The hapless Sr Zapatero . . . Graeme of South of Watford – who watches these things more closely than me – has an interesting question about his future. Which presumably won’t involve him lecturing in English at Georgetown university. Click here.
In my recent exchanges with José about Gallego, I responded to his assertion that Galicians should not be allowed to be ignorant of their culture and language by asking who - if not the people - would decide what the people could and could not be allowed to be ignorant of. Essentially, I wanted to know who this select group would comprise. Well, the answer – as regards the language – appears to be the teaching profession and the unions. The former are on strike tomorrow against the proposed new law and the latter have insisted that parents not be given any say in this aspect of their kids’ education. I did, in fact, approach, the teachers to ask that the strike be postponed from tomorrow until Monday – so that I could go on strike for the first time in my life – but they’ve callously ignored me.
More anti-immigrant news. But this time it’s Brits we’re talking about. Accused of doing the sort of thing that’s been going on in the UK for decades, without much complaint from anyone. Maybe things will now change there, though fear of being accused a racist will probably still get in the way. Me, I pay for medical cover as a condition of my residence. Which will all change when I’m 65, I believe. But the bills for my treatment will go back to the UK.
Talking of us Brits . . . Can this really be true? Interesting to see that the estimate of 1m is four or five times higher than the official number. What was I saying about Spanish statistics?
Down in Portugal yesterday, I was able to have several of my conversations in English but sometimes I had to resort to mix of English, Spanish, Gallego and Portuguese. The latter is a relatively easy language to read but a tough one to understand aurally. In one case, the mix even included French, as the charming old lady who owned the rural house had probably been educated when this was the first choice of a foreign language in Portugal. As here in Spain. But, boy, is it hard to move back and forth between badly known or badly remembered languages.
And talking of English and Spanish . . . I was going to (re)invent the word ‘footle’ the other day, in the context of the guy who was managing the football impressively, but with his feet and not his hands. To labour this . . . ‘footle’ instead of ‘handle’. Well, I didn’t use it in the end it but it came back to mind today when I again saw the odd Spanglish word for ‘jogging’ – footing. But I prefer ‘footle’, even if it clashes with the existing word ‘footling’.
Finally . . . Back, for those interested, to education and the use of Gallego to impart it. I mentioned the other day that the PP party which took over the Xunta in April is managing to displease all the people all the time on this issue. But now, here’s the promised dissertation on this subject by my friend Alfred B Mittington. To say the least, it’s a tad polemical. So I’d like you all to know it really isn’t me pretending to be someone else. Though I’d be flattered if you thought so. All that said, I share Alfred’s views and I’m reminded of arguments I’ve had over the years with folk who think Galician kids should be taught not just two or even three language but four – Galician, Spanish, English and Portuguese. But, anyway, take it away, Alfie! . . .
A Law of Morons, a Tower of Babel, and a Better Proposal (I)
By Alfred B Mittington
Some years ago, during the opening of the last Año Xacobeo, a high functionary in the Cultural Department of the Xunta de Galicia (I prefer not to reveal his name; and I assure you that he does too!) was asked to announce the program for classical music during an official press conference in Santiago. The good man faithfully ran through the year-long programme of Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven and Brahms which his office had prepared, and then, eager to highlight the celebrated orchestras and soloists invited, spoke the following immortal words: ‘And we are also delighted to count on a performance of the famous soprano Carmina Burana.’
I had to think of this charming little gaffe last week when I scrutinised the latest proposal for a new approach to teaching in Galician schools. For I always thought that I would never in my lifetime hear of a greater bungler becoming Conselleiro of the Xunta de Galicia than the cultural bigwig just above. Yet it turns out that it was possible after all, and that they have made this superb new man responsible for the education of Galician children.
Allow me to paint the political backdrop so that my readers may understand, before I treat them to the actual joke, why the Conselleiro in question engaged upon this desperate flight forward. Galicia is one of the many regions in the world which partakes of two languages. One is Castilian, the tongue of the dominant Spanish state; the other is Gallego, an older variant of the romance languages in fact, still spoken naturally, happily and proudly in the region itself, mostly in the countryside, but more and more in urban areas as well, since it is the vehicle of regionalist and separatist ambitions of the young, the educated and the leftish. Nothing wrong with that. Everybody has my blessing to do in their own country whatever they bloody well please.
