School children at work in Spain. Photo credit woodleywonderworks (Flickr)
School children at work in Spain. Photo credit woodleywonderworks (Flickr)

“A vertebrate has a skeleton” she tells me in a thick Spanish accent, “Mammals, birds, amphibians and reptiles are examples of vertebrates.” I nod, almost impressed: her grasp of English grammar is quite good and she’s speaking confidently. She is only 7 years old, after all.

But she’s hardly outstanding – there are many other children in her second grade class with better pronunciation, keener to share their understanding of the animal kingdom. Besides, she’s forgotten to mention that major player in the world of vertebrates: fish. !Ay, caramba!

I ought to provide a bit of context. This girl, her classmates, teachers and curriculum alike do not belong to a super-elite private school for the spawn of wealthy, multilingual parents. For the last four months, I’ve worked as a British Council language assistant in one of Madrid’s 336 bilingual state primary schools. I spend the vast majority of my working week with four classes of 6, 7 and 8-year olds. In the haze of nursery rhymes, chocolate biscuits, playtime, snot, and crayons, these kids are almost exclusively taught in English.

The teachers themselves tend to be Spanish, though they’re required to have a Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR) level of C1 in English. This is described as “I can express myself fluently and spontaneously without much obvious searching for expressions. I can use language flexibly and effectively for social and professional purposes. I can formulate ideas and opinions with precision and relate my contribution skilfully to those of other speakers”. Which is a vague and bizarre way of saying “Very, very good”.

One of the major advantages of this bilingual system is that it provides near-complete immersion in a second language, encouraging the kids to view English as a daily tool, rather than a boring school subject. In only one term, I’ve seen my classes’ vocabularies grow exponentially – we’ve discussed everything from urbanisation to geometrical shapes, and pirates.

And this is where modern language teaching in the United Kingdom gets embarrassing. I’ve had French, German and even Latin lessons in a range of schools. Rarely was my weekly class even taught in the language that we were meant to be learning. In sixth form, I chose German for A Level. For two years, I never had a single German lesson – not (entirely) because I’m an unbearable know-it-all, but because German had been removed from the syllabus.

This isn’t as unusual as you’d imagine; since coming to university, I’ve met lots people with very similar experiences. Language departments in British schools are often considered a joke. Our patchy, low-level Bonjour mixes with the sense that, frankly, the rest of the world learns English. We arrogantly wonder, why bother? Even at A Level, my language skills were probably worse than those of the average 11-year old finishing primary education in Madrid.

Now I’m not saying that this bilingual system is entirely perfect. I do sometimes question how much the children understand of a new topic. I once, for example, opened the social sciences textbook to discover that we were learning about different types of tastes – sweet, salty, bitter etc. To put it mildly, miming ‘umami’ to a class of 6-year olds wasn’t my favourite hour ever.

But we live in a world where multilingual speakers vastly outnumber those who can only speak one language. Speakers of Mandarin, Spanish and Portuguese are growing exponentially, the importance of countries like Brazil, China and India with it. These global trends affect everything from business to fashion and international politics.

Even from a selfish point of view, we cannot afford to be lazy in language learning. A 2014 study by the Economist revealed that the economic value of bilingualism was massive. Those who could speak a second language tended to earn 2% extra yearly – or an average of $67,000 (at 2014 value) by retirement. Those who spoke German as a second language earned an extra $128,000.

To put it simply, who would you pay more: a buffoon who only speaks English, or someone who can communicate with clients from all over the world?

Working in Madrid’s bilingual system illustrates daily the use of language learning. Crucially, it also demonstrates our total naivety towards multilingualism and language teaching in the UK. No, the world will not accommodate your linguistic failings. Yes, you will be left behind.

Frankly, it’s time that we saw monolingualism for what it really is: a rusty complacency not even worthy of the average Spanish pre-teen.

 

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