When we first arrived in Gibraltar, one of the great positives for us, along with the better weather and a much shorter commute to work for my husband was our belief that our children would grow up bilingual. You only need to spend five minutes on Main Street to hear Gibraltar’s bilingualism in action; sentences which begin in Spanish and end in words which are incongruously English like ‘washing machine’ or ‘swimming lesson’. We were, of course, mistaken in thinking that our boys would be immediately immersed in the Spanish language at school. Apart from learning to count to 10 coached by their friends in the playground, and picking up odd Spanish and Llanito words like ‘mira’, ‘venga’ and ‘ke shuni’, we soon discovered that only English was taught in first schools here.
Like many British parents moving to Gibraltar, we decided to invest in private Spanish lessons for our eldest (who was 5 at the time) believing that no matter how long our stay in Gibraltar was going to be, it was important that he was exposed to a second language early on. After all, research proves that it’s much easier to learn languages early in childhood, rather than leaving it to middle school age as was the case here, or secondary school age as was the case for me.
On speaking to Gibraltarian friends, I soon learned that the whole issue of speaking Spanish is as much of a political hot potato as the border queue or Spanish incursions into British Gibraltar Territorial Waters. Back in the days when the Frontier was closed by General Franco, apart from GBC, the only TV and radio available to Gibraltarians was from Spain. Many families spoke solely Spanish in the home and English was heard much less than it is today. For many families, the continual use of the Spanish language and Llanito dialect continued through the generations, being ‘Llanito’ and speaking it, is an important part of their identity. However, for some of the young Gibraltarians growing up under the shadow of a closed border, an animosity towards the Spanish language developed, and as a result, the English language formed an integral part of their British Gibraltarian identity.
On arrival in Gibraltar, we were told that the decision to speak only English to children in first school was because when Llanito and Spanish is spoken at home, some children find the principals of English harder to grasp, as it isn’t their ‘first’ language. It was thought that by not speaking Spanish in the earliest years at school, these pupils would develop a good grounding in English before moving on to Middle School and formal Spanish lessons.
However, in recent years there has been a decline in the use of Spanish by the younger generation in Gibraltar. As a consequence the numbers of students at Bayside and Westside schools and Gibraltar College choosing to study Spanish GCSE and A-Level has seen a slight decline. The grades obtained in these exams in Spanish are also slightly down. Darren Grech, Senior Education Advisor to the Government of Gibraltar says “There may be various contributing factors to this: a greater exposure to English-speaking channels on television; parents who feel more comfortable speaking to their children in English; households that are no longer shared with grandparents who would have normally spoken Spanish to their grandchildren. The reality is that children are speaking less Spanish”.
An online petition of parents in Gibraltar, calling for the introduction of Spanish in first schools earlier this year appears to have been one of the contributing factors to a change in policy. In his Budget Speech on 23rd June, the Minister for Education, the Hon Gilbert Licudi QC MP stated that schools “will be introducing Spanish earlier in the curriculum. This follows a number of requests from parents as well as from professionals. Spanish will now be delivered in First Schools with introductory programmes starting as from September. A final decision as to the actual programmes of study, format and mode of delivery will be taken during that academic year.”
We are now well into the autumn term and Spanish is already being taught in Gibraltar’s first schools giving many children their first formal taste of learning a new language. If your children are anything like mine and their response to the question “What did you do at school today?” is “I can’t remember”, you probably won’t have heard much about their new Spanish classes. I had to go straight to the horse’s mouth and ask the teachers what they are being taught. At St Mary’s First School (which my sons attend), they’re learning about the language in fun ways through songs, films and education websites. So far, the classes have covered parts of the body, the Spanish alphabet and nursery rhymes. The teachers I’ve spoken to have said it’s been a very positive experience so far, and in some cases it’s given pupils who perhaps have struggled in other subjects a chance to shine, as they already have a background in the language from home.
Being bilingual is one of the many things which mark Gibraltarian people out as special. Hopefully one of the benefits of teaching the very youngest pupils Spanish, will be the guarantee that Gibraltar’s bilingualism continues for years to come. What a bonus it would be for students to have a ‘banker’ of an exam result when they sit down to work on their GCSEs and A-Levels knowing that their long developed knowledge of the language will guarantee them good grades. And on a personal level, what a great benefit it would be from our time spent in Gibraltar, to have children who can speak more than just the English language.