The political tension between these two languages led however, as it always does, to messing around with the school system and children’s education. Ideologues the world over, of all political colours and ideals, are perfectly aware that in order to impose your ideas on the rest of mankind, you gotta get at the children. And you get at the children through the schools. To put it in concrete terms: where in the old days Franco forced Catalan, Basque, Valencian and Gallego children to study exclusively in Spanish so as to root out these ‘dialects’ (and wasn’t he successful, now?), his political enemies in modern times got back by imposing, in their turn, the use of the regional languages in the classroom .
In Galicia, due to circumstances, this took a mild form. The previous coalition of Socialists and left-wing nationalists (known as the BNG) decided on a system in which schoolchildren would dedicate an equal number of hours to the learning of the Spanish and the Gallego languages, and in which half the subjects would be taught in Spanish, the other half in Gallego. So far so good. It worked, in its way. Just about everybody was unhappy with this solution, for different and opposed reasons, except the children themselves, who – unless I am terribly mistaken – couldn’t give a damn one way or another.
Yet leaving well enough alone is not in the nature of political leaders.
Roughly a year ago, the conservative PP, who favours the dominant use of Spanish (the ‘language of the Empire’ as it used to be called in the good old days of the Generalissimo) won the regional elections, on the promise – among some other things – of putting a stop to this hybrid system of teaching. Parents – their candidate promised – would in the future be allowed to chose whether they wanted their children educated in Spanish or in Gallego. No sooner had the elections been won, however, than this drastic proposal revealed itself to be untenable (I’m still trying to find out why, but that is immaterial for now). Instead, the fresh PP Xunta came up with a new Decree, a New Solution, a New Deal which would do away with all these linguistic conflicts, solve all problems, open the window to new bright futures of harmony and mutual understanding, and boost the Educational System to heights of efficiency and learning never before attained by any school system in the world, let alone in Galicia.
They proposed to add another language to the two existing ones…
Yes, dear reader, you read it well. But to make absolutely sure that you grasp it, I will repeat it once again. Probably inspired by the shining example of the European Union, where reigns the rule: ‘If It Does Not Work, Double It!’ (see the various presidencies, commissionaires, ministries and judiciaries added in every new round of constitution-building) the Xunta de Galicia proposed to add another language to the two existing ones in the schoolroom. Starting next school year, classes at all levels, from primary school up to the high school diploma, will be taught equally in Spanish, Gallego and English…
Yes, indeed: let us take a breath. For the sheer genius of this proposal is such that any person plagued by common sense needs a quiet moment to digest it. Never in the history of human education, from the ancient Egyptians all the way up to the most recent revolutionary French pedagogues, has anybody ever ridden such an incredible brainwave! How can it be, I ask, that in 40 centuries of tuition, nobody ever discovered this miracle way to double the efficiency of teaching? How can it be that the best minds of four millennia had to wait for today’s Conselleiro de Educacion, before they saw that there is a way that children can learn English at the same time as Mathematics, if only you teach them mathematics in English?? You kill two birds with one stone! You use only one hour where otherwise you would need two! You employ but a single teacher, who will impart, with one generous hand, the secrets of calculus and algebra, while the other sows, no less liberally, the splendours of the Tongue of Shakespeare into the fertile minds of willing children!
Arid and uncreative must be the minds of those pedants who object that the teaching of a language is not necessarily the same as the teaching in a language! But agents provocateurs are those priggish elements who suggest that in the whole of Galicia, there may not be enough teachers sufficiently fluent in English to service ten schools on the lines of this new system. And obviously hostile to all innovation of genius are them troglodytes who predict that – rather than the children learning both English and Math simultaneously, they will learn neither! No no no, I say! Silence thyselves, thou prophets of doom! I am fully with Xunta president Nuñez Feijoo who declared in a recent press conference, that by adopting this ‘trilingual decree’, Galicia will stop being known as a community at war with itself over language, and will become famous as the one where all master three! He is right! Here is the secret of progress! Here the final capstone on the majestic edifice of education that the world has been waiting for these many long ages! We have found the philosophers’ stone! The magic formula to turn all mud into gold!
