and Z. However, Galicians have more vowel sounds at their disposal than Castilians yet their English pronunciation is not noticeably better.

The socio-cultural factor is key:

3. It has clearly been demonstrated that the socio-cultural environment, particularly having a wide range of audio-visual material around us, makes it much easier to learn a language. Why is it that after so many hours dedicated to study, Spaniards struggle to understand or communicate in English in daily life? The important factor is that, except in exceptional or limited cases, the majority of the population is hardly exposed to spoken English at all. When the student leaves the classroom, his or her exposure to oral English ends there. It is rarely heard on the radio, on television or in the cinema. In other countries like Portugal however, they don’t dub American TV series and films are shown in original version with subtitles. Franco ensured that all audio-visual materials from other countries were dubbed, allowing for the Hispanisation and linguistic unity of all foreign voices and accents. Spain has never really emerged from this bubble, while from a very early age, Polish, Swedish, Dutch or Portuguese students are accustomed to daily exposure to spoken English. At the end of the school day, they watch cartoons or other favourite TV series in English and barely notice they are still learning outside class.

Galván acknowledges that the situation regarding English in Spanish schools is gradually improving. However, in my view it still remains the case that young Spaniards are too heavily influenced by Spanish phonetics when trying to learn English, while young Portuguese might be reasonably familiar with the sounds of English before they are even capable of reading the subtitles. English pronunciation remains a major weakness in Spanish schools where there are too many teachers who do not have enough familiarity with spoken English and therefore cannot make it an integral part of classroom learning.

This brings me back to the question of trilingualism in Galician schools. Whether or not English can really make up a third of the system remains to be seen (it certainly seems a long way off to me). Whether it should is another matter. It's funny how imposition is rarely mentioned where English is concerned even though it's not the native language of anyone here other than a handful of immigrants like myself. But I feel the most forward-thinking step central and regional governments could take would be to look at what can be done to reduce dubbing and increase subtitling throughout Spanish media. People want to enjoy these programmes or films anyway, and it would just be a case of getting used to viewing them the way they were intended to be seen. Not that I’m holding my breath for this to happen, mind you. José Luis Cuerda, the Spanish film director, recently referred to dubbing an "una auténtica mierda" (a load of crap). From an artisitc point of view he is spot on but most of his compatriots would take some convincing. It is so deeply ingrained that many Spaniards seem to think it takes some kind of super-human effort to read subtitles even though their Iberian neighbours seem to get on just fine.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Translation News

Today sees the release of the English translation of Manuel Rivas’ Os libros arden mal. The English version, Books Burn Badly, is translated by Jonathan Dunne and published by Random House. This is the sixth book by Manuel Rivas that Dunne has translated to English. Others include The Carpenter’s Pencil, Vermeer’s Milkmaid and Other Stories and In The Wilderness. Quite a feat, not least because since 1964 only 33 books written in Galician are known to have been published in the language of Shakespeare.

I must admit I’ve had the Spanish edition of the book sitting on my shelf for a couple of years now but haven’t got round to reading it due to the lack of time and desire to read such a weighty novel in a foreign language. But this whets my appetite.

The author and his translator will be promoting the book in London next week including an appearance at Harvill Secker’s International Writing Day in Foyle’s bookshop,Charing Cross Road, on the 27th of February.

This week also saw the bilingual Catalan-Galician edition of Cesáreo Sanchéz’ poetry collection El rostro de la terra published by Perifèric Poesía, with Xulio Ricardo Trigo carrying out the translation into Catalan. Like Rivas, Sánchez hails from A Coruña and he is president of the Galician Language Writers Association (AELG) among other things.

Meanwhile, Emily Dickinson’s anthology Poemas a la muerte has hit the streets in Spanish.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Galician Science Fiction Website

Anyone interested in reading science fiction in Galician need look no further than The Gondolier is a very short story by a writer called Gareth D. Jones from Essex, England. It was translated into Galician by Ana Xaubet. I translated The Gondolier into Scots for Gareth last year. Another translation I did of one of his stories, Gone Wi The Windae, appeared in Lallans Magazine.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Strike in Schools

Many working in Galician education were on strike today. The strike was called by the Queremos Galego platform in response to the Xunta’s (Galician govt.) planned educational reforms which would see the role of Galician in compulsory education reduced from at least 50% of the syllabus to 33%. The PP (conservatives) Xunta, which took office last year, has proposed that Galician will be given equal status in the system to Spanish with the introduction of a third of subjects in English making up a trilingual system.

