English-Speaking Parents' Association of Catalonia
1. When was the group founded and why?
We were founded at an English playgroup get-together in September 2010. A number of us were talking about our efforts to find after-school English literacy instruction for our older kids. We were all in the same boat—unable to afford 10,000 euros per year per child private school fees, sending our kids to Catalan public (or affordable independent) schools, but concerned that they read, speak, and write English as well as possible. Our kids’ schools didn’t acknowledge them as native or heritage English speakers: all their English classroom time was identical to that of their classmates. Though English-speaking themselves, our children were taught English as a foreign language. In fact, the system seemed designed to turn multilingual children into Spanish-Catalan bilinguals for whom any other language was vestigial. We all knew of children of English-speaking parents who at some point stopped using English with their Anglophone parent or parents.
We decided that we should try to change policy rather than supplying its deficiencies. What I didn’t know then was just how poorly developed the policy response to third-culture children is in Spain, in comparison to other EU countries, Canada, the US, and Australia. This really is a desert.
2. What are the short- & long-term goals of the group?
As things stand, the Catalan Department of Education has no protocols or policy that would help our kids. It is as if they did not exist. Speakers of eleven other languages have access to after-school heritage language classes supported by the authorities. If you speak Dutch to your kids, the heritage language programme is so good and so comprehensive that your child might go on to a Dutch university after graduating from a Catalan secondary school. Colloquial oral skills—the language of the family environment—are built up into academic speaking and writing skills—the language of a school environment.
It makes me wish I were Dutch. English-speaking kids are excluded from the programme from which Dutch-speaking kids benefit. Our children aren’t assessed, their skills aren’t measured, they aren’t given access to special programmes, and there are no guidelines for EFL teachers to follow in dealing with them. So our first goal is putting these children on the map.
There’s an irony in all this: the authorities won’t authorize heritage language classes for English-speaking children precisely because English is a valued part of the curriculum: they claim that additional or special classes would be discriminatory, something extra which would benefit a few, select children, something that other children would be denied. Obviously, if you make a distinction between teaching English as a foreign language (to speakers who have not learnt English from their parents and siblings) and teaching English as a heritage language (to speakers who have), it’s actually the English-speaking children who are discriminated against—they receive instruction which is not designed for them, can be of little use to them, and may even be detrimental. (Some of our members have told us that their children have had running conflicts with their English teachers for years.) It’s difficult to imagine more misguided policy.
If you can’t offer heritage language classes, what options do you have? In the short term, our best option is probably a kind of English-speaking clubhouse, something I like to call a casal lingüístic when describing it to Catalans. Children need a social and learning space where communicating in English is the norm. We’d like to offer academic classes, starting with phonics and reading, along with activities in English (project work, choir, or drama, for example). Ideally, we’d have board games, computers loaded with educational software, and a library. Younger kids could play Simon Says or I Spy With My Little Eye.
In the long term, we’d like the authorities—or a social entrepreneur—to recognize the English of English-speaking children as a resource. They could be teachers as well as learners. In fact, they make it possible to experiment with the kind of bilingual schooling which is widely considered the most effective. If you start an immersion programme in a foreign language which isn’t widely spoken in the community, it’s hard to get the children to speak to one another in the new, unfamiliar tongue. Their skills tend to be more passive than active. Yet there’s a simple way of getting around this. In what’s known as a dual-language immersion programme, half of the children are chosen for admission precisely because they speak the language of immersion as a language of the home. Imagine a French immersion classroom where half of the children had French parents, French storybooks at home, and French kids’ DVDs; imagine that they knew their French nursery rhymes and the French names of fairytale characters. Put twelve of them, at the age of four or five, into a classroom with a French-speaking teacher and twelve kids who don’t speak French. Then sit them all in a circle and start talking about Cendrillon or le chat botté. Will they hold back and hide the fact that they speak French? Not at all: the gregarious ones will talk their heads off, in French. The immersion classroom isn’t about teacher talk any more: it’s a French-speaking social and learning environment into which the non-Francophone children will be gradually drawn. There’s a beautiful illustration of this in a sequence from an American documentary film, Speaking in Tongues. It’s a Grade 3 science class in Cantonese at a dual-language immersion school in San Francisco. The children are 8 or 9 years old. The teacher is going over elementary plant biology, in Cantonese, and you can tell that about half the kids have a Chinese background. But the child who answers the teacher, and who does the most talking—in very fluent Cantonese—is of European ancestry. His classmates are his language teachers and they’ve been doing a good job.
