Dulces sueños, second language shirkers!

In 2004, the decision was taken by the government to remove the compulsory status of foreign language GCSEs. Although this move may have left some schoolchildren jumping for joy when they could leave their un deux trois behind for good, it wasn’t necessarily a fantastic way of quashing the stereotype of the ‘Brit on holiday’, pointing and shouting ‘BOT-TLE OF WA-TER’ at a bemused French shopkeeper. So what’s it like to come from a country where learning another language, namely English, is a must? I spoke to Reme Diaz, a student from Spain, about her experience of learning English as a second language.

The first significant difference between English and Spanish schooling is that English is taught as a foreign language from the third year of primary school, from eight years old onwards in Spain, whereas in England, French lessons tend to start formally in year 7, at age 11. ‘That was the method when I was young, but as far as I know, they have changed it and now children start learning some words in English when they are in kindergarten.’ A stark contrast to English nurseries, then, where I remember mostly mixing together all the poster paints every single day to create myriad shades of brown.

When Reme was young, only English lessons themselves were taught in English. However, a couple of years ago, the Spanish Government started a campaign to increase bilingualism in schools, meaning that now around 50% of lessons in Spanish schools are taught in a second language, which is usually English. In fact, it seems rather difficult to avoid foreign language lessons in Spain. ‘When you start secondary education, you have the opportunity of choosing French or German.’ Often, only one of these languages is offered, and if a student does not want to learn this language, the other options can be limited, for example, ‘a group where a tutor helps students who have problems with Maths or Spanish.’ It is also worth noting that Reme has been learning British English, which is seen as the ‘standard’ in the area – this is not the case in many international schools, where American English is taught.

I asked Reme about her own proficiency of her English ability (which, judging by her answers, is evidently of  very high standard.)’In English I can communicate fluently, both orally and in written form and I consider myself to have a rather wide range of vocabulary and expressions used by native speakers.’ I have come across the consideration more than once that once a second language learner acquires an understanding of idioms in their target language, they can then be considered fluent. This certainly seems to be the case here, and it makes me feel almost embarrassed about my own French GCSE. About the most complex thing I can talk about in French is a poor diet with ‘trop de sucre’.

Interestingly, Reme tells me, Spain, much like England, is notorious for its low level of second language acquisition. However, she acknowledges that ‘due to the influence of tourism from other countries, there are more and more businesses with staff trained in a bilingual way.’

But it isn’t just English Reme has learnt. She has also learnt French to almost the same level as English, whereby she can ‘communicate with native people, but in a more rudimentary way than in English.’ Along with this, she has a basic grasp of German. Reme believes learning new languages broadens the mind, giving one the opportunity to learn about the culture associated with the language, and to communicate with others. This is extremely relevant for Reme, who came to the University of Sheffield as part of the Erasmus programme, whereby European students are invited to study at universities outside their home country as a complement to their degree.


Reme in England as part of her Erasmus programme


‘At the beginning it was a bit difficult for me, because it was the first time I was visiting an Anglophone country… the fact I moved to Sheffield, a region where people speak in a different way, made things a bit more difficult for me.’ This is a valid point that is easy to forget about – when you learn a foreign language, you will likely learn only the standard dialect and accent, so it must be difficult to apply what you learn in the classroom to a real-world scenario when suddenly the accent you have become accustomed to is not the one people around you are using. ‘I eventually got used to it and it really helped me to improve my spoken skills in English and my fluency.’ Reme believes that getting immersed in the language is one of the best ways to learn, which may be why her visit to England was so beneficial in her learning of English. ‘In my opinion, learning a language is not translating things from your mother tongue but to learn how to express your ideas and thoughts in a language that is different from the one you usually speak at home.’ It can be all too tempting to rely on online translation software when learning a language, but it is the more organic learning process which will help more in the long run.

I was also interested to know if Reme had any tips for learning Spanish; or indeed, any second language. ‘For beginners, I would recommend interactive tools, such as games, to get the learner interested, and allowing him to work at his own pace.’ Other suggestions include watching films in their original language, reading newspapers in the target language and finding a ‘tandem partner’, where effectively you can ‘swap languages’ and help each other with the acquisition of the partner’s native language. ‘In my opinion, Spanish is one of the easiest languages to learn and it will be really useful in the future. Nowadays, Spanish is present everywhere, and due to its multicultural background and its traditions, you will be welcomed by the Spanish speaking community.’ Unfortunately, this is not an attitude reflected by some of the British expatriates who have settled in the Costa del Sol, where Reme is from. ‘Nowadays, some people think that Spain is an English-speaking resort for when they retire and that everything will be at their disposal.’ This, unfortunately, is a very familiar view of the English, and it is a shame that some expatriates don’t feel the need to blend in with the locals of their new country. As Reme puts it, ‘They take for granted that as English is an important language, everything and everyone has to communicate with them in English.’

To see whether Reme’s appetite for language learning had yet been satisfied, I asked whether there were any other languages she would like to learn. ‘I would study Finnish or Arabic because neither of them are Romance, like Spanish and French, or Germanic languages, like English and German.’ She is also interested in learning about the structural differences of languages from different families. This is an attitude it would be great to see seeping into the English classrooms; an interest in learning brand new languages, and facing the often daunting challenge of bringing a new culture to life with enthusiasm and curiosity, rather than the often turgid trawl through lists of animal name translations. I believe compulsory foreign language learning should be reinstated, not just for the sake of being able to speak another language, but also for the doors it opens both culturally and in the business world. A wider range of languages available to learn in schools might ignite a new interest in schoolchildren; for example, the introduction of Mandarin Chinese, becoming increasingly important in a global business context, or Norwegian, leading to a fairly painless transition into learning Swedish and Danish. But for now, we must say adios to Reme, and for the time being at least, dust off those endless lists of ‘things I can order in a café’ and throw ourselves back into the world of another language!


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