In fact, this notion is so overwhelmingly convincing, that I insist we ought not to be timid, but to take our new divine insight to its logical conclusion! Let us not tarry. Let us not turn back half way! Let us march forward with true courage and vision and adopt the new Mittington Miracle Curriculum for the Galician schools! For if it be true that a child picks up a language while it gets taught another subject in that language, what better can we do then to teach mathematics in English, history in Russian, biology in Chinese, German in Arabic and yes, why not: Galician in Spanish, or vice verse, for it makes no difference! A soaring Tower of Babel will be the result! In only one generation of schoolchildren run through the system, every little Galician will be fluent in as many tongues as there are academic subjects on the curriculum! What linguists won’t they be! They will master every idiom, jingle every lingo, twist every tongue to their hearth’s desires! The UN, the EU, the IMF and every Foreign Ministry on the globe, will only hire interpreters, translators and dragomans schooled in the incomparable Galician colleges! Language schools the world over will close in the face of unbeatable competition from the banks of the Miño and the Tambre! Microsoft will give up its futile attempts to create a computerised translating program, since now there are infallible translation machines on legs from Mondoñedo, Santiago and Cee! A New Day dawns my friends, if only my proposal be accepted!
If there are still thinking people left in my audience, I have no doubt that they will by now agree that this proposal is all the way up there with the design of the Titanic. Teaching children mathematics in English is not the panacea it is said to be; on the contrary: it is a certified guarantee that they will learn neither mathematics nor English! How, I ask (and why the hell must I explain this?) will a 7- or 8-year old learn his math if it gets taught in a language he has never learned and does not understand? It would seem that the highly educated and most wise Conselleiro de Education of the Xunta de Galicia (who surely boasts of an impressive and interminable string of academic titles) is not aware that the teaching OF a language is a completely different thing from teaching IN a language. That you may throw a dog into the water so as to ‘teach’ it to swim; but that language acquisition takes place along totally different lines than to ‘awaken’ an inborn skill in an animal. And that it is a monstrosity to fuck around with your future generations is such a mindless idiotic manner!
And let us be frank: enough fucking around has been done already. Spanish schoolchildren (not just the Galician ones) famously score the lowest in any comparative tests of all European children with the exception of – I believe – Northern Moldavia. And here then is my question: if you could not do it in two languages, what makes you think you will succeed in three? This linguistic miracle-cure is NOT the solution to the troubles of your school system. The cure is simply worse than the disease, and only a veritable moron would apply such medicine. Shame on you!
No: your troubles are of a different kind, my friends. And there are of course a number of painless, straightforward, reasonably simple solutions which might be adopted to improve education in Spain and Galicia. To enumerate those is, however, a hardy task which demands some calm contemplation. Before I do so, I must first shed the drops of idiocy picked up in the course of the present article, as a dog shakes off the water after you’ve thrown him into a lake. So I will now go downstairs, put a log on the fire, pour myself a double scotch (in its own language, naturally) and put onto the stereo a CD of the Cantigas de Santa Maria, sung by that exquisite soprano Ms Carmina Burana. In that agreeable atmosphere, I will brood upon the subject and do my thinking. And I will be back to you with my proposals, to be published in this same spot if my good and wise friend Colin Davies allows it.
Alfred B. Mittington
Formerly of the Highlands Board of Education
1. Allow me to insist that I voice no opinion as to the relative morality of the two phenomena!
2. I quote from La Razón, Edición Digital, of 31 December 2009: “Feijóo afirmó que el ‘decreto trilingüe’ que quiere adoptar tiene como ‘objetivo final’ el conocimiento por parte de los alumnos de tres lenguas, aunque sin incrementar los recursos actuales”, “subrayó que su deseo es que los alumnos pasen de ‘monolingüismo al trilingüismo”, and “insistió en su vocación de ‘priorizar el gasto social’ para que Galicia ‘deje de ser conocida como la comunidad que pelea por el idioma y sea conocida por su dominio de una tercera lengua”.