“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”
George Santayana, The Life of Reason, 1905
This week’s blog post includes a linked audio file. Just click on the link below if you would like to hear the post read aloud. Scroll down to read the text.
I’m going to tell you a few wee stories about my journeys learning Spanish, French, Italian and a little bit of Catalan. Growing up in an impoverished neighbourhood of Glasgow, I found my escape in dreaming, in reading and in languages. They all, in some ways, opened my world and reality to something new and different. My first communicative exposure to another language, on a regular basis, other than the Gaelic spoken by my grandmother and English all around, was in Primary Five (around 8-9 years old) at St. Augustine’s Primary, Milton in 1992.
Señora Billinghurst from the nearby (as in literally 300 metres away) St. Augustine’s Secondary would come to our class, and we had Spanish lessons, “Español”, for an hour or so every week. I think our regular teacher said it was a pilot program with the secondary school to start learning languages at a younger age, so we could continue them into secondary. Spanish was a “new” language introduced to the secondary school. French, until that point, was the language most commonly taught and offered.
I absolutely loved every single minute of these classes, learning how to communicate and say “Qué tal?”, “estoy bien” or estoy contento”. I tried to copy every single sound and mouth movement my teacher (from Salamanca, Spain) made. Apparently, I was very good at the “rr” sound. I (and some of my classmates if I recall correctly) found that sound quite easy to make. Perhaps because sometimes Scottish people roll our r’s, too, and we have the guttural “ch” sound, as in “loch”. The language learning was fun and stimulating for me. I was challenged by the new sounds. I imagined new contexts. I felt like I was expressing myself differently and using an unfamiliar area of my brain. Needless to say, I carried on with the classes until I finished primary school. I continued taking Sra. Billinghurst’s class in the secondary school a wee couple minutes doon the road.
I continued learning Spanish for a couple of more years with Sra. Billinghurst but began to lose interest. The textbooks we had came off as mechanical, easy and repetitive to me: same grammar exercises, familiar comprehension format activities. Very predictable and unrelatable. I think, looking back, it was because we had to follow certain content, structures and exercises for our standardized exams. Then, our school closed down and was demolished in my Fourth Year, which was quite sad and quite inconvenient. We literally lived across the road from both the primary and the secondary school! I moved to another school, All Saint’s, and got another Spanish teacher who was from Glasgow. She was very pleasantly surprised by my “Spanish accent”, and I noticed some of the words she said did not correspond to the palabras we had been taught previously by Sra. Billinghurst. I was confused by this, and I’m not sure she liked my contradicting her with what I had previously learned. The subject content also became more formulaic: decontextualized vocabulary lists, same grammar points, a book (made specifically by the exam creators) which wasn’t very interesting, same comprehension activities. Estaba aburrido y ya harto de la misma storia (I was bored and fed up with the same story). I began to miss Sra. Billinghurst. I didn’t feel the same about the subject and the content and struggled to relate to it with my new teacher.
I wanted to try something new and the other language subject on offer in school was …drumroll… French! Quelle surprise! I was so excited to learn French because I had heard so much about it and never had the chance to take it. I also had that preconception of French sounding so beautiful to the ear and being so elegant and fancy. I was very much in love *cue rose-tinted glasses* with the thought and the melody of the language. I never really questioned why I couldn’t take my own language, Gaelic. Looking back, I guess the null curriculum and the silence on the matter said it all, and I know some of the answers: to some, it wasn’t viewed as “useful”, a “marketable” commodity like French or Spanish in the “plurilingual” European economy. Not to mention the historical context and the internal colonialism agenda of British government and educational policy (e.g., Richter, 1975; Salvi, 1973).
