Late last winter, when there seemed to be a question as to whether Spring was actually going to arrive here in Minnesota, a friend called to ask if I would be interested in a visit to the south of Spain this October. Absolutely! I didn’t even have to think about it. I just started saving, signed up for Spanish lessons with Mary Kaye Perrin, and got out the guide books and maps.
We decided to confine our trip to Barcelona, Seville, Córdoba and Granada. Two weeks before I was to fly out, I happened to be at a gathering at Prairie Island where I ran into Howard and Tess Kruger, and their daughter Sarah. I mentioned I would be going to Spain, and discovered that Sarah lives in Barcelona. She is doing graduate work in political science there, and also teaching. Her husband, Javi, is a judge. We made plans to meet for lunch when I arrived there.
Barcelona is the capital of Catalunya (Cataluńa in Spanish, Catalonia in English), an area that is an economic driver of the Spanish economy, and has been variously independent or under the rule of Spanish kings and dictators. During Franco’s rule, the Catalan language and many of its institutions were banned.
However, since the mid-seventies, Catalunya has mounted a strong bid for independence, and will hold a referendum in 2014 for independence from Spain. Everywhere, flags striped with the red and yellow of the Spanish flag, but showing a single star, fly from windows and balconies, representing independence for Catalunya. According to some in Catalunya, the people there are tired of being the bank for the rest of Spain, a country which is languishing in the European Union.
All the road and directional signs in Barcelona and the surrounding communities are printed in three languages. On the top is Catalan, followed by Spanish, and then English. The Catalans, in their bid for status as an independent country, and most likely a reaction to centuries of outside rulers banning their language, have decided that only Catalan will be taught in school. No Spanish.
English, however, is everywhere. In the subways, on the backs of buses, on the sides of buildings, huge posters exclaim, “Learn English!” “Can you speak English?”
We encountered many, many tourists in Barcelona at the spectacular architectural and historic sites and museums. The Spanish themselves were the largest group, plus many British, German, and Asian tourists. What we found interesting was that all of the non-Spanish tourist groups preferred to speak English, rather than Spanish. Like Americans, their first words to guides, docents, guards, waiters, hotel receptionists, and people on the streets were, “Do you speak English?” Tourists we talked to preferred to speak in English to us, too. Sarah Kruger told me that her classes are held in English, as it is assumed to be the universal language of the discipline of political science.
It’s interesting, isn’t it, that the rest of the world is learning proper English, and here where we are born to the language we do not speak it well, and our school children do not grasp English well enough to excel on standardized tests.
I have mixed feelings about Winona public schools superintendent Scott Hannon’s plan to have a partial Spanish Immersion Program at the elementary level. On the one hand, I believe that learning any foreign language should be mandatory. It is the most effective way of understanding how language works, and should improve a grasp of one’s own language. On the other hand, I am convinced that teaching a foreign language in our schools must be accompanied by excellent teaching and curriculum in our own language, English. Given the performance of our students on state tests, I am not convinced our schools have yet discovered that needed curriculum and the necessary teaching methods.
I hope that this emphasis on teaching a foreign language will mean that there will be renewed emphasis on teaching proper English. The rest of the world is doing it.