photo by Max Alexander
In the not too distant future I will be able to say that I have been teaching English in Spain for 30 years. There is nothing particularly special about that; there are hundreds, if not thousands, of Anglos in exactly the same situation. However, it does give me an excuse to take stock: how much impact have people like me had on the level of English in this country? From one point of view, a lot. When I came here in the late 1980s most people spoke no English and the majority of those who did spoke very broken English; most were even ashamed to try to speak English outside the classroom. It was a decade before I met my first Spaniard who could speak my language at a level similar to an Anglo.
Now the linguistic landscape is very different. Most people – at least in larger towns and cities – have a smattering of English and many young people use English to a level we could only have dreamed of a generation ago. I regularly hear young Spanish people chatting to foreign acquaintances in English on the streets! Moreover, English is more ‘popular’ than ever. There are half a dozen English academies within a few hundred metres of my home in Madrid. And it’s not just the capital; I recently visited Mairena del Aljarafe, a middle-class suburb of Seville, and there were – or at least there seemed to be – more English schools than bars! CLIL programmes mean that English is present in schoolchildren’s lives as never before in Spain.
Nevertheless, there is one area in which the progress has been painfully slow – what one might call ‘official English’. I took the AVE high-speed train to Mairena (and may I just say that no trains in the UK are as clean, as efficient, as fast as the AVE). However, I was annoyed the entire round-trip. Why? Well, the LED sign stated every 20 seconds “Train with destination Seville” on the way there, and “Train with destination Madrid” on the way back. This is what I call the Spanish habit of half-translating – finding the English equivalent for each word and repeating them in the same order as in Spanish. No doubt the LED16 sign has been saying that for 20 years; who cares if it sounds completely unnatural? I do. You make a tremendous effort to get everything about the on-board service right, and then you spoil it with lower-intermediate English!
“Action for opening the emergency window” (it should be “How to open the window as an emergency exit”),
You may already know that one of my bugbears is the deplorable English on the websites of many Spanish universities. Their stated aim is to attract more foreign students but this simply isn’t going to happen if they say so in woefully deficient English.
The same is true for many official texts in English. Ironically, they are not strictly necessary; Spanish is a tall-building language spoken by 400 million people. However, if you are going to translate, do it properly. The problem is that when Anglos see something written in English, the quality of the English affects their perception of the quality of the goods or services on offer. If you can’t see it yet, imagine translating “Are we nearly there yet?” verbatim. It would sound awful compared to the correct idiomatic translation (¿Falta mucho?).
In answer to the question “Are we nearly there yet?” I will quote a British Rail advertisement from the 1980s which used to say, “We’re getting there” (= Hemos hecho progresos pero aun falta).
 are we nearly there yet? – (typical question asked by a bored child on a long trip) will we arrive soon?
 particularly – especially, very
 to tale stock (take-took-taken) – evaluate the progress that has been made
 who did – (in this case) who did speak English
 broken English – pidgin English, pre-intermediate English
 ashamed – embarrassed, reluctant, uncomfortable
 linguistic landscape – panorama as regards language
 larger – bigger, more significant
 a smattering of – a little
 to chat to – talk in a relaxed way to
 acquaintance – sb. one knows
 just – (in this case) only
 CLIL – content and language integrated learning
 annoyed – irritated
 the entire trip – all the way there and all the way back
 LED – light-emitting display
 to state – declare
 it should be “train to Seville”, “train to Madrid”
 the on-board service – (in this case) the service on the train
 to spoil sth. – ruin sth.
 label – sticker, sign
 to my notice – to my attention
 hammer – utensil for hitting things
 glasses – spectacles, eyeglasses
 to smash – break forcefully
 pane of glass – the sheet of glass that forms a window
 to remove – (false friend) take out, eliminate
 to dislodge – displace, remove28
 any remaining shards – any pieces of broken glass that are left
 bugbear – pet peeve, cause of obsessive irritation
 stated aim – explicit objective
 to happen – occur
 woefully – very, depressingly
 tall–building language – one of a few global languages that eclipse smaller languages
 properly – appropriately, correctly
 goods – products
 verbatim – word for word