Tag Archives: Spain

The Historical Twists and Turns of Spanish

Julie Barlow (Photo: Veronica Louis)

The Spanish that’s spoken here in the United States is a far cry from the language that came into being on the Iberian Peninsula after the Roman invasion.

Julie Barlow and Jean-Benoît Nadeau wanted to trace that Point-A-to-Point-Z history. So they moved from their native Canada to the United States, and began researching the book that became The Story of Spanish.

They found a language in flux—not just now, in the US, but in flux since its beginnings. No language, of course, ever stops changing, but Spanish has been a faster mover than many. History decided that. The Iberian Peninsula took in wave upon wave of invasion—from the Phoenicians, the Romans, the Visigoths, the Moors. When large-scale migration into Spain ended, Spanish-speakers migrated away, mainly to what became Latin America. There, the language was pushed and pulled in many directions—in most places it was spoken only by a minority elite. Only after independence in countries like Mexico and Peru did Spanish become a lingua franca.

Alfonso X of Castile (Photo via Wikipedia)

As Julie Barlow told me, Arabic in particular had a huge influence on Spanish. Not just through loanwords, though Spanish has many of them. (Albaricoque: Apricot. From Arabic al-barqouq (البرقوق) meaning plum or early-ripe; ojalá: I hope, I wish that… From law šha’ allāh: God willing.) Moorish rule over Spain was waning by the time King Alfonso Tenth of Castile decided that he’d use language to forge power.

Afonso—who later became known as Alfonso The Wise—decided to incentivize people into speaking Spanish. He wanted make Spanish prestigious and interesting. But when he looked around for what was prestigious and interesting in Spain, it was all in Arabic. So, Alfonso launched a huge project of translating Arabic classics into Spanish—which meant the rules of the language had to be defined, so that the translators had coherency and consistency.

“It becomes a trend in Spanish to define the language, the vocabulary and the spelling rules,” said Barlow. That was “very avant-garde in the 13th, 14th and 15th centuries.”

Excerpt from "Epitafio épico del Cid," circa 1400 (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Excerpt from “Epitafio épico del Cid,” circa 1400 (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Barlow and Nadeau are language history veterans. They previously co-authored a book called The Story of French. So it’s no surprise they often compare Spanish to French, two romance languages that took very different paths.

“French is a language that is controlled by one country. Paris sets the rules,” said Barlow. “Spanish is completely different. Spain was overcome by its own empire and it very quickly in its history learned to share control of the language.” So the Royal Academy in Madrid has created standards for the Spanish language by taking into account consideration all the Spanish that’s spoken throughout the Spanish-speaking world. “It’s very much a language about sharing control and diversity.”

Barlow and Nadeau’s experience of United States comes very much from a Canadian perspective. They lived in Phoenix, Arizona where they enrolled their daughters in predominantly Hispanic schools. They observed the widespread phenomenon in the US of non-native English-speaking parents urging their kids to learn English and forget their Spanish.

“It’s like a zero-sum game,” said Barlow. These immigrants “are convinced that they can’t teach their kids Spanish of they won’t make it in the English United States. This was eye-opening for us, because it’s the opposite in Canada. Everybody wants to learn French—French is an officially recognized language and it will get you a job in the government. In the United States, there’s a similar idea among white people who want their kids to learn Spanish. But the perfectly bilingual Spanish-speaking kids are hearing from the parents. ‘English, English, English! Forget your Spanish.’”

Here’s a report on The Story of French from an previous podcast:


In the pod, I mentioned PRI’s Global Reporting Fund. Here’s where you can contribute.



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Why I Like Catalan and Don’t Speak it

Sign in Catalan ("People live here") Photo: Josep Renalias/Wikimedia Commons

Sign in Catalan (“People live here”) Photo: Josep Renalias/Wikimedia Commons

[Note from Patrick Cox: Here’s a blog post from the Big Show’s Barcelona-based Europe correspondent Gerry Hadden. It’s a great companion piece to his report featured in the podcast above.]

When my partner Anne and I moved to Barcelona eight years ago, we decided we would send our (future) kids to local schools. Schools that teach almost exclusively in the Catalan language. I didn’t speak a word of Catalan and neither did Anne.

We could have opted for one of two French Lycees in town. We could have chosen one of several American or British schools. That way, their education would have been in one of two languages we both speak.

