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Showing posts with label multilingualism. Show all posts
Showing posts with label multilingualism. Show all posts

Monday, September 5, 2011

The Foreign Community Speaks English

I always have a stack of newspapers beside the bed for night time reading, and last night just before I dropped off I was reading the latest Spaniaposten, a Norwegian bi-weekly. The article that caught my eye was a short one reporting on another article from the regional (Valenciano) newspaper Información. The subject was the large foreign (non-Spanish) population on the coast immediately south of Torrevieja and the fact that English is the predominant language. It was an interesting article and I will offer my translation from the Norwegian:

The large number of foreigners who live here and their lack of interest in learning Spanish have changed many areas in Vega Baja, especially Orihuela Costa, to more of an English colony than a Spanish area.

So begins an article in the regional newspaper Información. Almost 30,000 foreigners are registered as resident in this area a little south of Torrevieja.

The largest group is the British, followed by Irish and Germans. Scandinavians also make up a large part of the immigrants and vacationers on this part of the coast.

The Spanish paper writes that immigrants integrate themselves here only to a small degree. The majority of foreigners create their own colonies, shopping in stores managed by their own countrymen where they can speak their own language, and they have little interest in learning Spanish as long as the foreign community can communicate among themselves in English.

Local businesses use English to attract vacationers and residents from many of the large developments found in the area. Información writes that the area is full of "supermarkets," "grocery shops," "restaurants," and "irish pubs." [sic] Few establishments use Spanish to advertise their specials. The lack of use of Spanish in the area has made it almost obligatory to be able to speak English in order to get a job in the area, the paper goes on to say.
That is (my translation of) the article in Norwegian describing the Spanish article for its own readers (there are thousands of Norwegians along the entire Costa Blanca, plus many Swedes and Danes, and the odd non-Scandinavian person who can understand one of those languages). My reading suggests that the Norwegian article was offered without judgment or comment.

This morning I decided to find the original Spanish article and see whether it was equally non-judgmental.
Spaniaposten did a good reporting job, I think, but the original article was longer and had a few other tidbits.

To begin with, I like the Spanish title and lead:

With an English Accent
Tourists and residents along the coast of Orihuela hardly know what Spanish is.

The article goes on to say that Orihuela Costa is a small piece of Europe, but more international than many European capitals. In addition to what was reported in Spaniaposten, the original focuses on the need for Spaniards to learn other languages--English at the least--in order to get any job dealing with the public and mentions that a media explosion of periodicals, websites, and radio in several languages is burgeoning. Finally--and one wonders why Spaniaposten does not mention it--several lines were devoted to describing free Spanish courses starting in mid-September in the town of Pilar de la Horadada, on a basic and intermediate level, to promote "faster integration."

Well, integration may be beyond the range of possibilities, but it's obvious that many municipalities are stretching themselves to offer language courses to expose foreigners to even a little Spanish. We don't live on Orihuela Costa, but we live within a half hour of it, and there are probably nearly as many foreigners in our inland area. I'm still waiting to hear from my town about when this fall's language classes will start, even though they are not free. It is true that one has to work to expose oneself to native Spanish-speakers in this part of Spain. A "peculiar situation,"indeed, as Información calls it.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

The Spanish Constitution

Last Sunday (December 6) was Constitution Day in Spain, but I didn't read the newspaper until Monday. So I didn't know until later that a whopping 84% of Spaniards believe that their constitution needs reform.

And it's only 31 years old!

To be fair, not everyone thinks the constitution needs a total overhaul. According to the poll, 65% believe that some fine-tuning would be sufficient to improve the law, while 26% want a complete reformation. But even though 69% say that the Constitution represents the ideas of all (and not any given political party or ideology), only 12% think it is good as it stands.

So what needs fine-tuning?

70% would like to regulate the use of co-official languages in the autonomous regions.
61% would like to give legal immigrants the right to vote in all elections.
51% would like to eliminate references giving special attention to the Catholic Church.
51% would like to eliminate the distinction between nationalities and regions.

