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.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Trilingual Obsessions

I read an interesting article by María Reímondez in the Xornal de Galicia today. It deals with what she describes as “our government’s* obsession with learning English”. Reímondez thinks that (I am paraphrasing here, hopefully not too much) more people around her would benefit from learning or improving their Galician rather than English because they’d get more chance to use it.

This seems to me a reasonable observation. From a selfish point of view, the “obsession with English” has served me well because it has provided me with an opportunity to make a living and with opportunities to live and work all over the world if I so wish.

I do sometimes wonder why some students are taking English classes. Some reach a peak and fail to progress. English plays little part in their everyday lives and rarely even features on TV due to dubbing. Furthermore, the amount of English needed to communicate with customers in the average Galician workplace is not high and little English is needed to communicate on a superficial level in order to get by on holiday abroad. Certainly nothing like the level of English that is required to benefit from the kind of trilingual education system that is being talked up.

In my opinion, the general levels of English in schools are not nearly good enough at the moment to cope with that. If pupils are struggling to learn in Galician (as some claim) then how on earth are they going to manage in a language as different as English? The English levels of teachers is another important factor that I don’t think has been properly thought out. Basically, both Spanish and autonomous governments are talking a good game but it amounts to little more than that. Of course, English is useful in many countries but it is also “cool” and prestigious so it sounds good to talk up these possibilities in order to appear less insular and more cosmopolitan. Yet, few of these politicians appear able to speak English to any decent level and it doesn't hold them back too much.

I have my doubts about the sincerity of these targets. The attempt to deflect the current debate away from Galician by using English as a smokescreen may have a lot to do with it.

Reímondez correctly points out that it is normally speakers of major international languages that think the rest of the world has to conform to their way of speaking. This may well be alluding to Spanish speakers as well but she cites the example of a BBC journalist who wanted a German politician to answer him in English even though they were in Germany. She also says (again with some validity) that these speakers of international languages are the ones who struggle most to learn other languages. In my view, this has a lot to do with both necessity and political power.

The article goes on to claim that it would be a lot easier for Galicians to learn another international language – Portuguese. There is little doubt about that due to the amount of shared vocabulary, grammar, etc. Not to mention the fact that it might be more practical due to geographical location – Galicians could go to Portugal and use the language well, do more business there, etc. In fact, they already know a lot of Portuguese and it is largely a question of exposure and adapting to different pronunciation.

In terms of moving, emigrating or working abroad, how useful is English for them? Well, it depends where they go. Very useful in some places but not especially in other parts of Spain or Latin America. Nobody would deny that it is more important to know Spanish than English in these places so why does the same not equally apply to Galician in Galicia? English may be useful to a degree in Switzerland but French or German would be a better option I suspect.

In short, I come back to this thought. The usefulness of a language depends on personal circumstances and geography rather than the numbers of speakers a language has. From time to time, I hear people say things like “Chinese is more useful than Galician, Catalan, Basque, etc." That may be true if you want to go to China or wish to hang out with the local Chinese community but surely not if you live in one of the aforementioned territories.

*I think this is a reference to the Xunta (Galician government) but it could apply to the Spanish government as well to some extent.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Fishing for Prepositions

The World Fishing Exhibition took place in Vigo a couple of weeks ago. To celebrate the event, the Xornal de Galicia took the step of publishing some English translations of the World Fishing content within its pages.

The editorial headline “Fishing the future” sounded strange to the English ear, basically lacking a preposition as well as a capital letter. In other words, “Fishing for the Future” would have sounded much better. Sadly, the articles in English got worse as I read on. I don’t know whether the translations were done by non-natives, translation tools or English speakers with little experience of translation.

In any case, it would appear that the Xornal had fallen into the common trap of presenting English for marketing purposes while hoping that the poor quality of the translations would not be noticed. Many native speakers will pick up on this, as well as others proficient in the given language.

The translation business is no different from any other in that if you take the cheap option, you are likely to end up with a sub-standard product. Incidentally, I am not the type who spends a lot of time complaining about bad translations, let’s face it they are everywhere so it would be very time consuming. But I expected better from the Xornal of Galicia as it is a newspaper which normally takes the topic of language very seriously.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

No Problem for Noll

Excerpt from interview with Brazilian author, João Giberto Noll in the Xornal de Galicia (29th Sept. 2009).

Interviewer: Will we have difficulty understanding each other?

