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?

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