Forked Speech


Acclaimed author Javier Marías found plenty of agreement last spring with his opinion piece attacking Madrid’s educational system for offering Natural Science in English. (the column, in Spanish)  Cyberspace and real space buzzed –blazed even –with assenting voices following its publication in El País, just a week before local elections. I know this because Madrid is where I live, and my work here happens to include training teachers of Natural Science in English.

The syncophony (no, the word doesn’t exist) echoed from many respectable corners. This surprised me because the article presents its case without any evidence, or even reasoned argumentation. In fact it strays so far from the tenets of effective persuasive writing that I’m tempted to stick it in the Teaching Writing section [here] as an example of what not to do. It’s all heat no light.

It follows then that many readers came to it with already set opinions about Spain’s bilingual programs. The experiences and concerns informing these opinions are no doubt valid and deserve consideration. But first I want to pick through the various claims in the column, if for no other reason than it helped spotlight (or heat lamp) this important issue.


The piece consists of three long paragraphs, the first of which begins by condemning –insulting really –the current system, and by extension those who believe in it. Sorry I haven’t translated everything for non Spanish-speaking readers.

Una de las mayores locuras del sistema educativo español –también una de las más paletas– ha sido la implantación, no sé en cuántas comunidades autónomas, de lo que sus responsables bautizaron pomposa e ilusamente como “enseñanza bilingüe”, consistente en que los alumnos estudien algunas asignaturas en español y otras en inglés.

In just this opening sentence, Marías manages to revile those responsible for the program as “crazy,” “pompous” and “bumpkins” [paleto is a challenging type of word to translate]. He also packages a first taste of his investigative indifference into it, declaring that the despised bilingual programs are going on in… “I don’t know how many” autonomous regions.

How long would googling that actually take? We get more in the next sentence:

Pongamos que Ciencias Naturales –o como se llame su equivalente en la actualidad– se imparte exclusivamente en la lengua de Elton John.

You gotta love: “Natural Science –or whatever they call it nowadays.” Hint: It’s called “Natural Science.” The piece also finds its weirdness groove here, referring to English as “the language of Elton John.” Bizarre. This is also the first of many clues about where –or when –Marías’s frame of reference is located.

He goes on to cite the obvious fact that most Spanish school teachers are not native English speakers, offering –for some reason –a shopping list of English-speaking countries, followed by an equally head-scratching list of Spanish towns, where, presumably, they do come from.

Los encargados de las clases no son, sin embargo, salvo excepción, nativos británicos ni estadounidenses ni australianos ni irlandeses, sino individuos de Langreo, Orihuela, Requena, Conil o Mejorada del Campo…

One gets the impression Marías has chosen his list based on what he hopes will sound the most paleto. He then comes as close as he ever does to offering anything like evidence. Namely, friends have told him the teachers’ English is really bad. Several lines follow of creative, fancifully insulting description of just how bad he imagines their English to be. He criticizes them also for occasionally resorting to Spanish during difficult communication moments, which is odd given his main argument that Science classes should only be given in Spanish. Steaming along, he exhorts (in parentheses) that the result of these imagined linguistic perversions is “neither bilingual, nor education.” (Note to fledging writers: parentheses are a really weird place to bury a thesis.)

Por cuanto me cuentan personas que trabajan en colegios e institutos –y absolutamente todas coinciden–, esos profesores poseen un conocimiento precario del idioma, de nuevo salvo excepción; lo chapurrean, por lo general tienen pésimo acento o ignoran la pronunciación correcta de numerosas palabras, su sintaxis y su gramática tienden a ser mera copia de las del castellano, y además, en cuanto se encuentran con una dificultad insalvable, recurren un rato a esta última lengua, sabedores de que es la que los estudiantes sí entienden. El resultado es un desastre total (ni enseñanza ni bilingüe).

Logical conundrums and more trumpeted ignorance follow. “The result,” he conjectures, “is that students wind up “knowing no English, and less science.” [my italics]: “Apparently,” he continues, as if basing the next bit on actual evidence, students “do not understand, snooze or play battleship (if they still play that).” [His parentheses –and faulty parallelism]. He then rattles off three more creative lines of adjectives describing gibberish –without a trace of irony.

Al parecer no se enteran, dormitan o juegan a los barcos (si es que aún se juega a eso) mientras los individuos de Orihuela o Conil sueltan absurdos macarrónicos en una especie de no-idioma. Algo ininteligible hasta para un nativo, un farfulleo, una ristra de vocablos quizá aprendidos el día antes en Internet, un mejunje, un chapoteo verbal.

This is just the first paragraph. The next and half of the last detail pronunciation failings perceived in essentially random speakers from Marías’s own past, rendered with odd, homespun phonetics.

… el caso del renombrado traductor Fernando Vela, que vertió al español muchos libros, pero que si oía decir como es debido “You are my girl”, frase sencilla, no la reconocía: para él “You” se pronunciaba como lo veía escrito, y no “Yu”; “are” no era “ar”; “my” no era “mai”, sino “mi”; y la última palabra era “jirl”, con una i bien castellana. Si oía “gue:l” (pronunciación correcta aproximada), simplemente no estaba facultado para asociarla con “girl”, que había traducido centenares de veces

And another:

…Jesús Aguirre se atrevió a dar una conferencia en inglés en una Universidad norteamericana. Los nativos lo escucharon pacientemente, pero luego admitieron, todos, no haber comprendido una palabra de aquel imaginario inglés de esparto.

And yet another:

En una ocasión oí a un colega novelista leer fragmentos de sus textos en una sesión londinense. Pese a que el escritor había residido largo tiempo en Inglaterra y debía de conocer su lengua, no estaba capacitado para hablarla de manera inteligible, tampoco allí entendió nadie nada.