JGN: None at all. I’m very impresed with the similarities between Galician and Portuguese. Of course, I know about the existence of this language in Spain and of its historical and theoretical relationship with ours (Portuguese). But I didn’t realise the extent to which there is massive identification between the two. This is great because it allows you to understand and be understood in another country, as we saw yesterday in the group interview. It’s wonderful.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009


An example of my own today rather than from the press...

I was down at the EOI in A Coruña earlier today. There were two people in front of me in the queue. The first spoke Galician and was there for about ten minutes asking many questions. The admin clerk at the desk spoke in Spanish the whole time and at one point in the coversation the girl also switched to Spanish for a while before later reverting to Galician again. It was quite clear that Galician was her language of choice. Then she left. The guy in front of me also spoke in Galician but again was attended in Spanish. The clerk did not speak a word of Galician the whole time I was waiting (around fifteen minutes), despite dealing with Galician speakers. Either the clerk did not have the will or the ability to do so. Clearly she is not one of the alleged 90% of civil servants who is bilingual in Spanish and Galician (see my June 30th post). Some might argue that this passive bilingualism is no bad thing and that everyone understood each other. But it also occurred to me that if this situation happened in reverse, you could easily imagine word getting out and we'd have the cries of "Imposición!" from the usual suspects.

Monday, July 27, 2009

A Bigger Myth Than Hercules

If you visit A Coruña, one of the first things the Coruñeses are likely to tell you about their city is that the water at the central Riazor beach is freezing - much colder than the water in other places roundabout.

That didn't make sense to me at all. So over the least few weeks I've been keeping an eye on the water temperatures that appear in the Galician press. As I suspected, there is little difference (a degree or so either way between Riazor and other beaches around A Coruña). Sure, the sea is slightly warmer down in the warmer Rías Baixas but Riazor is not the north of Scotland, nor does it have an Arctic microclimate!

On July 15, the sea temperature at Riazor was 20º, a degree warmer than nearby Barrañan or Doniños. The following day was the same with more distant Laxe also recording the same water temperature (20º) as A Coruña. I haven't kept a record of all the temperatures but this pattern has been similar for the last few weeks (give or take a degree either way). No doubt many Coruñeses will refuse to believe what they have been convinced of for so long, but the meteorological reports show it is no more than urban myth. If you still think the water is much colder there, it is merely because your head is telling you so.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Bonnie Betanzos

Betanzos (pictured*) was among Spain's top 12 most beautiful villages according to an internet poll conducted by an unnamed national magazine earlier this year. It's well worth a visit if you fancy a quiet day out near Coruña.

The top 12 was as follows:

1. Albarracin (Teruel)
2. La Alberca (Salamanca)
3. Cudillero (Asturias)
4. Aínsa (Huesca)
5. Arcos de la Frontera (Cádiz)
6. Ronda (Málaga)
7. Morella (Castellón)
8. Pedreza (Segovia)
9. Santillana del Mar (Cantabria)
10.Ansó (Huesca)
11.Besalú (Girona)
12.Betanzos (A Coruña)

*Pic by Galidonia©2009

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

A Tower of Strength

A few letters along the following lines appeared in the press in the week that the Tower of Hercules was awarded World Heritage status. This one is from the Xornal de Galicia:
Congratulations to the people of a Coruña and Galicia now that we have another World Heritage Site. It's about time our language had World Heritage status so that Feijóo does not appear on the scene to destroy it. Every attack he makes on our language is like removing a brick from our tower, our city walls or cathedral.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Another View from Galicia

The problem is that a child who studies only Spanish won't know Galician, but one that studies in Galician will know Spanish in any case. As studies show, the omnipresence of Spanish ensures children learn that language, while the scarcity of Galician means the same cannot be said in reverse. The aim is for children to acquire equal skills in both languages and this will not happen if a child is prevented from studying Galician. If some people are genuinely concerned about imposition, then they also need to talk to businesses, the media, etc., as they demand a bilingual system which respects everyone. They also need to talk to Galician speakers who are forced to consume almost all their products in Spanish.* Is this not imposition? But this is not a concern of course. Some just want to be free of Galician. I know of people who are pulled up at work for talking Galician, but I don't know of anybody who is reprimanded for talking Spanish at work.

P.A. A Coruña (letter to the Xornal, 17th June)

* I imagine this is a reference to food labelling, etc. which is mostly in Spanish. Although the supermarket chain Eroski, for instance, labels its own products in all four of Spain's official languages.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Inarticulate in Galician and Illiterate in Spanish?

This week I will be translating a series of letters that have appeared in the press recently about Galician. Today, two very contrasting viewpoints about young people and the education system….

