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Donna Gee - Spain's Grumpy Old Gran


Why UK schools are way behind Europe in anyone's language
03 December 2010 @ 21:16



The Empire has long gone, so how come so many of us remain convinced that British ideas are the best? And that anything Johnny Foreigner thinks up can’t  be any good?

The reality is that we can learn so much from the lead of other European nations. A simple and obvious one here in Spain is the central filter lane that allows traffic to turn left on to busy highways without blocking traffic on the main road.

But since the UK authorities didn’t think up the idea themselves, such filter lanes don’t seem to exist in Britain. Which is why you often see traffic clogged up by a lone vehicle trying vainly to get onto the opposite side of a main carriageway.

But nowhere is our rejection of superior European logic better demonstrated than in the pathetic attitude of British educationalists towards teaching children foreign languages.

The penny is finally beginning to drop, half a century after the rest of Europe showed us the way - and we chose to think we knew better.

While primary school kids in Holland, Scandinavia, Germany and France and Spain were being taught English from virtually the moment they started school, know-all British educationalists were fearful of causing confusion. Secondary school, they reasoned, was the time to begin – at a point when children have in fact passed the age when their sponge-like brains are able to become truly fluent in foreign languages.

In reality, young children do not become confused if introduced to an alien tongue. Indeed, they not only have the most amazing ability to absorb the complexities of language, but can learn a foreign one in a matter of months.

And so brilliant is their ability to mimic that even native speakers have no idea that they are in fact foreigners.

I was staggered when my six-year-old granddaughter suddenly started counting in Spanish – with a Mexican accent. At the time she’d never even been to Spain, let alone Mexico. She’d merely been watching Dora the Explorer on TV, and was mimicking what she heard.

To me, it was merely evidence of what I and many others have known for many years – that the BEST time to start teaching children another language is when they are toddlers. Or at least by the time they begin junior school.

Research by international linguistic experts has found that if children are introduced to a second language by the age of six or seven, they can achieve native-like proficiency. In other words, young children’s innate mimicry skills enables expat British five and six-year-olds to pick up Spanish to a level undistinguishable from the natives.

Many expat parents will vouch for that. Beautician Cath Munz moved to Orihuela Costa from Blackburn with her husband and family when children Bradley and Abigail were five and four respectively.

Both youngsters achieved fluency in Spanish within 12 to 18 months, without in any way compromising their English-language skills. Cath’s experience emphasises the folly of  the traditional UK system which keeps foreign languages off most school timetables until secondary school.

For all the talk of educational advancement, until now little seems to have changed in Britain since my own schooldays half a century ago. I was taught French and Latin – but only from the age of 12. And that, according to the linguistic experts, is much too late for most children to achieve real fluency.

Instead, those of us who choose to leave our native country as mature adults face years of studying and frustration in order to master the local tongue to an acceptable level.

More often we end up being accused of laziness because we have neither the time nor inclination to spend hundreds of hours trying to soak up masses of alien gibberish when most of the natives speak English anyway.

Still, I can assure the tiny minority who do pursue the dream of speaking Spanish properly that the rewards are immense. Among the  pupils in the three-hours-a-week class I attend at the Berlingua School of Languages in Quesada are five different nationalities – and that doesn’t include the lone Spaniard, our teacher Jose Perez.

The class includes two young women, a Russian and a Hungarian, who don’t speak English. Yet the mere fact we can chat together when we don’t speak each other’s language is something truly special.

But I’d happily have done without that special experience if only Spanish – or indeed any other foreign language - had been on the junior school curriculum in my hometown Cardiff way back in the 1960s.

Published in Female Focus magazine, 2010 

Teacher Jose Perez (centre) with some of my classmates at Berlingua School of languages

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Roberto said:
03 December 2010 @ 21:43

Great article, and I agree wholeheartedly with the majority of it, at least with the main point, i.e. kids can soak up a foreign language better the sooner they start, but as a journalist, I do wonder where you get your info from ? "While primary school kids in Holland, Scandinavia, Germany, France and Spain were being taught English from virtually the moment they started school...." Very true of virtually every country EXCEPT Spain. It's a well known fact that until very recently, there was no real emphasis at all placed on learning English, and where it was taught, it was done so by non-native speakers with a very poor command of the language themselves. It's also well recorded that Spain's PM is the only one in Europe who doesn't speak or understand English. Nowhere in your article did I find any justification for the title "Why UK schools are way behind Spain in anyone's language". True, foreign language teaching is a low priority in the UK, but it has been in Spain too, and there's a strong argument that the need for Spanish kids to learn English, which all but the most deluded would agree is the de facto International language, is far greater than the need for British kids to learn - well, what? Spanish? Chinese? Arabic?
As I said, great article, but the title needs changing because it's simply wrong, and also nothing to do with the rest of the text.

Donna Gee said:
03 December 2010 @ 22:55

I hold my hands up, Roberto - I generalised my thoughts based on a British rationale rather than looking at each country's education set-up individually. Having said that, I think it's fair to say there have always been many more Spaniards who speak English than vice versa - perhaps, as you say, because they need it more. Anyway, thank you for enlightening me - I'm off to change the headline!

Roberto said:
04 December 2010 @ 13:28

Hey, no problemo! Sorry if I seemed a bit picky, but it's a constant amazement to me that so relatively few Spaniards do speak English, given that there has been mass tourism from the UK & Ireland for over half a century now, accounting for a massive part of the economy. Also, that in other Latin countries such as Italy & Portugal, NOBODY understands if you try speaking to them in Spanish, but EVERYBODY, it seems, speaks very good English. Hence my flabber is always gasted when anyone suggests that Spanish is as important as English. It's not.
Anyway, apart from that, I loved your piece! I recently came across another excellent, albeit rather lengthy, article on a similar vein which you may enjoy:

Sue said:
05 December 2010 @ 18:47

For once, I have to disagree with Roberto. It is true that the older generation living here in Jumilla didn't learn English when they were younger - I think most of them learnt French at school, as did John and !! However most children are learning English at primary school, as we know by the number of young children who call out "Hello", "How are you?" and "What time is it?" as we pass them in the street. We have heard a four year old reciting colours in English: azul - blue, amarillo - yellow etc. Teenagers often address us in English, though many people in their 20s have said that they learnt English at school but have now forgotten it as they don't have a chance to practise. My question is: how many English people who knew they had Spanish neighbours would be able to say something in English? Here, no matter how limited their English is, we find people will say "Hello" or "Goodbye" or something similar to us on a daily basis.


Roberto said:
05 December 2010 @ 20:10

I did say "until very recently..." Fortunately (for future Spanish generations) things are now changing, but the fact remains for now that the vast majority of Spanish kids are limited to calling out "hello Johnny" or equivalent, whilst their counterparts in Germany or Scandinavia (for example) have for many years been able to give you complex directions and probably discuss the economic crisis or some such, despite having far less opportunities to practice speaking to foreign visitors.

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