Although President Feijóo and his Xunta appeared to think the idea was a decent compromise, it has been attacked from almost all quarters, with other political parties, cultural groups including the Real Academia Galicia and teaching unions all queuing up to have a go.

One of the main criticisms has been the proposed role of English. Teachers in the General Workers Union (UGT) have said it is unworkable and will lead to chaos. The left-wing coalition Esquerda Unida described it as “utopian”.

I don’t think the policy has been thought through for a number of reasons. In future, the plan is to recruit teachers who are capable of teaching other subjects through English. While I recognise this as a form of CLIL, I wonder where they are going to find the teachers whose English is good enough to cope. My understanding from speaking to someone working within the Galician education system is that in future teachers will be required to have a B1 in English of the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages .

Here’s what such a student is supposedly capable of: “Can understand the main points of clear standard input on familiar matters regularly encountered in work, school, leisure, etc. Can deal with most situations likely to arise whilst travelling in an area where the language is spoken. Can produce simple connected text on topics which are familiar or of personal interest. Can describe experiences and events, dreams, hopes & ambitions and briefly give reasons and explanations for opinions and plans.”

And here is the description in Galician: “Nivel B1: Se adquiere cuando el estudiante es capaz de comprender los puntos principales de textos claros y en lengua estándar si tratan sobre cuestiones que le son conocidas, ya sea en situaciones de trabajo, de estudio o de ocio; cuando sabe desenvolverse en la mayor parte de las situaciones que pueden surgir durante un viaje por zonas donde se utiliza la lengua; cuando es capaz de producir textos sencillos y coherentes sobre temas que le son familiares o en los que tiene un interés personal y cuando puede describir experiencias, acontecimientos, deseos y aspiraciones, así como justificar brevemente sus opiniones o explicar sus planes.”

I have highlighted in bold what I consider the main points. In my opinion, that kind of level is not nearly high enough to cope with presenting English in an educational setting, and what about student essays and homework? Are they to be corrected by teachers whose own English would need a lot of correcting? I would say they’d need at least a B2 level (upper intemediate) and continual assessment/improvement or more likely C1 (advanced English) simply in order to cope.

If few local teachers are up to the job (and I can’t imagine that they will be too happy that they cannot teach, say science, because their English isn’t good enough) then what are the alternatives? Bringing in a load of teachers from the UK or other countries? And will these teachers be able to handle the Galician and Spanish dimension that will inevitably arise in the classroom?

In short, the introduction of a third of the syllabus in English is not only some way down the line, as the government now ackowledges, but probably unworkable. However, there are already signs that the Xunta is backing down. But not before taking a potshot at what they see as nationalist extremists out to spoil their cosmopolitan initiative. According to reports, there were somewhere between 30-60,000on the march in Santiago today in protest. The evidence would suggest they came from all over the political spectrum.

The legality of the draft bill has also been questioned. The Spanish Constitution states that families are only allowed to intervene in educational policy on matters concerning religion or morals. This brings us back to the new Xunta’s claim that parents should be allowed to choose the language in which their children are to receive their core education.

Another criticism of the current system has been that Spanish-speaking children were having difficulties studying subjects in Galician. If that is the case then how are pupils going to cope with the introduction of a foreign language into subjects where they already have high failure rates?

Finally, it strikes me as odd that there has been much talk about the “imposition of Galician” and how this was eroding freedom, yet this same party wants to bring a non-official language (English) into the education system and give it the same classroom time as Spanish and Galician.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Lend Me Your Ears

I recently received a comment from a reader of this blog about English in the Spanish education system and the lack of real communication involved. Students in Spain often complain that the English they learn at school lacks a proper communicative component and is too grammar focussed.

Firstly, let me say that I think the Spanish can be overly self-critical about their English levels. Of course, their general level is nowhere near as good as places like the Netherlands or Scandinavia, but the native languages in these countries have a lot more in common with English. Therefore these places have a massive advantage in that respect. So perhaps Spaniards shouldn’t be quite so hard on themselves at times. Some of them speak English very well.