Excerpt from letter to the Xornal de Galicia, 24th June

…I speak of my experiences as a teacher in Corunna city. In my high school at the moment, about 40-50% of studying is done in Galician with the remainder in Spanish. While dealing with the students on a daily basis, it concerns me that they are unable to string a few sentences in Galician together. They begin the sentence, stop short, think about it and then begin speaking again. They lack fluency and spontaneity while having no problem in Spanish. Furthermore, every single sentence of the little Galician they speak is badly articulated. If it’s not throwing in Spanish words (“ayer”, “bueno”, dibujo”) then it’s bad collocation of pronouns or use of compound tenses, e.g. habíamos feito instead of fixemos (note: compound tenses like the former are not used in Galician). If this happens in a school where 40% of content is in Galician, I shudder to think what it’s like in schools where less Galician is used, nor do I wish to dwell on what the future will be like under the newly proposed decree…

L.S. A Coruña

Galidonia comment: The writer goes on to say that for this reason more Galician rather than less needs to be taught in schools.

A Very Different Point of View, Letter from El País, 30th June

I think identifying members of Galicia Bilingüe with the right wing is totally inaccurate. I am an activist with a (non-nationalist) left wing party and agree with GB’s stance. I agree that our youngsters arrive at university barely knowing how to write in Spanish. Also I agree that in secondary education they teach how the Golden Age, the era of Lope de Vega and Quevedo, constitutes a dark chapter in Galician history. Furthermore I agree that diglossia exists and that Spanish will have to disappear so that this phenomenon does not occur. Of course the Galician language must be protected, and it is because a school subject with this name already exists and is compulsory in the final evaluation. But the idea of teaching all subjects in Galician, except the subject of Spanish, is going to lead to an abyss of unpredictable consequences which concerns parents of children of school age in Galicia regardless of our political views.

L.H.R. Pontevedra

Galidonia comment: If you were to take both letters at face value, you would be left with the impression that Galicia is producing a generation who are unable to speak Galician and are virtually illiterate in Spanish! I know some intelligent and literate young Galicians who are also very articulate in English, so can things really be half as bad as they are depicted here?

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Linguistic Success in Galicia?

Linguistic Success in Galicia?

According to a report in El País today (30th June), 90% of civil servants working for the Administración General del Estado (AGE) are bilingual in Galicia and Catalonia, compared to around 70% in Valencia, the Balearics and the Basque Country.

These are the conclusions of a report carried out by the AGE’s department for official languages itself. However, the Council of Europe is not entirely satisfied with those figures, and in a separate report last December, demanded that the AGE give more support to co-official languages, claiming there were weak areas in legal circles, postal and train services (RENFE).

The Age report admits that the security forces are the area most wanting, “well below 50%” due to their mobility. According to the AGE report “practically 100% of personnel in AGE services speak Galician (with only 40% of them defined as primarily Galician native speakers), compared to the second most successful area in this respect – Catalonia – where the figure is again said to be close to 100% in Girona and Lleida and around 85% in Barcelona and Tarragona.

I’m sure these statistics will be seriously questioned by Galician and Catalan language activists. From my point of view, this raises the question of what it actually means to speak Galician (or any other language for that matter) or to be bilingual. Are we talking about an ability and willingness to switch between both languages without any difficulty or is it something much more basic than that?

For instance, I could claim to speak French, Italian or Scottish Gaelic. I wouldn’t be lying as I have taken courses in these languages. However, this does not mean that I could comfortably hold a conversation with a native speaker in any of these languages. Far from it if the truth be told. In other words, it is very easy to say you speak a language or tick a box saying that you do but what this means is very subjective. I would seriously question the claim that close to 100% of civil servants in Galicia are bilingual in Galician as I think there are many who lack either/both the ability and willingness to do so.

Willingness to speak the language without reservations or feelings of superiority or inferiority issues is a major factor in my opinion – it is easy to say you can speak a language but if you have reservations about doing so, can you genuinely claim to be bilingual, proficient or even comfortable about speaking the said language in public or everyday situations?

In my experience, many people living in Galicia see Galician as inferior or at least secondary in terms of importance to Spanish; not to mention the view and general attitudes towards other languages of the State in monolingual parts of Spain.

With regard to printed material, the AGE claims “practically all” printed forms are bilingual (presumably meaning available in both languages?) in Galicia and the Basque Country, dropping to around 65% in Catalonia and Valencia. The Balearics figure is somewhere between the Catalan and Galician/Basque ones.