Now change the setting and the languages: instead of French-speaking children in, say, north London, or Cantonese-speaking children in California, the children are English-speaking and live in Barcelona. They have English storybooks at home, English kids’ DVDs, they can recite Humpty-Dumpty and play at being Jack or the giant in Jack in the Beanstalk. Send twelve of them to school, at the age of four, with twelve Catalan kids. Make English the language of the classroom every morning, from the time the children walk into their classroom until their lunch break. Wait five years. How well will the Catalan kids speak, read, and write English? As well as the boy in San Francisco speaks Cantonese? How well will the English-speaking kids speak, read, and write English? Far better than they would otherwise. Will their Spanish and Catalan suffer? Half of their classmates will be native speakers: half of their classroom time and school work will be in the ordinary, mandated languages of instruction.
Both groups of children would benefit. Catalan society would benefit. In twenty years, a significant subset of young Catalans would speak and write very good English. In twenty years, the structure of the economy could be transformed by dual-language schooling. That may seem like a bit of a leap, but it follows on from the Catalan government’s efforts to prioritise science. Planners want to make this a research hub, and the Catalan economy a knowledge-based economy. That means attracting researchers, highly mobile scientific talent, people whose middle-class incomes don’t allow them to pay 10,000 plus euros per child per year for a private school. If a Cambridge-trained oncologist is offered a post in Vienna, Berlin, Paris, or Helsinki—all cities which provide state-sector bilingual education—and a post in Barcelona—which does not—will sunshine and good food trump common sense and a child’s best interest? Barcelona needs more flexible education policies if it’s to compete.
3. How many members are in the group and are these all English speaking parents?
We have just under forty card-carrying members, parents who have signed a membership form because they share our aims. We are also active in social networks: over 160 people belong to our online groups. Some of our members are not English speaking themselves, but their spouses or partners are, and English is part of their home. In a very few cases, members are Catalans who have lived in an English-speaking country, with their children, and since returned, or who have chosen to always speak to their children in English though they themselves were not brought up in English.
The potential membership must be in the thousands. There are at least 33,000 nationals of English-speaking countries in Catalunya, over 11,000 in Barcelona. If you add dual nationals to that figure, it must be considerably higher. We aren’t as visible as other newcomers because many of us have started families with Catalan or Spanish spouses or partners and most of us choose a town or neighbourhood without reference to the number of English speakers living nearby.
4. Since setting up your group, what kind of reaction have you had from other parents of native English speaking children?
We’ve sought and received a lot of feedback about their and their children’s experiences. Some language teachers are accommodating and helpful, providing English-speaking children with materials that match their skills, allowing them to work independently. Others seem to feel threatened by an English-speaking child. We’ve had parents tell us that schools have told them not to teach their children to read in English.
The parents who contact us share our concerns, but not all English-speaking parents do. I’ve met parents who do not think of their children as English speakers, parents who have never systematically spoken English to their children, or whose children stopped speaking English to them at a very early age. Others do not want or expect state-funded education to acknowledge special needs in their kids. I may have met a dozen parents who fall into those categories.
