Friday, 13 December 2013

Sense and sensibility

Some phone calls are just to send a quick message, some for a long needed chat, and then there are others that manage to reconfirm your faith in humanity. Just some times in this world, along comes someone that makes your day just seem a bit brighter for doing what would usually be considered common sense.

Unfortunately these days common sense is rather low on the ground, and it is quite usual for people to expect practical miracles on the understanding that technology has made us all twenty-four-hour people. The lack of humanity in this technological world has often been discussed on these pages, the way that we treat each other and the way we interact could be seen to be ever increasingly remote and superficial.

So in this landscape Spain once again came to the rescue by being particularly Spanish about things.

There's a song that we used to sing at school called 'magic penny'; the lyrics are 'love's just like a magic penny/hold it tight and you won't get any/ lend it, spend it and you'll have so many/ you'll roll all over the floor'. Anyone reading this that went to Solent First school in the eighties is probably now humming along as they read; remembering assembly and the dance that went with it. This simple song with a basic message has always been something held close, something to believe in and perhaps a pretty message that most would now find quite vacuous, something that couldn't possibly be true these days. Except here.

Years ago I had a student that was studying law and was trying to pass some public exams to work for the state. A very bright young lady, always cheerful and not afraid of working. The thing was that she, and I at the time, had quite an irregular timetable. I was already working a lot and didn't have much extra time to do very much at all, but I took her on as she had been sent to me through another friend and it wasn't going to be for long anyway.

I taught her for as long as we could both arrange our timetables, and then lost contact with her when we moved to Arg├ęs. The odd facebook message was about as far as anything went for a substantial time. Until a month ago.

She sent me a message saying that a friend of hers needed some translations doing, work for an NGO, being an appreciated student I offered to help out. The work has proven to be an awful lot of work, very rewarding, but still a lot of work, and we have had a deadline hanging over us, and the feeling of dread and having to let people down as it was all approaching was tangible. Until today.

I decided to bite the bullet and have a chat with the lady running it all, just to let her know that we were running behind schedule and that we wouldn't be able to get everything in on time. 

In a move to reaffirm faith in even the most embittered human being she said that the time limit wasn't the most important thing, rather the quality of the work we were doing. She said that as the work is quite sensitive, that it was more important for the good of those involved that the work was of the highest quality, not rushed, not done shoddily, but done properly.

The better you are to people, the more honest, the more decent, the more open, the better you are treated. The magic penny has been well and truly spent, and returned with interest. Thank you once again Spain for being you. 

Sunday, 1 December 2013


Unfortunately not the perfume, or anything any more exciting than obsession itself. Though having said that there have been plenty of examples in the press or in films and so on that certainly have been exciting. This, however, has more to do with the English language.

I feel lucky to have been born speaking and educated in English. It means that having learnt it once it doesn't need to be learnt again from scratch. At least not unless there have been more than the odd beer or two in between musings.

I am watching a country around me go crazy for English, I often feel that what we never managed through conflict, we are now doing linguistically; though perhaps that in itself is a battle, and one that is often given up on at that. People have a sort of cabin fever for this crazy language where everything seems to be written in code, pronunciation is orientative at best, and people try to do their best not to have to talk to you in it if they can possibly avoid it anyway.

It all came about when we received one of the usual handful of pamphlets that seem to come streaming through the door these days, a vile pink invention that seemed to be covered in Purple Ronnie drawings. It was offering English courses in the now usual 'fun and exciting way, where you can learn by osmosis in half an hour and whilst you're doing the cooking' method. Then Sonia (my wife) looked at the bottom and brought my attention to the age group they were aiming their advertising at; it certainly wasn't what I was expecting. Apparently there are now courses and a 'method' that some clever person has come up with to teach English to children aged from zero to three years old. Zero...To...Three...Years...Old.

I'm not entirely sure that this isn't some sort of joke, but there does seem to be a phone number and a business address where you can send your month old baby to sit and fill their nappy in the most exquisitely English manner. Tea will be sipped and polite conversation will flow lovingly over their head as their infant brain gets the effort free route into speaking in the third person singular about themselves, just like the Rock. The worry only really starts to creep in when you see the price that this farce is going to cost you, and the fact that parents have to follow a method as well.

I agree that children can learn from an early age and that it is a wonderful thing to be able to see your child growing up in a bilingual atmosphere. To see how they go from being totally unable to communicate to seeing them turn to one person and speak in one way, and then to another and speak differently. I really do understand it, as I have seen it with my own kids and with those of other close friends in the same situation. What seems totally immoral to me is to use the current Spanish fashion to want to learn languages and then take it to that degree.

Showing off is not and will never be the aim of anything I ever write, but I went through school normally, was exceedingly lucky to have a native French teacher, but then didn't see any other native speaker of a foreign language outside of their own country until I was sixteen years old. It hasn't had any great effect on my life using languages, I can make myself more than understood in a couple, bimble along in another two, and read a few more due to romance languages all having common roots. I will admit that I'm a one trick horse and that it is what puts bread on my table, but I really don't think that I was in any way underprivileged to have been deprived of spending my infancy with a native teacher whispering into my ear and then later playing games with me.

One of the greatest joys of having kids is to spend time with them, though admittedly some of that time is spent trying not to throw them out of the window and buy a cat. If they want or need to learn languages then they will, more than the odd family friend did precisely that due to circumstance and they have done very well for themselves. Having a native teacher has its advantages, but it isn't the be all and end all of your education. Not everyone is taught by a world renowned poet in their language and literacy classes, but there are still people who go on to write books or publish poetry, or go on to text analysis and so on. There seems to be total lunacy here for English.

I suppose it comes from the Spanish feeling that they must be doing something wrong. No Spaniard can ever spend more than a minute talking about their country (particularly these days) without then going on to criticise it, and now that English has become an international language there has arrived a sort of furore for learning that has exceeded all of our expectations. I think that some people here need to wake up to the fact that their kids are brilliant because they are theirs, that they will grow and do well just as their parents did before them, and to trust in Spanish ingenuity to move forwards as they always seem to do - chaotically, intensively, working themselves silly but enjoying the ride.