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Opinion & Analysis

#ThinkingAllowed: Bilingual and proud

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I’ve been following the recent debate on Gibraltarian bilingualism with interest. The arguments and benefits are plenty, including its importance for economic and business purposes, for the community generally and that it even has potential health benefits.

They are all very valid points. I would go one step further. We need to make sure new generations of Gibraltarians are fluent in both English and Spanish because this is our heritage. It is what has made us Llanitos.

By stripping away the Spanish language from households I would even argue that parents have done a disservice to their children and to Gibraltar as a whole. For generations this has been part of what made us unique in many respects. Why would we want to be like any other city across the UK? We are not London, Brighton, Manchester or Edinburgh. We are Gibraltar with the things that makes us Gibraltarian, just like they have their own quirks. Surely, it doesn’t make us any less British because we also speak Spanish?

I have a Scottish friend who speaks perfect Spanish, it doesn’t make her feel less Scottish. I have another friend who speaks French, doesn’t make him feel less British. I’m sure you get the gist.

People may have thought younger generations would speak better English by concentrating on just the one language. It may be true in some cases but there is no evidence to justify this position. I also know of some older Gibraltarians who have grown up in a bilingual Gibraltar and speak an English that would put young people’s language skills to shame. In some cases young people in Gibraltar sound more American than British because of the TV they have been exposed to and the Disney films and channels.

In London I live just round the corner from a language school. The number of people I see queuing for courses and willing to pay for the tuition is amazing. I speak to people daily who want to learn another language and every time I walk into a newsroom here in the UK everyone is amazed that I am fluent in Spanish. Or if you’re a young person from Gibraltar you could say they think it’s awesome (you have to imagine that said in a thick American accent because that’s what I hear in the streets of Gibraltar). If we really want to develop British accents then make sure children watch British television.

Times do change and I have always been one to advocate that we must change with the times. But, this is not a change that was necessary. Has it come about as a result of our own insecurities, I wonder? If anything the change that was needed was moving from speaking Spanish as the colloquial language to English, but keeping Spanish as our second language, not losing it.

I would go as far as to say that the fact I am bilingual may be helping to open doors at this early stage of my new adventure and challenge in the UK. As the Chief Minister put it recently: “It’s one of the strengths of the Gibraltarians."

The number of people in the world who speak more than one language is fast increasing. I consider myself one of the lucky ones. I didn’t have to study to learn Spanish, it just happened. In the street, at home and when on holiday in Spain. Which is another factor. Love or hate Spain, let’s be honest, many of us enjoy a trip there for tapas every now and again, for weekends away or to spend a day at the beach. Why would you want anyone to struggle with a language that is so readily available at your doorstep? I have to admit I have struggled with this concept for a long time.

Yes, we have Gibraltarian accents, because that is who we are! There is absolutely nothing wrong with that and in any case, avoiding to speak in Spanish will not change that. Learn how to use the language properly (both English and Spanish) and then speak it to the best of your ability. It was Prime Minister Teresa May who said a few months back that it wasn’t the accent that was important but how ready and prepared people are to put their shoulders to the wheel when it comes to work etc…

Multilingualism has been shown to have many social, psychological and lifestyle advantages. Research also seems to indicate that those who speak more than one language could benefit from faster stroke recovery and the delayed onset of dementia.

The initiative of the Gibraltar Government and Gibraltar College to offer a language school is to be welcomed. I agree that we need to work as a community to retain our bilingualism, but before we do that parents need to realise, and come to grips with the fact that the benefits far outweigh the perceived obstacles and start encouraging their children to, at least occasionally, speak in Spanish.

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