5. What kind of reaction have you had so far from the Education department in Catalunya?
We had a meeting Mònica Pereña and Neus Lorenzo Galés of the Education Department in July 2011. They were forthright and generous with their time. They told us that our kids have the same right as any other student to apply to study abroad once in high school (though the decision to apply rests with the school, not the child). As for advanced English or enriched English in the classroom, there’s no mechanism that would allow students from various schools in one district to be brought to one location for, say, one morning a week, and the fact that English speakers aren’t heavily concentrated in one or two neighbourhoods means that individual schools will never have enough native or heritage speakers to justify setting up a special stream. Heritage language teaching is impossible for the reasons I’ve already mentioned. We were told to apply for grants and set up after-school programmes with the grant money. We were also told that any programme funded with grant money would have to be open to all comers—not just English-speaking kids. We feel that this would not be practical and would defeat the purpose, so we haven’t pursued it.
6. Do you feel the Catalan School System is worse than other regions of Spain in meeting the needs of English speaking pupils?
In one sense, it is. A number of Spanish school systems have bilingual programmes. Some of them have a harmonized British-Spanish curriculum that leads to British and Spanish secondary-school qualifications. By virtue of agreements they’ve signed with the British Council, they are able to take a limited number of UK-trained and qualified teaching staff. I’ve no idea why the Catalan authorites have shown no interest in these arrangements. They signed on board for a joint French-Catalan baccalaureate that entails teaching 30% of the curriculum in French.
7. How do you feel other European countries fare?
I’d like to make a distinction between English-medium or bilingual education and education that takes the nativeness of native speakers of English into account. English-medium education is fairly common in central, northern, and eastern Europe, especially for upper secondary school students. State-sector or state-funded schools in thirteen European countries offer International Baccalaureate programmes taught in English. Swedish free schools and state-subsidized schools in the Netherlands and Denmark use English as the primary medium of instruction: Amsterdam and Ljubljana can boast English-medium state schools, intended for local children who have returned from an English-medium school environment abroad, or the children of highly mobile, highly skilled workers.
France has a system of sections internationals, primary and secondary streams teaching a hybrid bi-national curriculum at schools partly staffed by foreign nationals thanks to bilateral agreements. Up to 25% of classroom time is spent studying subjects from another national curriculum in its home language—British history, for example, taught by teachers with English credentials. The French government cites this system when selling multinationals on the benefits of setting up shop in France, and will often develop the sections in concert with large industrial or research complexes, such as Airbus in Toulouse or CERN in the French towns around Geneva.
The most advanced accommodation of Anglophone children in Europe uses the dual-language immersion model. In Berlin, Vienna, and Helsinki, for example, schools in the state sector which use two languages as media of instruction benefit from special staffing and admissions protocols. They run two parallel admissions processes, one for native or heritage English speakers and one for other children. As in France, they take on staff holding foreign credentials, and often team-teach a subject, so that children will have a good grasp of subject-specific vocabulary in both the languages of instruction. If you’re interested, try Googling Vienna Bilingual Schools or the Nelson Mandela and John F. Kennedy schools of Berlin. (Berlin also has a new Mandarin-German dual-language primary school.)
8. In your opinion, what kind of level of writing, reading and speaking English do native English speaking children have once they have gone through and completed the Catalan education system (compared to children going through the schools system in say the UK or the States)? Has there been much concrete research on this?
Research tends to focus on immigrants as learners of the language of instruction, such as children who (at least initially) speak Tamazight at home, study in Catalan, and are socially immersed in Spanish. All the research that I know of supports a dual literacy strategy: children fare better if they learn to read in both the language of the school and that of the home, and better still if they have a chance to use their home language academically.
Anecdotally rather than scientifically, I can report what I’ve seen in eighteen years of undergraduate teaching at a Catalan university. Every year I have a handful of students who have spoken English as a home language to one or both parents. Many speak like hesitant native speakers: they can have trouble not code switching. A very few wrote beautifully nuanced and structured academic English which would have served them well at UC Berkeley, McGill, or the U of Edinburgh. In all such cases, they’d benefited from years of intensive private tutoring—a mother or father who’d sat down with them week after week for many years—or an extended stay abroad with aunts, uncles, or grandparents. But most have weaker writing skills than many of our German, Czech, or Polish Erasmus students—students who are not native English speakers.
9. Is there a big difference in the level of English of native English speaking children if they have one or two native English speaking parents?
