Besides the obvious reaction to losing the 2020 Olympics and not even making it to the “silver medal”, here in Spain and specially in Madrid, attention has been drawn to how far the choice was affected by the English proficiency of the city Mayor, Mrs Ana Botella.
I must admit I expected the president of the Autonomous community to have been equally embarrasing, but since nobody seemed to say anything bad about him, I doubled checked by looking at videos online showing the public television broadcast of the event and my impression is he spoke fluently and correctly.
Then there was the symptom of the voice-over. The video I found had a voice-over from the public television broadcast which made it very difficult to follow the “original soundtrack”. And this got me thinking about the overall attitude of Spain as a country towards foreign languages – even to more than one national language.
If Mrs Ana Botella is our Frankenstein monster, it is a Frankenstein we all created. And there are millions like her.
First, a little bit of historical perspective. People would go and put all the blame on Franco, but again Franco is a product of centuries of evolution – or lack thereof – in Spanish mentality. In a nutshell, given our historical links, allegiances and conflicts, spaniards had reasons (valid or not) to distrust anything coming from the British Isles. Besides, we had the experience of being invaded by Napoleon’s army and at that time the concept was fixed: don’t trust them if they speak the language of the enemy. They must be the enemy. And if you want to be trusted don’t learnt it.
This concept, which had been brewing for a long time, brought about the approach to foreign – and internal languages – other than Castilian Spanish, during Franco’s dictatorship. A smugness extended itself, and a phrase was coined “let them learn Spanish. Anything but French, because it was admitted that French had class. It was the language of diplomacy…
And although the country was internationally isolated, you had to speak something other than Spanish, right? And French was sort of easy…
So, a whole cohort of Spanish people learnt some French at school. Most never used it and let it get rusty. In the meantime, the world changed and the US was the dominant power (other than the USSR which Franco abhorred: learning Russian was the worst thing you could do). Eventually Spain had to open itself up to tourism and this meant funny people who spoke an assortment of foreign languages.
But still the “let them learn Spanish” was the general attitude. Those who learnt some English or other languages, were generally happy to “get by”, which is a very flexible concept. This concept has transformed nowadays in Spain into the equally elastic “intermediate English”.
Certainly there was an landslide of american and foreign material on television in Spain which had started in cinemas before Franco’s time. But there were tools to avoid that “contamination”. In the first place, censorship often altered or even denied access to some materials. Then there was dubbing films, which is the usual practice to this day. This was vital in the malnourishment of multilingual skills in Spain.
An aside: there are four possible approaches to foreign content: dubbing, which assimilates the content completely to the country’s culture and language; voice-over, which reduces the original soundtrack to background noise; subtitling, which is a somewhat cumbersome compromise between bilinguals who want to hear the original and those who can’t speak the language and finally just watching/listening in the original version.
(Also, you can watch things with subtitles in the original language and learn a lot!)
In Spain dubbing was promoted to the extent that it became an industry and its specialists made it into an art. There are many excellent dubbing jobs both in film and television in Spain, just to name one “The fresh prince of Bel Air”. The downside of this was that people continued to avoid what has become now an urgent need: becoming bilingual. Will Smith spoke such good Spanish!
As a language consultant I have to deal with the results of this wreckage every day. Not until the crisis struck did companies – and their employees at an individual level – realize how urgent their need was. The spanish market evaporated overnight, LatAm is limited. They look for other markets. Oh surprise, suddenly I need more than just the “get by” attitude. No English, no business.
And in this sort of “they don’t know what hit them” eerie state, we can include Ana Botella. With all this background she can’t be blamed completely for her non-existent English. However, it wouldn’t have hurt if she had gone to class hand in hand with her husband, once he became ex-Prime Minister.
He was the laughing stock when his efforts to learn English and put it to use were publicly known. As a professional in the field I must praise his guts. His starting point was the same as his wife’s but he decided to solve the problem. And that’s a decision that many people and many companies still have to take in Spain.
Back to the Ana Botella controversy, her advisor, Mr Terrence Burns, is an expert advisor and consultant and has succesfully helped several other cities in becoming Olympic. I don’t know much about what was going on in the background, but from the outside it seems that Mr Burns has never seen himself in such dire straits.
Let me explain. Mr Burns had to do many things, including coaching Ana Botella for the promotion of Madrid 2020. An obvious bonus would be, someone thought, if she defended it with a speech in English. What a great idea! As a marketing strategy it is a logical move.
Not really. Because it backfired.
People who learn things phonetically are typically people with a musical training which I expect Ana Botella does not have. A famous case in this sense was Pavarotti. He had that skills, to the point that he couldn’t read music scores but could sing incredibly well in languages he did not speak.
One thing which I do with my clients is explain them where the problems lay and how things work. Obviously in order to do that, you need an insight into the topic. That’s where, in my opinion, the training of Mrs Botella should have been handed to a language expert. I have no doubt about other skills that Mr. Burns may possess, but the language hurdle was one which he was not ready to address.
Yet another aside: my opinion is that Mrs. Botella’s english proficiency did not play a significant role in not getting the olympics for Madrid. It was just a very public and very notorious embarrasment.
Alternatives to what happened in Buenos Aires: she could have spoken in Spanish (after all it is not a tiny, irrelevant language that a bunch of people speak on a small island somewhere) or even better, she could have introduced briefly someone who could do it better, like some spanish athlete or maybe the councillor for sports (if there is one and if he can speak English).
It is a national sport to laugh at people in disgrace. Mrs Botella made it crystal clear that she completely lacked a skill that is vital if you are the mayor of a world-class capital that aspires to hosting the olympics. But she is the tip of the iceberg. The employees and executives of many companies in Spain are in similar situations and their business opportunities are seriously compromised by their deficiencies or their lack of english skills. Many unemployed people in this country would have a job abroad if only they spoke decently other languages besides Spanish.
Solutions to this? that is a topic for a different post. This is long enough!