In terms of signposting, Galicia and the Basque Country again come out tops while ‘some deficiencies’ remain in Catalonia and the Balearics. Finally, Galician civil servants in the Tax Office and Social Security again come top of the table with “close to 100% being bilingual”.

As I’ve alluded to, from the point of view of living in A Coruña, I find many of these figures surprising and basically hard to believe. I also spent a few years living in northern areas of Catalonia. In my experience, I encountered more confident attitudes in terms of both the importance/prestige of Catalan and ability to speak it, particularly among younger natives. However, I am not blind to the fact that I may well have a totally different perspective had I lived in L'Hospitalet and Padrón rather than Vic, Girona and A Coruña.

What do readers of this blog think? Comments are welcome in English, Galician, Catalan or Spanish. (I would include Basque if I could read/translate it. Sorry!)

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Language, Social Conflict & War

The Galician language departments at A Coruña, Vigo and Santiago Universities have written to the president of the Xunta expressing their concern at the linguistic measures taken by Feijóo's government. They accuse the Executive of legislating against the country's language without even bothering to consult powers that be outside Galicia.

A Coruña's language department (of Galician, Portuguese and French) claims Feijóo's Xunta is "giving citizens the impression that the Galician language is neither necessary nor useful", adding that "the Xunta has created a new social conflict with measures that are bound to lead to an increase in those lacking competence in Galician".

Source of the above - Galician Supplement in El País

Meanwhile, Anxo Lorenzo, the General Secretary of Linguistic Policy, has stated that, "there is not, and never has been, a 'linguistic war', no matter much radicals and extremists of one type or another want to claim this is the case".

Thursday, June 18, 2009

What's in a Word?

Under the new PP administration there will be no "Galescolas" (Galician nursery schools) and no "national library" at Monte Gaiás. It is interesting that many (often on the political right) are quick to condemn name changes as "political correctness" (something I actually begin to doubt the existence of but that's another story). Yet, they seem just as willing to do the same when it suits their agenda. What next? Patacas do país to be renamed "regional potatoes" perhaps?

Friday, June 5, 2009

Saramago & Rivas

José Saramago was in A Coruña on Wednesday evening to share his ideas on writing and memory. The Portuguese author said that when in Galicia he was never sure whether to talk in Portuguese or Spanish. So he gave the audience the choice. After a mixed reception he proceeded to speak in Portuguese before changing over into Spanish at some point in the talk.

In my view, this is true bilingualism at work - a willingness to use both languages without reservations or prejudices.

Saramago shared the stage with Manuel Rivas. While Saramago went into his theories about literature, the Galician author opted instead for a series of entertaining anecdotes and stories based on his upbringing in A Coruña.

A few days prior to this event, Rivas gave his views on the future possible segregation of Galician pupils on linguistic grounds. Rivas believes this is a "very serious problem based on ignorance" and "a waste of time" which will result in anti-Galicia". The author added that "it is dangerous and worrying that important politicians and instititions hold fanatical and fundamentalist ideas from a pre-constitutional past".

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Demonstration in Santiago

Supporters of the Galician language gathered in the Plaza de Obradoiro on Sunday to protest against the PP's proposed education changes. The Police estimated 20,000 were on the march while A Mesa pola Normalización Lingüística (Standardisation board) who organised the event, said the number was over 50,000.

Silvia Pontevedra, writing in El País, claims it is common knowledge that the square holds around 15,000 and that it was filled twice over. Whatever the case, the Galician president Feijóo claims language is not about numbers and reiterated that imposing a language carries risks.

PSdeG (the Galician branch of Spain's governing socialist party) claim that Feijóo and his new Xunta are the real threat to the Galician language.

Among the demonstators, according to El País, were defenders of the national "reunificão" of Galicia and Portugal, member of teaching and farming unions, student collectives, cultural groups and some political groups who counter-demonstrated against the march organised by Galicia Bilingüe in Santiago in February.

Gloria Lago, president of Galicia Bilingüe said that it is very sad that people want to demonstrate to curb the freedom of their fellow citizens and that this is a manifestation of linguistic intolerance.

What is Galicia Bilingüe?

According to the organisation it is a non-profit making organisation whose principal aim is to defend the rights of parents (or indeed students) to choose the language they are to be educated in, and generally to grant citizens the right to choose which of the two official languages (Spanish or Galician) the governmental bodies communicate with them in.

However, the organisation's detractors see Galicia Bilingüe as little more than a thinly veiled smokescreen created or backed by the new PP led Xunta in order to further marginalise the Galician language, and to re-establish or strengthen the role of Spanish as the main language in the education system and other walks of life.