One strict, systematic parent seems to work as well as two relaxed parents. I know an American father who never speaks anything but English to his eight-year-old daughter, tutors her in reading and math in English, and ensures that she only watches television and DVDs in English. He now speaks English to his Catalan wife. His daughter’s English is nearly indistinguishable from that of an eight-year-old growing up in, say, Wisconsin. I know situations in which two English-speaking parents regularly accommodate Catalan and Spanish speakers when they are in a group situation with their children: they will speak to their own children in Spanish or in Catalan as a way of signaling solidarity with the group, and regularly use “school” words in Spanish or Catalan rather than translating them. Their children speak fluent, colloquial, accurate English, but they do seem to code-switch more readily than some other children do.
The language of the home seems to be key. If one parent is English-speaking but the marriage, as a relationship, exists in another linguistic medium—Spanish or Catalan—children often come to perceive English as an ancillary medium, part of one parent’s identity, but not part of the family’s or, by extension, of their own. Take the issue of siblings speaking to one another in English, though it’s only one of their parents’ mother tongue. I know at least four such cases in Barcelona. In each one, the Spanish- or Catalan-speaking parents understands English very well and often uses English at home with his/her partner.
10. Do you also feel that more Spanish should be taught in Catalan schools?
As an association, we try to stay away from this issue. We observe strict neutrality when it comes up. We’d rather not muddy the issue of improving the policy response to native and heritage speakers.
As an Anglophone Canadian who’s lived in Quebec, I can report that the Quebecois policy of running two school systems—one in English, one in French—and channeling all immigrants into the French system has helped preserve French as a language of everyday life in metropolitan Montreal. In fact, many Anglophone parents in Montreal opt for French immersion schools. The analogy is a wobbly one, though, as Canada is federal. French is an official language of the federation along with English and the only official language in Quebec.
11. For parents who want more education in English do you feel they should opt for an international school?
If they can afford the tuition, they might consider any of a number of academically sound schools in Barcelona that use English as the predominant medium of instruction and maintain a good mix of mother tongues in the student body. That said, a few of the international schools are, despite their names and curricula, Spanish or Catalan institutions—the students are overwhelmingly native speakers of one or the other language, and not of English. Others are international in outlook, staffing, and students. If you are looking for a school where English is part of the social mix, choose the latter.
But few parents can afford the tuition; and many of us would like a truly bi- or multilingual option. We hope that the Generalitat will wake up to this need, or a social entrepreneur will help us start a not-for-profit dual-language immersion school under the auspices of a foundation or trust.
12. How do you feel the recent Government cuts in education will affect your cause?
They can’t help. Funding for new initiatives will not come from the Generalitat, not for many years to come. The City of Barcelona is in better shape, financially, and may be of some help in setting up supplementary programmes. In fact, we’re in negotiation with the City’s Education Department to secure use of a former children’s library on Friday evenings and Saturday mornings. That won’t be of much help to parents who don’t live in the city, but it may serve as a model for other local authorities.
There’s a chance that another level of government could get involved. The research branch of the European Commission-financed Fusion for Energy programme (the EU’s contribution to the international fusion project ITER) is located in Barcelona. A former director of the programme mentioned, when interviewed by TV3, that his facility was lobbying for the creation of a European School to attend to the needs of the researchers’ children. European Schools are multilingual institutions offering, say, an English-medium stream, a French-medium stream, a German-medium stream, and a Spanish-medium stream. They are funded jointly by member states and the European Commission. School leavers are granted a pan-European qualification, a European baccalaureate which is good for admission to any university system in the EU. I mentioned this to Ms Pereña and Ms Lorenzo in July 2011. Their account of the issue is that they were indeed approached by Fusion for Energy and had argued that the partial English immersion programmes in the Catalan public system should be good enough for the foreign physicists employed in Barcelona. Alacant has one of these schools: there’s no reason why Barcelona couldn’t, and I’m hopeful that the Department will eventually change its stance on this issue—especially after recent press stories suggesting that the offices of Fusion for Energy would be transferred from Barcelona to Germany.