Some of this is difficult for a foreigner to understand, but it is related to the fact that a recent controversial statute has used the term "nation" in regards to the autonomous region of Cataluña. A related question in the survey asked, "Do you believe that Cataluña is really a nation?" and 79% of all Spanish respondents opined that it is not. Of Catalans, 54% believe that their region is a nation, while 42% do not. And regarding the question of whether public organizations and businesses in Cataluña should use Catalan and Spanish equally, the majority say yes. But there is a marked difference in the numbers: 82% of Catalans believe that Spanish and Catalan should be used equally in public affairs, while only 58% of those living in other parts of Spain believe so.

It seems to me that most Spaniards are more than willing to share their country and its governance with the mass of foreigners now living here legally, and that they want to legitimize linguistic diversity throughout the country, while retaining a common language.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Multilingual Spain

Suddenly I found myself missing a piece of a tooth this past week, so I stopped in at the nearest dentist's office on Thursday morning. This dentist had been recommended by some Danish friends, who said she was Swedish. So we spoke Scandinavian as we made an apppointment for the following afternoon. Most Danes and Swedes can understand each other if they speak their own language and listen carefully. Since I'm not a native speaker of Danish, I listened very carefully, and we slid over to English to discuss payment and estimated price, as there was a sign (only in Spanish) saying that credit cards were not accepted.

Friday afternoon I arrived in the office five minutes early and was greeted by a Spanish-speaking hygienist/receptionist, who promptly asked me, in English, to fill out a form. I sat with one other woman for fifteen minutes, reading a British edition of Good Housekeeping. It turned out that the other woman was waiting for her husband, who eventually appeared with my dentist, and the three chatted rapidly in French about dogs and cats. When that patient was dismissed, I was asked, in Spanish, to come up to a treatment room. My dentist kept up a running conversation with the hygienist in Spanish throughout the entire filling replacement, only breaking into English to chide me about not flossing enough, and into Rumanian to talk with her daughter on the phone--it turns out that the Swedish dentist had emigrated from Rumania to Sweden at a young age.

The hygienist/receptionist showed me down to the office and accepted payment, and we made an appointment for X-rays in a couple weeks--in a mixture of Spanish and English. I still had a half hour before I would be picked up by my Danish escort, so I walked over to the notions store to look for some cava glasses, and listened to the two shopkeepers chattering in Chinese to a background of English Costa radio, and then to Lidl for a few items for supper, and overheard several Germans doing their weekend shopping.

Monday, November 2, 2009

A World in Barcelona

As I rode comfortably in the Renfe EuroMed train from Alicante north toward Barcelona last Wednesday morning, I had a sudden moment of panic that I had forgotten to bring my passport. I was off to a meeting of the Mediterranean Editors and Translators (MET), which brought together about one hundred skilled language professionals from many countries around the Mediterranean Sea and further inland in Europe, so I was naturally thinking of international travel. Then, too, usually when I travel professionally, I am going abroad. This would be the first professional conference that I have attended in Spain.

And then I remembered that Barcelona was indeed in Spain and I didn't need a passport. Until I got to the meeting, that is, and started talking with the other attendees. "Ah, so you also live in Spain," I remarked to one with whom I had struck up a conversation. "No," she answered, "I live in Barcelona."

Barcelona is the capital of Catalonia, one of the 17 autonomous regions that comprise modern Spain. Catalonia has special historic status within Spain's 1978 Constitution. Both Catalan and Spanish are official languages. Signs and public announcements appear most often in Catalan first, then Spanish, and then English, though the cosmopolitan city of Barcelona usually defaults to English as the first language of speaking to tourists and unknown persons--the gentleman who received us in our hotel declined to speak Spanish with us, preferring English.

We had a delightful four days mixed with sight-seeing, professional presentations, delicious food, and fascinating conversations, and returned from the big city by train late Sunday evening full of impressions. I did indeed feel as though I had traveled the world in Barcelona.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

¡Sí, Voy a Hablar Español!

I know my family and friends are probably tired of hearing me say that I don't speak Spanish very well, and they may even be wondering whether I ever will, after living in Spain for about five years. The truth is that I have studied the language in formal classes for most of the months that I have been here. I understand a lot of the Spanish that I read in the newspapers and magazines, brochures, signs, and even some books. I can ask questions and usually understand the answer, at least well enough to phrase a follow-up question or confirmation sentence. I have written letters and essays in Spanish about various trips and visits, the production of maple syrup in New England, Google Book Search, and Hans Christian Andersen's nineteenth-century visit to Barcelona (translating from the Danish).