I have taught English to students from a number of European countries: Spain, France, Italy, Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary. The English levels of teenagers in France are no better than in Spain in my experience and I don’t think there’s much difference between the general levels in Italy and Spain either. But I was very impressed with the general standard of Czech students, and if anything, a Slovakian group I taught were even better. Their native languages are nothing like English of course. It may be no coincidence that they, along with the Scandinavian countries and the Netherlands, opt for subtitling instead of dubbing. I also believe that many in the Netherlands have access to the BBC. On the other hand, France also likes to dub its foreign films.

That is why I think the biggest problem with English in Spain lies OUTSIDE the classroom. So many people are studying English yet they have little contact with the language once the class is over. They think all the answers lie in the classroom. I’m sure improvements could be made there as well but if teachers are not confident in their English communication skills then how can they pass this skill on to others?

No-one is going to be able to think in a foreign language that they don’t hear regularly. The internet should help in this respect, but that still involves the student making the effort to find good websites where they can listen to English. So why not just take it out of their hands and put it right in front of them?

If I could do just one thing to help improve English levels in Spain, it would be to provide daily access to the language in the form of subtitled news reports, TV series and films. This is unlikely I’m afraid, because dubbing is a big industry in Spain and many people are so used to it that they don’t want change. That is a pity, as I really do not think that reading subtitles in your own language requires a lot of effort. It is not for me to say that anyone must learn English but if Spanish or regional governments are serious about improving English levels and making their citizens bilingual or trilingual, then I think this is the way forward.

You don’t have to look very far to find an example of this theory at work. Portugal opts for subtitles in its cinemas. And when in Portugal, I cannot help but notice the vast amount of English language on television in comparison with its Iberian counterpart. I do think that that the general pronunciation of English there is better than in Spain. Some Portuguese even have an American touch to their accents due to regular exposure to US television and cinema. Portuguese TV reporters are often able to make a good attempt at pronouncing English names of people, places, films, etc. But sadly the efforts of a fair number of Spanish presenters would not be recognisable to the average English-speaker unfamiliar with the Spanish pronunciation system.

The general level of English in Catalonia is a bit higher than in some other parts of Spain in my experience. I can think of a couple of reasons why that might be. Learning languages may come more “naturally” to Catalans as most are already bilingual and this probably makes them more open to other languages and sounds. However, the geographical situation of Catalonia is also important. It is easier for them to travel abroad and mix with foreigners using international English communication. This also comes back to the point about English having more immediate relevance in their lives. If people don’t have sufficient opportunities to hear and practice the language then there is less incentive to learn it. Similarly, if English is only significant while in the classroom and is of little benefit once the exams have been passed, then why bother to make the effort?

Thursday, November 19, 2009

English under Threat in Scotland?

Carlos Callon’s recent article in Galicia Hoxe about the outlandish claims made by some that signposting in Galician cities is predominately in the Galician language led me to think about the situation in the UK and Ireland. There, you will hear some of the same kind of arguments about how much Gaelic or Welsh is around and about whether it is all a waste of time and money.

I’m going to focus on Scotland because that’s the place I know best. Recently I’ve heard a few claims that bilingual signs (Gaelic & English) are distracting drivers. Firstly, all we are talking about here is toponyms and street names. In other words, signs giving information about the distance to nearby towns, signs at the entrance to towns with the place name on it or street names in towns or cities. These will almost invariably include the English name as well as the Gaelic one, except in places which don’t have a separate English name, such as Drumnadrochit for instance. I’ve never seen or heard the village by Loch Ness referred to as Bridge of Drum, which is the literal meaning in English.

In the comments below a recent BBC article about The Death of Language, one Aberdonian claimed there was a “proliferation of bilingual signs (again in English and Gaelic) in Aberdeenshire. I will be on the lookout the next time I travel through the Grampian region. The poster must have a very different understanding of the word “proliferation” from me. I have never seen a traffic sign (Stop, Reduce Speed, etc) in Gaelic anywhere in Scotland and signposting in shops is conspicuous by its absence, at least outside of the Gaelic-speaking heartlands of the Western Isles and a few other places in the highlands. I haven’t been to those islands for some time but even then I’d confidently state its written presence is minimal in comparison with English. As for the Aberdeen area, I’ve spent plenty of time there, visited recently and can’t recall seeing any Gaelic signs at all!