Intolerance and Imposition

There is a lot of talk about linguistic intolerance and language imposition in Galicia at the moment. Some believe that it is Galician that is being imposed upon Spanish speakers, while others believe that Spanish is still the dominant language and that Galician needs to be defended and given more support. Whatever the case, it is clear that if the PP proposals to reduce compulsory Galician to only one third of teaching time materialise, then Spanish will be the predominant language in the classroom as the planning and knowhow is not in place to give English a significant role in a plurilingual education system.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Education Policy

The new PP administration has suggested reducing subjects taught in Galician to a third of the school syllabus with 66% being taught in Spanish and English and with parents having some input into the process. The 2007 decree legislated that (at least) 50% of subjects be taught in Galician.

The PP election manifesto stated that parents should be allowed to choose the language their children are taught in, but how that is to work in practice is anybody's guess. Since when were parents responsible for deciding education policy?Will provision be made for those parents who would prefer their children to have a Galician-based education? What part will English play in this and are students and teachers up to the task?

The whole issue provides more questions than answers at the moment.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

What a Load of Bull!

The Encyclopedia Britannica has made a major boob by featuring a photo of “Juli”, a bullfighter from Madrid, on its Galician webpage. Although the photo was taken in the bullring in Pontevedra, it is very misleading to present this as a typical image of Galicia. Only a handful of bullfights take place in Galicia each year. It is one of the parts of Spain where the activity is least popular.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Galician and the G-20

I read with interest a short piece in the Xornal de Galicia today, entitled G-20 lingüístico. The writer, Fernando Ojea points out that it was odd that the leader of the world’s most spoken first language, Hu Jintao of China, could not speak with any other world leader at the recent G-20 in his own language. That's assuming the others don’t know Mandarin, of course.

Meanwhile, Zapatero (Spain) could talk freely with Calderón (Mexico) and Fernández (Argentina). At least four leaders at the summit, Obama (US), Brown (UK), Harper (Canada) and Rudd (Australia) could have a cosy chat. I’d also assume that the leaders of India and South Africa, where English is official, would have no problem joining in. Neither would too many others I guess – Zapatero excepted.

Lula of Brazil could talk shop directly with Barroso (the Portuguese PM and president of the European Commission). Ojea points out that this means a Galician speaker could have direct communication with five of these leaders, while a monolingual Spanish speaker would be limited to three. Ojea emphasises that “Galician is not the same as Portuguese” (this can be debated till the cows come home), but it allows for easy communication in its sister language. It is worth noting here, that representatives in the European Parliament can use Galician as it is accepted there orally as a form of Portuguese.

This brings me to a recent blog manifesto called O galego é útil (Galician is useful). It claims to be a-political and aims to promote the idea that knowledge of Galician makes it easier to learn other languages, as well as allowing for relatively easy communication with approximately 200 million native Portuguese speakers around the world.

Finally Ojea goes on to suggest that Portuguese should be the second foreign language taught in Galician schools and that if Galicians can master English, then they have the world at their feet. Indeed, it is very satisfying (if a little hypothetical) to think with my own knowledge of English, Spanish, Galician and Portuguese, that I could communicate with around half of the leaders at the G-20 in their native language.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Galician in Serious Decline?

A study carried out by the Real Academia Galega (an instititution dedicated to the study of Galician language and culture) and funded by the Xunta (Galician govt.), claims that Galician has gone from being the main language used by around 60% of the Galician population to only 20% in just twelve years.

Although the results of the study have just been released, it covers the period between 1992 and 2004. It is claimed that the study is the most extensive sociolinguistic analysis carried out in a Romance language in terms of the number of people interviewed.

According to Carlos Callón, the president of the Mesa pola Normalización Lingüística(Linguistic Standardisation Board): "Galician has never been in a worse situation than it is today."

The study also finds that in this twelve year period, the number of people who never speak Galician has risen from 13% to just over a quarter of the population. Meanwhile those who use Galician as their first language has dropped from 30.5% to 16%.

The study found that those who define themselves as bilingual tend to use more Spanish. According to Callón, this shows that “there isn’t bilingualism” but “an unequal diglossic situation”. It was also found that 85% of subjects were taught in Spanish and that 11% of under-18’s who had always lived in Galicia claimed they were only given classes in Spanish.

