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.