When it comes to speaking, however, I am very reticent. I am naturally shy, I can't think fast enough to find the proper words and phrases, I tend to get confused and frustrated if the slightest thing goes wrong, and I am now living in such a multinational (read that as English-speaking) area that I don't need to speak Spanish very often. But I am still determined to study the language and continue classes, and as soon as September approached, I was on the lookout for classes in my new neighborhood.

I haven't been very lucky. The municipal classes that were advertised as starting in October have yet to materialize. The teacher I accosted between two beginner classes in the neighboring town promised to call me about a more advanced class, but I have yet to hear from her. The Danish club arranged for beginner and intermediate classes for its members, but the last thing I thought I needed was to learn Spanish through Danish explanations and especially grammar--which I don't know anyway.

I have been successful, though, in arranging private classes with the Danish instructor of those group classes, and we had our first meeting this week. And I think I was wrong to think that it's always better to learn a language from a native speaker of that language. All my previous teachers (seven of them since I've been in Spain) have been native Spanish, and I've "learned," or at least been taught, just about everything--through a grammar-based approach. Now this teacher has become comfortable enough to speak and teach the language after living in Spain for a decade. The most important thing, she says, is to speak it! Almost immediately she gave me "permission" to ignore the differences between the two past tenses, and to forget about using the future tense--"use 'I am going to' to indicate future action," she says. After all, Spaniards speak fast, and if you stutter around trying to figure out which past tense to use (or whether you should use subjunctive or indicative, I add to myself) they will have walked away by the time you get the perfectly correct word out of your mouth!

I think she is on to something. I will continue my classes with her, and I am going to speak Spanish!

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Spring Flowers

A few weeks ago I passed by an open garden gate and was surprised to see a courtyard full of blooming daffodils. Spring flowers that were traditional in my North American growing up years--primarily daffodils and tulips--are rare here, as the winters along the southern costas of Spain do not get cold enough to properly "set" the bulbs. As a matter of fact, I was surprised to see flower bulbs on sale at all the first year I was in Spain. So the sight of a mass of 50 or more daffodils that must have been carefully and individually planted was an unexpected early spring pleasure.

There are spring flowers in Spain, just as there are distinct seasons. The flowers are just different from the ones I was used to while growing up in Ohio or living in New England. First we have the almond blossoms, which I almost missed this year, being away in the States until mid-February. But drives across country and walks along hilly trails in the past few weeks have always presented gorgeous profusions of yellow wildflowers. There are several different kinds, all of which are unknown to me, including one which looks almost like a dandelion, and another like a buttercup, but they aren't either of those. Today, while biking through Roquetas on yet another new bike path along the Mediterranean, I stopped in my tracks when I saw this display of naturalized yellow miniature blooms popping their heads up over the blades of grass in a small park--grass itself being a rather unusual form of greenery in this area.

My favorite spring plants, though, are the low borders of green succulents along the sea promenade, that suddenly spring forth with round magenta flowers each March. We watched one of the promenades being built, and the green succulent leaves served as a ground cover during the winter. Only a few flowers blossomed the first year, but each spring since, there have been more and more, so now it sometimes appears as a magenta carpet over the entire area. Danish friends told me these are middagsblomster, and a German friend verified that in Germany they are mittagsblume. But I've never been able to find either the Spanish or the English name. Now, after leafing unsuccessfully through two Spanish flower books with pictures, I found a lovely multilingual site on the Internet, Biopix. Clicking the Spanish flag produces two imaginative names for this plant: diente de dragón (dragon's tooth) and flor de cuchillo (knife plant). The individual succulent leaves could certainly be regarded as the long teeth of a dragon. But the British flag reveals two surprising and unjust names, I think: giant pigface, and Hottentot fig. The Latin name is neutral: Carpobrotus acinaciformis. I think I would prefer to remember dientes de dragón.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

English First? English Only?

I was saddened this Sunday in Spain upon reading the New York Times story about Eric Crafton's efforts to prohibit Nashville city government workers from using any language other than English.

I am lucky to be living in a country that welcomes its many foreign visitors and residents and makes some effort to communicate with them in languages other than Spanish only. It is not unusual for me, as a foreigner, to be replied to in English in the supermarket, the bank, restaurants, and hotels. Younger people especially tell me the cost of my groceries in Spanish and then automatically convert the sum to English to speed up the transaction. Not everyone knows English, in fact, it is not even wide-spread. English was prohibited under the Franco regime, so few people middle-aged or older understand or dare speak it.