In any case, I asked to sign up for Higher French (the equivalent of an English A-Level) at around Grade 12 in Canadian terms. I was told I couldn’t because I hadn’t taken it at the previous level. In short, I convinced the Head of French to please let me try after saying that if I struggled, I would go down to a lower level. She agreed, and I took the course. I was determined to keep up with the pace. I did all the compulsory grammar and covered the previous level content in some extra books and resources I found at school in my spare time. I also listened to a variety of texts and coursebook audios at home in front of our electric fire. Je m’ennuyais pas du tout (I wasn’t bored at all). Perhaps because I was doing it independently outside of a school context; maybe because I was determined to keep up; maybe because I was excited to speak another language. In class, I also managed to keep up and participate, largely because I wrote out some skeleton frames and functional responses that I memorized by heart. I basically just switched out some words here and there and it worked well both for speaking and for writing.
One day, we were told we had a French assistant, and we were going to spend twenty minutes speaking with her. I was really excited. She asked me, a few minutes in, how long I had been studying and learning French. I said, three months. She shook her head and said she couldn’t believe it: I sounded like I’d been learning it for years. I was very chuffed with this response. One thing that did take me by surprise, though, was when we moved on to the coursebook activity we were covering. There was a character from Québec (how stories come around in a surreal fashion: now I’m at McGill, having lived in Montréal for a year). She shook her head and told me not to copy the Québécois accent at all as it is not bon. I remember being shocked with this remark. I hadn’t heard anyone from Québec speak before and had all these romantic thoughts about Québec being a cool, different, far-away place. I also remembered well the very-close 1995 Québec Referendum being on the news when I was in the earlier years of secondary school. I wasn’t just learning the French language with the assistant, it seems in retrospect, but also more about the (c)overt (discriminatory) ideologies and politics of language learning and teaching. I continued learning French and Spanish, finished with a top-band result in both and left All Saints Secondary and Glasgow to pursue a degree in European Studies and Spanish at King’s College, London.
The European Studies and Spanish program at King’s spoke to me more about the social, historical and political context of “European” languages. And I was so looking forward to having the opportunity to do an entire Erasmus third year at the Universitat Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona. The Erasmus year at la Pompeu was an unforgettable experience where I also learned more about Spanish, or, more correctly, Castellano (Castilian “Spanish”). My courses were in Catalá(Catalan), not Castellano, and this took me some time to adjust. That said, having an anchor and underlying “repertoire” of Castellano and Français helped me navigate fairly well. At first, I didn’t understand why many didn’t want to engage with me in Castellano in Barcelona (after all, I wanted to practice the language). However, it was also during this time that I began to truly understand the colonial and imperialistic legacy of Castellano and the discriminatory, linguicidal and exclusionary language policies of the dictator, Franco (in power from 1939-1975), on Catalunya. I understood it was respectful and less ignorant of me to speak with people in Catalá, or, at least, to make an effort to do so for day-to-day activities. M’agrada molt el catalá (I like Catalá a lot). Castellano, as I learned more concretely in recent years, is the “standard” nation-state language of Spain, endorsed back in 1492 by Antonio de Nebrija as a central tenet of Spanish colonization in his Gramática de la lengua española: “Siempre la lengua fue compañera del imperio” (Language always was the companion of empire).
After being the first in my family to graduate from university, and after a period of working temp jobs to get by, I returned to King’s a few years later to do a Postgraduate Certificate in Education (Spanish and French) so I could teach languages in schools and earn more of a living. It was a year or so after working as a Spanish and/or French teacher in schools in London that I started dating an Italian man from Sicily. He spoke very little English but we kind of got by for a bit on a mixture of Spanish and English where one language filled in the gaps, as it were, for the other when we were lacking in vocabulary. After some months, I moved to Florence to live with him and started to take my Italian much more seriously. I had a grammar book, studied the “rules” a little (the French accords helped me to understand), then started relying on my Spanish (more so than my French) for my vocabulary building. This strategy (and my repertoire) worked, and gradually I started becoming more proficient. I started talking more and more in Italian until, after a few months, we only spoke to each other in Italian.
