Bilingual Gibraltarians – are they an endangered species?


“My name is…” the young girl hesitated. “No, en español,” urged the lady next to her. She tried again, “my name is….err…my name is,” and then the young girl dried up. This wasn’t a school language class or an expensive, private, Spanish lesson. The scene was my mother’s home in Gibraltar, where one of her friends had brought her Gibraltarian grand-daughter along to tea. I’d simply asked the girl – in Spanish – what her name was and she couldn’t answer in the same language. I was stunned by the grandmother’s explanation – in Spanish – “es que los padres no le han enseñado a hablar en español.” Her parents hadn’t taught her to speak Spanish.

To my dismay I discovered this young girl wasn’t an isolated case. I’ve learnt that over the last two decades there’s been a growing tendency among many Gibraltarian parents to speak only English to their children (despite the grown-ups continuing to switch to Spanish when it suits.)

Children in Gibraltar still get Spanish tuition at school as one of the foreign language options available. But despite being surrounded by people speaking Spanish almost everywhere in their day-to-day lives and going to Spain regularly, inexplicably, growing numbers of Gibraltarians are becoming monolingual, speaking only English. I wanted to find out why?

When I was growing up in Gibraltar in the late 60s, the great majority of people spoke Spanish everywhere; English, obviously, was the language of school, of officialdom, of local media. Even in households where only one of the parents was Gibraltarian, the children still ended up learning Spanish because – as is still the case – they could hear it all around them. Gibraltarian ears were effectively “immersed” in the tonality and cadences of the Spanish language and we’ve always had the advantage of English and Spanish happily coexisting in every aspect of our lives.

A recent study by researchers at Georgetown University found that people who speak two or more languages have more grey matter in their brain. Researchers concluded that being bilingual increased the size of the part of the brain that processes thoughts. Bilingual children performed better in tasks that required attention, inhibition and short-term memory than their monolingual peers. The US study was published in the journal Cerebral Cortex.

Then there’s the statistics: Spanish is the second world language (after English) as a vehicle of international communication and the third as an international language of politics, economics and culture. About 400 million people in the world speak Spanish as their first language and it’s the official language in 21 countries. Spanish is the most popular foreign language to learn in Europe and America and is an official language of the UN and its institutions, the European Union and other international organisations. By speaking Spanish you’ll be able to communicate with another half a billion people and will thereby immediately improve your career prospects and global mobility.

So is there any logic in effectively denying future generations of Gibraltarians the advantage of being bilingual in English and Spanish? I would argue that there isn’t and it’s akin to “cutting your nose off to spite your face.”

With greater economic and cultural ties since the Spain-Gibraltar border reopened in 1985, is it possible some Gibraltarians fear a kind of language-osmosis diluting their British nationality? By speaking only in English to their children, are they subliminally reassuring themselves that this won’t happen? Is a crisis of identity therefore at the heart of the monolingual debate? I still haven’t had a definitive or cohesive answer to any of these questions.

Ask any Gibraltarian who has lived away from the Rock, like I have, for any length of time. Are we any less Gibraltarian because we speak English and Spanish fluently? I would go further and argue that the fundamental point of bilingualism is an ability to speak and write both languages correctly. I’m saddened by the frequent, mangled use of English and Spanish by many Gibraltarians. This should be of greater concern to parents and teachers than any imaginary erosion of British identity.

In an article on Gibraltar I wrote for the New Statesman magazine I say I hope my fellow “llanitos” can confidently face their neighbours to the north and celebrate the richness and diversity of their own cultural heritage. That includes being able to answer a simple question like “como te llamas?” in Spanish. Once I switched to English, the young girl who came to tea told me her name was Zoe.

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  1. I can’t speak for those at home, but I grew up with British parents who didn’t speak Spanish and so my exposure was limited. The lessons at school, particularly prior to Westside, were very poor and the teachers weren’t interested in building up my Spanish from the basics (this was the 80s and early 90s – I’ve no clue how it stands today). They pretty much assumed a basic level from what kids were learning at home via their bilingual parents and would teach at that level. Anyone who was behind was mostly ignored.

    I did pick up Llanito gradually through the playground and my friends, but it was limited. Even at Westside, I sat in a different Spanish group that was essentially aimed at beginners. The problem was, every time a Forces kid started at the school, the lessons would almost start again to let her catch up. Sure, my grounding of the basics is now extremely thorough (!) but I feel this should have happened years before as a child that was born in Gibraltar.

    I seriously hope this is not the case in Gibraltar today, but my point in all this is – despite not being completely fluent in Spanish, I see what I do know as part of my identity. I still think certain things in Spanish after having been in the UK since 2002, and I would not swap it for the world. When I have kids, I fully intend to teach the Spanish as part of their heritage (though, sadly, I will have to send them to lessons, but I would go with them).

    If you look at other countries in Europe, particularly the Scandinavian countries, English is formally taught alongside their main language from practically the moment they start in school. I personally think we should do this with Spanish (going on memory, I had no Spanish classes until middle school, and those weren’t structured formally).

    Sadly, what Spanish I did pick up has faded somewhat over the years due to non-use living in the UK. That is my fault and no one else’s, but I do wonder what effect our reliance on going to the UK for University and job experience has on when we come home and have become used to thinking and speaking in English. It’s a multi-layered problem. As adults, we need to preserve our heritage at home, but I think the Education system should also take some responsibility and place more importance on it in our schools. We naturally have an aversion because of how Spain have treated us, but this is part of who we are. We need to embrace it. It makes us better people for it.

    Ha! Sorry for the essay.

  2. I agree it is not logical to live in a by lingual family or country and not make use of this F or the advantage of our children speaking both English and Spanish is essential for careers and travelling so why stop it when kids are young and absorb this with ease. I only hv one grandaughter but she is 10 a d speaks both perfectly well
    Why not xx

  3. Being bi, tri or multilingual is an an enormous asset. Spanish should be taught at primary schools in Gibraltar. Being able to speak English, Spanish and Mandarin Chinese, the latter learned at University, opened up terrific opportunities for my daughter who was born in Gibraltar to English parents. Now with her own little boy of eight months she is planning how to teach him the three most important languages in the world. Me? I’m just looking forward to the day when he says Grandma! In any language!

  4. However one may feel about the Spanish government in Gibraltar, to turn against the Spanish language would be throwing the baby out with the bathwater, and it would be a shame if Gibraltar were to become as much a land of monoglot English speakers as the UK is, just to assert its British (or “non-Spanish”) identity

    I suppose people more likely to watch British TV than Spanish and going to university in the UK instead of Spain means that there has been a language shift from Spanish to English, although the experience of living in the UK has made people more appreciative of what they have in common with Spanish and other southern Europeans. Joseph Garcia once said it made him feel more Gibraltarian.

    “The three most important languages?” Says who? Arabic is arguably “more important” to Gibraltar (the very name of which derived from Arabic) than Chinese, but lacks its prestige, as is Portuguese, which in addition to being the language of the largest country in Latin America, Brazil, is spoken in a country not far from Gibraltar, It’s called Portugal.


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