I’ve seen a few Gaelic signs in and around government buildings in Edinburgh, and in a few places in Glasgow (traditionally the city most Gaelic-speaking highlanders move to for work or study). Glasgow Queen Street railway station is one place that comes to mind. The name of the station is clearly on view in Gaelic. It’s easy for me to remember this specific example as it’s very striking due to the lack of Gaelic in public places in Scotland’s major cities.

You are far more likely to see Gaelic in public places in the highland capital of Inverness or other smaller towns in the Highland region. Particularly in and around council buildings or cultural centres. Also, on street signs, although only in central parts of Inverness as I recall, and again it will always appear bilingually with English. When Gaelic information is given in cultural or tourist sites, it is common to find condensed versions of a more detailed English text. A token word or two of Gaelic at the door, such as “Fàilte” (Welcome) is often considered quite enough. But credit to B&Q for their efforts above as this is a rare site in commercial premises.

Although far more widely used throughout Scotland than Gaelic, the Scots language fares even worse due to its lack of official recognition. You will do well to notice its presence in public at all. It features in poems inscribed on the walls or pavement around the Scottish Parliament Building in Edinburgh. But it’s more likely you will see it in the form of graffiti written by Scots-speakers! However, on the Scottish Parliament website information is available in Scots along with 13 other languages. This is just one example of the current Scottish Government starting to take Scots a bit more seriously as a language that can have a purpose beyond poetry or informal conversation.

Scots also features in place names or in street names (sometimes in monolingual form for the same reason as the Drumnadrochit case mentioned earlier). Some examples can be seen on the website of the Scots Language Centre. However, over the years there have also been many examples of Scottish street and place names being given an English makeover, such as the example of Baxter Wynd being changed to Baker Lane.

Even this minimal exposure to Scotland’s other languages is too much for some. They may tell you that Gaelic is a good thing but yet they are easily inconvenienced and don’t want it to affect their everyday lives in any noticeable way. For that reason, I would argue that some see Gaelic as a form of cultural decoration, something concrete that marks Scotland out from England, but that it must be kept firmly in its place. In other words, it must not interfere at all with the daily routine of a monolingual English speaker.

Another thing some people complain about is the cost of promoting the language. They seem to think that a language will continue to exist or even thrive without financial support and a place in the education system. It’s always easy not to care of course – provided it’s not your own native language that is at stake. That is why many monolingual speakers of a global language like English (or indeed a widespread international language like Spanish) fail to empathise – at the end of the day they know it is not their language that is under threat and so can’t identify with the situation.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Gali-Cat United

A number of Galician and Catalan collectives have united in a bid to safeguard their languages. This week, the vice-president of the Galician Standardisation Board, Fran Rei, spoke about the linguistic situation in Galicia at a conference at a Catalan university. Meanwhile, the leader of the Catalan party ERC, Joan Puigcercós was invited to Santiago by the BNG (Galician Nationalist Party) and participated in a talk about "language as a harmonising factor".

Parallels between the languages were discussed in Barcelona but Fran Rei said that the differences also stood out. He told the Xornal de Galicia: "The situation regarding Catalan in the education sytem is very different and the use of Catalan in everyday life is more visible than it is here. Those at the conference stressed that Catalan is used in all walks of life. It is common in the cities. This is not the case in Galicia where Galician has practically disappeared from the major cities."

My own view on the last point is that although there is a lot of truth in the statement, exaggerating the situation does nothing to help and only adds fuel to the claim that nobody speaks or wants Galician in the cities. Recent estimates (which were considered bleak by Galician language supporters) were suggesting a figure of around 15-20% using Galician as their first language in Vigo and A Coruña, so I would disagree that it has practically disappeared from the major cities. Obviously its situation is not so healthy there but it's all relative. It is not the case that Galician has virtually died out in urban areas. I hear the language used in private coversations on the street at some point every other day and surely one or two in ten is not an insignificant number.