As La Vanguardia, among other newspapers, published this week only one third of all new students in Catalan universities possess a sufficient command of English (that is to say, B2 or First Certificate; see www.lavanguardia.com/vida/20130406/54372064211/universitarios-acceden-sin-nivel-minimo-ingles.html). The local government’s Department of Economy and Knowledge (‘Coneixement’), which also runs Catalan universities, is planning to make First Certificate or similar compulsory for graduates from next academic year onwards. Consider some figures: In my own university, UAB, 43,5% of all new students speak English below the B1 level that secondary school is supposed to guarantee; at any rate, only 22,59% know English at First Certificate levels. 7,32% fall below the A1 level (I think all these are roughly also the figures for the Department of English). This is, just consider, after 10 years learning English at school…

The diverse attempts to make language certificates compulsory (2001, 2008) have clashed, of course, with the inevitable dead end: most students cannot afford, either at school or university levels, the cost of studying English (I bet I know which class are the happy possessors of a First Certificate at UAB’s first year). The Generalitat intends apparently to make available for free an online English course to guarantee all students a chance to obtain First Certificate. Yet, I very much doubt that the online course solves this pressing problem. My doubts extend to the current fashion among Catalan universities: teaching BAs in English, partly or totally. Well, we have a VERY LONG experience doing that, an experience that our university does not appreciate sufficiently I believe, and what it shows is that the key issue here is not what we offer students but what they’re prepared to do.

I think that a language is something one learns, and not something one is taught. This applies to any discipline, matter, etc but much more so to learning a language, which is something that requires constant, dedicated practice. This is not available during the school years, when Spanish children are trapped in a kind of linguistic limbo with overcrowded classrooms and teachers too focused on the text books, too little on practising (logically, given the numbers). Leaving aside the deeply ingrained Spanish resistance to speaking English properly, grounded on reverse cultural snobbishness and on an embarrassment born of the very alienness of English pronunciation, the fact is that here in Spain, to make matters even worse, learning English has always been presented as something that should be easy, a kind of game. It’s not: it’s very hard work.

In my pre-Erasmus times, back in the mid 1980s, many students in the Catalan English Departments would spend summers or even a year, as I did, working in Britain to learn the language. I myself became for twelve months an au-pair girl, tired of quarrelling with my tight-fisted working-class father over the fees of the language school I attended to obtain a Proficiency Certificate. I took the exam in London at the end of a gruelling working experience that, since the Erasmus programme started, fewer students have been willing to undertake. It was, however, not only the cheapest way but also the ONLY way in which I could acquire the command of English that I needed and that not even my university teachers were providing me with.

Something I discovered back then was that many students from other European countries took a year off in England before they started university to improve their English (mainly students from places like Scandinavia where, happily for them, film and TV dubbing are unknown). I think this is a very good idea, although I hate to think how it benefitted (and benefits) the British economy. Or American if you choose somewhere else (Scotland, Australia, Ireland… just mind the accent!!). Still, worth a try.

Spending time abroad working may sound off-putting to many students, who, besides, as I know first hand, may be besides quite angry or embittered at the idea that they need to work their way into English while more privileged peers take lessons at the British Council back home. Yet, considering the problems that online courses present, this might be still a realistic solution for working-class students. A year abroad before you start your BA will not hurt, just the opposite. Taking time off in the middle of your degree, as I did, is not the done thing any more because of Erasmus (and I think I was lucky that Erasmus came too late for me, for I could not have afforded it at all –actually I don’t even include the year abroad as an au-pair in my CV, another not done thing).

Now, the question is whether, given our sad, sad times that year abroad I’m recommending would become in the end just a preparation for an eventual post-graduate migration…

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  1. I totally agree with your point that languages aren’t taught but learnt. I’ve made very similar comments to my English and Spanish students and they looked at me like I’m crazy and I don’t know what I’m doing, but it’s true. As a teacher, I’d love to think I have a great influence on my students’ learning, but the truth is that the students who make the most progress aren’t necessarily the ones who are in class every day, but the ones who put more time into it outside.

    …Which is why I have to say that those of us who were lucky enough to do attend extra English classes at one language school or another aren’t evil! Yes, I appreciate that I was perhaps privileged to get the opportunity to prepare and pass FCE just before I started my degree, but my English didn’t improve simply because my parents were paying for my evening classes. I put A LOT of time and effort into it too! Which is why sometimes I’m annoyed that most of my students (all adults) haven’t paid one penny for their classes and they don’t seem to appreciate what they’re given. Yes, it keeps me employed, but…!

  2. I have seen and lived this for a very long time. Arguing with my teenage cousins because they fail English and laugh at it (oh yes it’s very funny that after 8 years of studying it both in high school and in a language academy you fail…), or being in high school where students laugh at the few of them who have a correct English pronunciation, as if they were showing off, was and still is very usual. I even know people who know English (more or less) and when I say «let’s watch the film in English» they say something like «I don’t want to think/read», which I still don’t really get. I don’t really know if there’s any solution to this, but I find it very very worrying that, after more than 10 years studying English (I know the level in high school is not really good but many students go to language academies) they don’t even reach the First Certificate level. I mean, you start learning the verb ‘to be’ but you’re 18 and still doing the verb ‘to be’, and the worst thing is that they don’t even learn it!

    I do think it’s a matter of lack of interest. The English you’re taught in high school is definitely not enough; and if you find yourself in a situation where you really need it you’ll have to use it. One way or another. But here in Spain, where EVERYTHING is dubbed and we don’t get exposure to English unless we listen to music in English or we watch series/films in their original version, it’s really difficult. And that added to the fact that, as I was saying, students (specially in high school) think that if you have a good English you’re a show-off, makes the perfect combination for a bad level of English even if the level in their high schools is good and even if they go to a language academy. As you said, it’s not what you’re taught but also what you learn by practising and I think above all, exposure.

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