The Infection


Sue has some new students arriving today for a session of English speaking practice, so I’ve done the enlightened, supportive, modern-man thing and buggered off in case I’m given a job. That’s why I find myself in my usual cafetería but at the wrong time of day; instead of half-asleep workmen exchanging their grunts and nods over breakfast, this time those around me are the younger, noisier, late-lunch clientèle, each with one eye on his or her conversation partner, and the other on the incoming SMS or email messages on their now indispensible “es-mart-fonn”.

As I sit contemplating my relaxing cup of café con leche, I now notice that the book I grabbed at random as I left the house is Un Verano en España by one Roger Burch Weems M.A. This small, yellowing hardback volume is a 1947 reprint, the opening pages tell me, of the original 1932 book for students of Spanish by a language teacher from Virginia, USA.

It seems fitting and desirable” begins the preface, “to give the student as soon as possible some impression of the country and some idea of the life of the people whose language he is studying.” The book goes on to tell in Spanish the illustrated tale of a young New Yorker and his voyage to spend the summer in Barcelona.

Although Sue doesn’t teach English – she’s always careful to point that out – she will now and then spend time talking in English with Spanish adults who already have a conversational grasp of the language, and who want to hone their listening skills and pick up a few more colloquialisms and figures of speech. There’s no shortage of takers. English has become, in the minds of many of the younger local Spaniards, a universal panacea; a cure-all medicine for la crisis, promising limitless job opportunities in worldwide locations. At least, that’s what they’re led to believe.

But it seems that English is to be forced upon all of them, whether they choose to study it or not. In this very bar, the television blares out commercials for El Corte Inglés’ sale of leggings at precios muy low, of Mitsubishi cars that are reportedly driving quality, and of outrageously priced cosmetic creams that offer un buen lifting, whatever that is.

Globalisation means that new ideas can travel the world in an instant, and the eminent Weems’ idea ‘to give the student as soon as possible some impression of the country and some idea of the life of the people whose language he is studying’ has apparently developed from academic ideal to commercial dictum. Nowadays each new meme has to offer some promise of a greener-grassed lifestyle, and English – that linguistic Swiss Army knife (?) – is the idiom of choice to carry the message.

This is only partly, I imagine, because the English-speaking world (the USA especially) is the source of many of these fads and fashions, but mainly because English as a language is not fixed; like a virus, the language mutates, assimilating new material as it goes, bending itself to fit new cultures and new ideas. Try as you might, you’ll never stamp out every strain. The language always has, of course, been a work in progress, initially emerging as it did from the cultural cauldron that is Britain; a meld of Saxon, Roman, Viking, Gallic, Germanic, Caribbean, Asian and all the rest who’ve wandered through.

Thumbing through the pages of Un Verano En España it’s immediately evident that the 1930s Castellano it teaches would serve me perfectly well today. The snapshot it took of the language then looks remarkably similar to one you might take right now. Language, like so much else in Spain, is rooted in tradition and depended on for its constancy. I wonder how much use an English course from the same era would be in Spain today?

The es-mart-fonn on the adjacent table burbles once again, and its teenage owner picks it up for a brief exchange, which she ends unthinkingly with “OK, bye“.

Universal panacea or textually-transmitted infection? I guess we’ll have to wait and see.


8 thoughts on “The Infection

  1. Great post, and like Elle I just love “textually-transmitted infection”!!! I often write about language / language-learning as a footnote in my blog and would like to put a link to this post if that’s ok.

  2. ” English – that linguistic Swiss Army knife (?)” Now, that´s the one I particularly like. One of your own invention, Phil?

    Your point about English being a cure-all for the “crisis” is something I´ve also noticed. I even have adult in-company students who go to language academies as well as going to my groups. I used to teach secondary school English here in Catalunya a few years ago and when I asked the kids why they are learning English the most common answer was “For my future.” This reflected the vague attitudes of their parents, I suspect.

    I´m just imagining giving the same answer when I was a 12 year-old. “Yes, I´m learning French and German for my future.” That would have been laughable.

    • Mine, yes, as far as I know … 😉
      Yes, at 12 years old it would’ve been odd, wouldn’t it?
      Thanks for commenting, Brett.

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