I very much appreciated having the opportunity to live in Firenze. I began to become more aware of the history of Italy and the Italian language. For instance, I learned that Dante spoke and wrote in Toscano (Tuscan) (e.g., La Divina Commedia [the Divine Comedy]), which later became the language of a unified Italy. In more recent years, I also learned more about Mussolini’s fascist regime, how he outlawed certain Italian dialects and languages and forced the use of a “standard” Italian for a “unified” nation. “Standard” Italian had been based on Toscano (specifically, the Florentine “dialect” due to the perceived cultural and literary prestige of Florentines such as Dante and Machiavelli). On the other hand, Siciliano, the language of Palermo, Sicily, where I spent some months with my now ex-boyfriend’s family, gave me a different perspective. There are rich Greek and Arabic influences in Siciliano and in the Sicilian architecture, food and culture itself. Some of my ex-boyfriend’s family and friends would remark, “ma che parli l’italiano meglio di me!” (You speak Italian better than me!). Of course, I don’t think so, but I think it speaks to some of the differences between the place-based Siciliano and l’Italiano(Tuscan-derived) “standard” nation-state language. In any case, I lived in Firenze for a couple of years, worked as an English language teacher and Italian-English translator, and became much more “fluent” in Italiano than I ever was in Español or Français. I owe this to the relationships I built, both with some of the languages of what is now known as Italy, with some of the history of those lands, and with the speakers of the languages themselves.
Now, I have a knowledge of Catalan, French, Spanish and Italian and have had varying levels of romantic engagement with each. With that said, what I have learned so far in my ongoing journey of language learning and teaching is that language is as language does. In other words, we cannot separate the historical, political and sociocultural contexts of language from the language learning process. From personal experience, the learning process becomes stale quick, and language disembodiment does not help build relationships with actual, real-life speakers of the language, their communities and their lived experiences (e.g., Catalonians in Castilian Spain). To me, separating the history, the sociocultural, the environmental from language teaching and learning feels like a dissection process.
In a nutshell, there are real dangers and consequences for romanticizing and essentializing languages as mere commodities—a “passport” of sorts to jobs, or a “ticket” to elitist cultural spectatorship—without any respect for the past, the sociocultural and historical context, the present, or, by extension, the future. What about languages that are not viewed with the same “market value”? As we may know, all are not viewed, treated, or valued the same in capitalistic society. There are also real dangers and consequences for homogenizing the distinct cultures, languages, accents, and languaging processes within imagined, reductive and politicized nation-state linguistic boundaries: ongoing discrimination, xenophobia, linguicide and genocide.
The reality of languages and languaging is altogether different, nuanced, contextual, and far from just being a fleeting romance. We need to teach languages with their complex social, cultural, and historical contexts, warts and all. As Styres (2019) mentions, “as we well know language is never neutral—it can teach us, inform us, entertain us, persuade us, and manipulate us—it can misguide and misdirect truths, thereby perpetuating colonial myths and stereotypical representations, or it can disrupt normalizing and hegemonic dominant discourses and liberate critical thought” (p. 25). Perhaps without the rose-tinted glasses, language no longer has to be in a bad romance with, ni la compañera del imperio (nor the companion of empire). Language and languaging can also be the companion of community where relationships and respect, not power, are at the core.
“History doesn’t repeat itself, it’s people that repeat history” (Nadine Hamoui).
De Nebrija, A. (1492). Gramática de la lengua castellana. Salamanca.
García, O. (2019). Decolonizing foreign, second, heritage, and first languages. In D. Macedo (ed.), Decolonizing foreign language education: The misteaching of English and other colonial languages (pp. 152-168). NY: Routledge.
Gerald, J. (2020). Worth the Risk: Towards Decentring Whiteness in English Language Teaching. BC TEAL Journal, 5(1), 44-54. Retrieved from https://ojs-o.library.ubc.ca/index.php/BCTJ/article/view/345.
Hechter, M. (1975). Internal colonialism: The Celtic fringe in British national development. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Salvi, S. (1973). Le nazioni proibite. Guida a dieci colonie interne dell’Europa occidentale. Firenze: Vallecchi.
Styres, S. (2019). Literacies of land: Decolonizing narratives, storying, and literature. In L. Tuhiwai Smith, E. Tuck, K. T. Wang (Eds.), Indigenous and decolonizing studies in education: Mapping the long view (pp. 24-38). NY: Routledge.