13. How do you feel the recent cuts will affect education in Catalunya as a whole?
I can see two possible outcomes.
Let’s assume that the broad policies remain in place. We have two kinds of publicly funded schools—those in the state sector and independent schools which disguise tuition fees as voluntary contributions to trust funds. All publicly funded schools are underwritten, pedagogically, by a common curriculum. They are free to vary their approaches somewhat—the independent schools more so than the state schools—but this variation typically occurs among schools rather than within schools or among students. If a school takes part in an experimental partial immersion programme in English (30% of contact time), every student in the school will take part. That contrasts with school systems that allow for special programmes for the gifted, advanced or enriched language instruction, etc.—programmes that entail sending children to another school, or to a school board office, for one morning a week. Moreover, the freedom that schools have to do something different, something innovative, is far more limited than it is in other policy environments. Thus, a mere four foreign languages are taught in Catalan schools, while in England and Wales, nineteen foreign languages are available for GCSE exams, and in New York City, dual-language schools operate in English and Spanish, Russian, French, Korean, Hebrew, and Mandarin. The system is slow to experiment and, when it does experiment, the experimentation is often top-down.
If you starve a fairly rigid system of resources, it will likely do less of the same. Class sizes will increase and resources will grow scarcer. That’s the first and more likely of the outcomes that I foresee. But policy makers might respond to funding cuts by making the system more flexible, allowing for more experimentation and providing less rigid oversight, so long as new initiatives are less costly than the structures in place. Could dual-language education be a way of saving the Catalan tax-payer money? If it involved bilateral agreements with other school systems, it might. Imagine a staff exchange scheme between Catalunya and Scotland, or Catalunya and Alberta in Canada: the partner system would send staff to teach the English-medium classes in dual-language programmes, Catalunya would send trained language teachers (employed as English teachers here) to teach Spanish. On their return from Stirling or Lethbridge, the Catalans exchange participants would speak vastly improved English—at no additional expense—while Scots and Albertans (equally blessed in terms of climate) would get a year or two of mild weather. It could be win-win, if helped along by some imagination.
14. What is your opinion of the education in Catalunya at both primary and secondary level?
I can only refer to the PISA reports, which give Catalan schools a middling score (though comparable to the rest of Spain) and to my own experience in teaching Catalan undergraduates, themselves recent products of the school system here. Students here seem to be very good at teamwork, to an extent that worries me—they often seem ill-adapted to the lonely work of collecting and sifting sources, paraphrasing, and putting together their own arguments on their own. Most seem to complete secondary education without much idea of how to compose and format a formal academic text. Plagiarism is very common. Standards for such things as paragraphs, margins, or proper acknowledgement of sources vary widely or have never been taught. When my daughter went to school in Ottawa for five months, my wife and I were both struck by how much more emphasis her Canadian school had placed on writing skills. It’s a legacy of English’s maddeningly irregular spelling. Historians of education like Neil Postman talk about the five- or six-year process of mastering the English writing system. Compositions were part of that process. Learning to read and write Spanish or Catalan acceptably does not require as much memory training, so there’s less need to get kids to write as a way of reinforcing and activating spelling.
I can’t speak to science, math, or arts teaching, though I’ve heard that the former is often very demanding and quite good. Foreign-language teaching is handicapped by the absence of a common EU teacher’s credential. Catalan schools can’t hire qualified teachers from the Republic of Ireland or any of the UK qualification systems. Some Catalan teachers of English are highly skilled, highly motivated professionals whose English is very, very good. Others speak very poor English, by their own admission. I’ve had BA students sit and my office and confess that they were already qualified primary school teachers of English and had been working for years, though their spoken and written English would not have been easily comprehensible to native speakers of English with no knowledge of Spanish or Catalan. Ideally, I’d like to see foreign language teaching all over Europe entrusted to teams of locally qualified staff and properly qualified native speakers. Language teaching is by definition bicultural: practitioners should be, too.
15. For parents interested in your group how do they best contact you?