“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.