But we went local because we wanted to become a part of our community. We wanted our kids to belong here. At “foreign” language schools, you’re always an expat. You don’t know the kids in your neighborhood. And your friends at school inevitably move away after a few years, when their parents’ bosses transfer them elsewhere.

That’s not the way either of us grew up, and we didn’t want that for our children. We’re also polyglots (I majored in German in college) with a “the more languages the merrier” philosophy. Our kids are now on the road to speaking, naturally, without blinking an eye, four languages.

Catalan independence supporters (Wikimedia Commons)

Catalan independence supporters (Wikimedia Commons)

Eight years on, however, their dad still doesn’t speak Catalan. For some Catalans, that’s an offense. They feel snubbed. How dare I not embrace the language – the most important and cherished aspect of Catalan identity?

But the majority of our Catalan friends couldn’t care less. Many have even congratulated us for having mastered that other official language in Catalonia: Spanish.

As foreigners living in Catalonia, we’re caught in the cross-fire of a divided society. Some Catalans wish Spain would just go away. Others can’t understand such preference for Catalan over Spanish.

This debate is sometimes tedious. Often it is outright hateful, with the vitriol spewing from both sides.

In the meantime, as I say, I haven’t learned it. I can read it, and understand most of it, but I don’t speak it. Haven’t made much effort. The reason isn’t political. It has more to do with water than with politics or philosophy or identity.

Water seeks the easiest route on its journey to wherever it’s going. Language is the same. People learn foreign languages for one of just two reasons, and the first follows the water principal. The second is what happens to water when it spills into a geyser.

Reason One: Necessity. You learn Catalan or Mandarin or Tagalog because you have no choice. You have moved to a country where no one speaks your native language and you have to eat. You can’t go to market, point at produce and nod forever. Also, you have to work. You have to make friends.

In Catalonia I can do all those things without speaking Catalan. Like water, I take the easiest route. Everyone speaks Spanish. Whether they like it or not. Only once in a very long while will a Catalan simply refuse to talk to me in Spanish. This reality drives some Catalans crazy – and it’s led to public campaigns to encourage Catalans not to switch to Spanish in conversations with folks like me. But that hasn’t really worked, because ultimately people realize it’s rude to answer someone who’s speaking to you in a language you know – by using a language they don’t.

Reason Two: Love. Love makes water go in any direction it wants. It can shoot it hundreds of feet into the air, against gravity – even turn it into a gas if it feels like it. I fell in love with someone who happens to be French. Which is why, over these eight years in Catalonia, my French has gotten pretty good, while my level of Catalan has barely budged.



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Does Banning Bilingual Education Change Anything?

Nine years after bilingual education was banned in Massachusetts, educators are still arguing over the effect on students’ language abilities.  Massachusetts is among of several states, including California and Arizona, to ban bilingual education. The fear seems to be that non-English speaking kids won’t learn English fast enough if they receive much of their instruction in their native tongue (which in the US is usually Spanish). The solution has been “total immersion” in English.

There’s no shortage of studies related to bilingual education. Here are the cases for and against . Also, the National Association for Bilingual Education, and some other links.

Reporter Andrea Smardon of WGBH-Boston has been looking at why the ban came into being, and its effects– whether  non-English speakers are now picking English faster, or whether they’re dropping out of school. There’s more on her series here.

Also in the pod, more conversation with UK-based American, Lynne Murphy. Murphy teaches linguistics at the University of Sussex. She also writes the clever and droll blog,  Separated by a Common Language. In the last podcast, we talked about twangy accents, pronunciation of the world water, and the declining status of British English in the United States. This time, we consider politeness, and why neither Yanks nor Brits live up to each others’ expectations. One word encapsulates this: toilet. Misuse this word at your peril. But there are others: excuse me and sorry have subtle differences in usage, which if you don’t get them right, may result in the locals thinking you arrogant.

Murphy has an entertaining theory about British people and the word sorry. If you’ve spent any time in the UK, you’ll know that the word comes up all the time, especially in official announcements (“We are sorry to announce that the 9:16 train to Chingford is delayed due to a staff shortage.”). But when Brits bump into people– which they do a lot on their crowded island–  they don’t always apologize. Murphy suspects this is because they are in denial about having made any physical contact.

We round off the pod with some girl pop from the 1960s, en español.