Of course I've been studying Spanish since I first came to Spain in 2003. Within a week I was hunting for the free evening Spanish-for-foreigners course sponsored by the local government in Roquetas, where we had settled. I didn't take that one, but I started a series of private classes and have since studied with other foreigners in three different schools, usually taking two classes a week. I'm motivated to learn, and I've put a lot of time and money into it. I'm not perfect in Spanish, and I never will be. But I can make myself understood, as long as anyone cares to try to understand me, and as long as I don't get too stressed about it.

But it's pretty easy to get stressed when you are trying to do complicated or bureaucratic things in an environment that is not native to you. Right now I'm working on getting a driver's license, and though I think I'll eventually be able to pass the theoretical test in Spanish, I'm more than a little worried about what will happen if I don't understand the tester's directions or accent when I'm in the middle of the practical test. So even though I don't plan to take advantage of it, I appreciate the fact that a neighboring province offers driver's tests in English as well as Spanish.

My husband, who grew up speaking Spanish in South America, frequently accompanies English and Danish people who have chosen to make their winter or full-year home in Spain, when they need to go for medical appointments or to government offices. Even if you are working hard to learn the native language, the idiom spoken when you need to purchase a house, pay a water bill, inquire about taxes, register a car or a pet, request a no-parking notice, report a theft, ask about a local charity, or purchase a cemetery plot can easily go beyond what you as a new Spanish speaker are sure you understand.

We have now lived in two different towns, in two different provinces, in Spain. Both Roquetas (Almería) and Torrevieja (Alicante) use municipal funds to offer Spanish courses. A year ago Roquetas issued a handbook of the law in six foreign languages for its immigrant populations. In Torrevieja recently, when we stopped to assist an English couple who had been in a minor traffic accident, the police who responded were able to use a few words of English to clarify the facts and send the couple on their way for a medical check-up. Being met in this fashion in English--as tentative and infrequent as it is--is not expected by most of the foreign population in Spain, but it is appreciated.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Mar de Lenguas - The Sea of Languages

The language most commonly spoken in Mallorca is Mallorquin, a version of Catalan, which is itself one of Spain's four official languages. While in Palma one rainy morning, we went to see a traveling exhibition called (in English) The Sea of Languages: Speaking in the Mediterranean.

I was astonished at how many languages are spoken in the large area that surrounds the Mediterranean Sea--24, according to the official brochure, and that includes several that you have probably never heard of. Those spoken by more than ten million inhabitants of the Mediterranean area are Tamazighi/Berber (20 million), Arabic (152 million), Spanish (31 million), French (70 million), Greek (11 million), Italian (55 million), Romanian (23 million), Serbo-Croatian (17 million), and Turkish (56 million).

Catalan has only 9 million speakers and is the official language of Andorra and a co-official language in the Spanish regions of Catalonia, Valencia, and the Balearic Islands. Catalan has been spoken in Catalonia since the 8th century and spread to outlying areas through the conquests of King Jaume I in the 13th century. It began to lose dominance to Spanish in the 16th century but began a resurgence in the late 19th century. The use of Catalan is a political issue (also evidenced recently when the Frankfurt Book Fair honored Catalan in 2007), but politics was light and culture predominated in this exhibition.

It was fortunate for me that the numerous interactive exhibit posts were available in Spanish and English in addition to Catalan, though it is amazing how much can be understood from the written Catalan if you also know a couple other Romance languages. In addition to the political and linguistic map of the Mediterranean (seen above), the other highlight was a large three-screen video of young people talking in and about their multiple languages. The assumption of these youths was that they would speak several languages in various situations throughout their lives.

If a language is spoken by children, went the theme, it will survive. Also necessary for survival: radio, TV, the Internet. Not a word about books. But I do think they were talking about spoken languages, not necessarily written languages. Of course, some might argue that a language is not a language without some form of written expression.

The exhibit was prepared by Linguamón--House of Languages, a body of the government of Catalonia that aims to promote the world's languages (plural) as a
  • vehicle for communication, civilisation and dialogue
  • source of personal development, human creativity and heritage of mankind
  • right of individuals and of linguistic communities.