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.

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