Back then, Francisco Franco was still running Spain with an iron fist, and his government resisted anything that smacked of  youthful rebellion.  But there were mini skirts (not quite so mini in Spain). And there were carefree female singers.

Spain’s best known singer was Marisel.

Marisel is one of many artists featured in a new CD called Chicas: Spanish Female Singers 1962 to 1974.

Most of the tunes on the CD were released as original singles, composed by Spanish song writers.

They had been influenced by British rock, American soul and dance crazes like the twist. The lyrics are Spanish, but the musical language is very much imported.

Listen via iTunes or here.


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The events of English and the future of Tibetan

Five language stories from the past month with Patrick, Carol and Rhitu

5.Tibetan in schools

Tibetans have been protesting over the potential loss of their language in schools.

It started after the Chinese Communist Party’s Qinghai province chief, Qiang Wei reportedly called for “a common language” in schools.  He went on to propose that Qinghai use Mandarin as the language of instruction in all schools. Now,  it already is the language of instruction in most schools in Qinghai, as in the rest of China. But the province is also home to a significant number of Tibetans, who typically learn at elementary level in their own language. Those who stay on in higher grades switch to Mandarin.

Estimates put the number of protesters between several hundred and several thousand. They spread beyond Tibetan speakers, with Uigher-speaking students also taking to the streets in sympathy. They know they could be next.

4. Spain re-orders its family names

The Spanish government has drafted a law that would change birth registration rules. That could result in a dramatic transformation of naming customs. Spaniards have two family names.  Right now, either of those names can come first, though it’s customary for the father’s name to assume priority. Under the proposed law, the two names would simply be listed alphabetically, unless otherwise instructed by the parents. This may well result in gender neutrality, but it would certainly discriminate against letters at the end of the alphabet. Zapatero? Forgetaboutit! Just think: had the law been around in 1892, Spanish dictator Francisco Franco might have been known as Generalísimo Bahamonde. Would he have won the Spanish Civil War with a name like that?

3. Events that shaped English

A non-profit group in Britain called The English Project is putting together a list of historical events and places that have shaped the development of the English language. It’s a thoroughly UK-centric list. Which is fair enough, until that time in history when Britain began exporting the English language. Here’s the list.  Post your ideas for a more expansive global list on English either there or on this site.

2.When can you say you speak a language? There’s no widely-accepted standard for speaking a second language, nor should there be: people use languages in so many different ways that there can never be  a single answer to this question.  But it’s instructive to try to come up with your own definition.

For the writer of this Economist blog, it’s a test of linguistic skills in journalism: “If my editor sent me to a country where I needed to report on a topic of general interest for The Economist, could I pull off interviews and research?  If yes, I speak it.”

The comments after the blog post are all over the map, as they should be:  “When you find yourself dreaming in a language, you can safely say that you can speak it.” (I disagree: I dream more fluently than I speak).  I prefer this one: “When you have mastered all, I emphasize all, the nuances contained in a given cuss word, and know when and when not, to deploy the word, so that you obtain the precise effect you want, not more, not less. This you do a native speaker of the language.”

1. We speak, therefore we think. New research out of Australia on how the languages we speak may determine how we think. Pormpuraawans — aboriginals living in a remote part of Australia — relate spatially to things according to the position of the sun. So while they think east and west, we English speakers often think left and right,  Arabic and Hebrew speaker right and left, and Chinese speakers up and down.  This plays in nicely to the recently renewed debate over language and thought: does language arise out of thought, or does it give shape to thought? Are we all prisoners of our native tongues?

Musings on this here and here. And more coverage of the research in a recent World Science podcast.

Listen in iTunes or here.


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A language of French Caribbean, Spanish unity and disunity, and more (not) teaching English in France

This week, two takes on language teaching in France.

First, a couple of Paris high schools have started teaching Antillean creole, a language in the French overseas departments of Guadeloupe and Martinique.

Guadeloupe

Those two islands were in the news earlier this year after a series of strikes and protests. Then, part two of my conversation with American Laurel Zuckerman who wanted to teach high school English. Zuckerman fought the French education establishment- and guess who won? We then consider an Arabic word beloved by Saudi Arabia’s morality police. Finally, Spain unites over a soccer victory, but remains divided over which songs best represent the spirit of the nation.

Listen in iTunes or here.


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