The study confirmed what is already known - that Galician continues to be more associated with rural areas. Ferrol was the most Spanish-speaking city (85% of the population) with Vigo and A Coruña not far behind (both 81.9%). Santiago and Lugo were the most Galician-speaking cities with (41.9%) and (40.5%) respectively, opting for Galician.

The findings of the study have been questioned for reasons, such as a disproportionate number of city dwellers being interviewed and the fact that people over 54 years of age were not included in the survey this time.

Compiled from articles in the Xornal de Galicia and El País in March 2009

Thursday, March 12, 2009

More on Immigration

There may still be a lot less immigration than in other parts of Spain but the number of foreigners in Galicia has multiplied by 500% in only ten years. Romanians are now the fifth most numerous group after their numbers increased by 80% in the last year.

Country of origin and amount: Portugal 17,175; Brazil 10,643; Columbia 8,353; Argentina 6,100; Uruguay 4,787; Morocco 4,305; Venezuela 4,217; Peru 2,764; Dominican Rep. 2,705; Cuba 2,124; France 1,703; China 1,551; UK 1,501.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Rosalía in Japanese

A translation of one of the key works of the Galician literary renaissance, Cantares gallegos by Rosalía de Castro, has been published in a Japanese-Galician bilingual edition by DTP publishing in Tokyo. It is the work of Takekazu Asaka, who was in Santiago on Tuesday to promote the book. Mr Asaka has previously transalted Lorca's published translations of Lorca's Poemas galegos into his native language, as well as works by Castelao, Pondal, Pardo Bazán and Fernández Flórez. This new edition expands on Asaka's previous translations of Rosalía's poems.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Did You Know...?

The overseas vote is crucial in today's Galician election. Over 335,000 people living abroad have the right to vote. That's more than the population of Vigo, Galicia's largest city. They represent 12.7% of the total number on the electoral roll. The highest number of foreign-based potential voters is in Argentina, where over 120,000 Galicians (or their descendents) can exercise their right.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Use of Galician Today

The figures below show that Galician is the main language in the education system today – until university level when there is a dramatic shift towards Spanish. Although Galician is the language most frequently used for communications and public information notices in universities, only 28% of lecturers use Galician orally or distribute class handouts in the language of the region.

One reason for this is that the linguistic policies of the Xunta (Galician government) focus on compulsory education. But the predominance of Spanish in urban areas where universities are situated is another factor. Although most primary school children in the region use Galician as a first language the opposite is the case in the seven largest cities (Vigo, A Coruña, Ourense, Santiago, Lugo, Pontevedra and Ferrol) where 72% of primary school children principally speak Spanish. Just over 40% of secondary school teachers in these urban areas prefer to use Spanish at work, while in the region as a whole over 72% opt for Galician.

Only 6.5% of parents are opposed to the use of Galician in the classroom, while around 19% are indifferent and 74% in favour. The majority of parents believe the use of Galician in schools will not increase in the coming years and that the amount of Galician already used is enough.

Language Used

Nursery: Students Teachers
Sp 43.3% 29.4%
Ga 56.7% 70.6%

Primary: Students Teachers
Sp 36.8% 23.2%
Ga 63.2% 76.8%

Secondary: Students Teachers
Sp 42.2 32.1
Ga 57.8 67.9

University: Students Teachers
Sp 71.4 75.8
Ga 28.6 24.2

Galician in the Workplace

In health centres, the public is attended to mainly in Galician (63%); while in contrast, Spanish predominates in 54% of dialogues with the system’s users. The majority of GP’s opt for Spanish in their work with only 31% opting for the use of Galician with their patients. In hospitals this figure drops to 26%.

78% of Xunta staff use Galician in the workplace where 95% of documentation is written in the regional language. However, 4 out of 10 civil servants attend to the public in Spanish.

57% of calls to the Policía Nacional were answered in Spanish and 49% of conversations with the public were conducted in Spanish. 64% of the Guardia Civil speak Galician although 97% write in Spanish.

In other areas, Galician continues to lag behind. In the court system, 66% of judges and other courtroom staff use Spanish with the public and 86% of courtroom documentation is in Spanish. At the tax office, Galician documentation is an even rarer sight with only 9% of texts written in the language of the region.

Info taken from La Voz, 7th Jan, 2009. Statistics from the Galician Language Observatory created by the Secretaria Xeral de Política Lingüística.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Is Galicia Spain?

47.8% of Galicians feel as much Spanish as Galician. 22% feel more Galician than Spanish. 8% feel Galician only.

Survey carried out and published by La Voz de Galicia, January '09. No explanation given as to what the remainder of those surveyed thought.