Am I missing something here? How do these three individuals have any bearing on the real and important debate regarding Madrid’s bilingual education program –except, perhaps, that they are all Spanish.

Indeed, Spanishness, framed as “our limitations,” does emerge as he wraps up the piece. His references to inarticulate “thick lips” and the rest would actually sound racist coming from anyone else. From him, a Spaniard who learned English well enough to teach at Oxford University and is, according to the New York Times, “a perpetual contender for the Nobel Prize in literature,” it’s merely absurd. He ends with some reactionary railing against the incursion of English into Spanish, befitting of the Royal Academy of the Spanish Language, where he happens to work.

La gente española llena hoy sus peroratas de “brainstorming”, “crowdfunding”, “mainstream”, “target”, “share”, “spoiler”, “feedback” y “briefing”, pero la mayoría suelta estos vocablos a la española, a la pata la llana, y así no habrá británico ni americano que los reconozca en tan espesos labios…Vistas nuestras limitaciones para la Lengua Deseada, a uno se le ponen los pelos de punta al figurarse esas clases de colegios e institutos impartidas en inglés estropajoso. ¿No sería más sensato –y mucho menos paleto– que los chicos aprendieran Ciencias por un lado e inglés por otro, y que de las dos se enteraran bien?

His conclusion is that Science and English should be taught separately. How he reaches it is as unknowable as the source of his evidence. The great irony is he is essentially calling for a return to the bad old days, to a system that produced exactly the kind of English speakers he so caustically caricaturizes.

As a whole, this piece (ahem) must simply (ahem again) represent an off day for such a well-regarded writer.

Or maybe he was just trying to stir things up –which he did. “I don’t really care,” he once said. “If one of my columns bothers someone, what can I do? Or, maybe that’s the idea? If we cannot influence people, at least we can bother them, so they won’t have a calm breakfast on Sunday.”


So let’s leave breakfast, and Marías, aside for a moment and just consider the issue of Madrid’s “bilingual” program (yes, I realize the term can be misleading –more on that later).

To me, it’s a rough and bumpy road we’re on here, but it’s the right one. I have several reasons for supporting it, but before getting into them I want to look at why others may be opposed.

Frankly, this would be easier to do if core objections didn’t so often masquerade as implementation problems and without partisan politics muddying educational waters. Still, four stand out: 1) Teachers’ English isn’t good enough. 2) Students can’t learn their subjects as well in a foreign language. 3) Students will suffer knowledge gaps in their mother tongue. 4) Identity theft.

Okay, I’m joking a little with that last one, and it’s actually on the wane, so we can just leave it for the end and start with the others. The most common objection I hear hinges on the issue Marías raises, in his peculiar way, about the English level of everyone concerned. If students can’t follow the explanations given in, say, a Science class, it follows that very little learning is going on. Ironclad logic.

Spaniards of a certain age have a basis for skepticism about current teachers’ English levels because they know first-hand the outdated (I hope!) educational system that produced them.

It treated English as a dead language. The point was never to speak it, just to speak about it –in Spanish! It was considered a maría, a local term meaning an easy and unimportant subject. Lessons focused on grammar, which, divorced from any communicative context, rarely got absorbed. One of my private students likened the experience to trying to fill in some exotic crossword puzzle. If students knowing only, say, Korean, were ever placed in those “English” classes, I expect they ended up learning exactly what they practiced –Spanish.

I knew the system too, having worked alongside it in the parallel world of Madrid’s private language academies –which are legion. When I started, some 25 years ago, it was common to interview new students, find they’d been “studying” English for something like 10 years, and promptly place them in a group of absolute beginners.

Even university students training to become English teachers were often given the impression –or told outright –that actually speaking English was beyond the institution’s purview. One such student who entered an academy class of mine and was unable to follow anything admitted she’d been told she would have to go “outside” (fuera, a quaint Spanish term meaning abroad) to learn to speak. How’s that for abdication?

Given that today’s teachers are the product of yesterday’s system, and that educational systems don’t change from one day to the next, some basis for doubt is easy to see.

I actually think that doubt is overblown and will gladly share what I know about the current crop of teachers. But let’s first consider the next objection. Even assuming optimal English levels all around (a huge assumption!), some argue it will always be harder for students to learn difficult concepts –say in science –using English instead of their mother tongue.

That’s a tough one to dispute. Who would argue there will be greater comprehension in the weaker tongue? So more ironclad logic. The real question becomes, then, whether the tradeoff is worthwhile, i.e. how bad is this linguistic handicap, and how valuable is the added goal of increased English proficiency?

To address these related questions, we need to look very specifically at CLIL (content & language integrated learning) methodology and implementation, as well as weigh the role English will likely play in current students’ present and future. Let’s take Natural Science as a case in point –just as Marías did in his jousty (this word doesn’t exist but should) way.


Ghazi Hatem, Journalist, physicist and personal friend, is currently writing an article, in Arabic, in which he poses the question of whether it’s possible to be a scientist in today’s world without English. Spoiler alert: his conclusion is that it isn’t.

When he got his Ph.D. in Physics from the Universidad Complutense over 20 years ago, his thesis defense was still in Spanish. (I attended, and it seems like yesterday.) Even then, however, the vast majority of his research and publications were in English.

Much more recently, I had the pleasure of working with several microbiologists at the Instituto Nacional de Salud, [Carlos III Universidad?] Servicio de Microbiología in Majadahonda, where I got to see just how important English was for their work. I provided various types of support (writing workshops, article editing, etc.) to scientists there, all of whom, without exception, were required to know and use English. Indeed, such knowledge is an essential part of Spanish public exams even for becoming an assistant scientific researcher.

One aspiring researcher there, already an M.D. with a Ph.D in Biology and several years of post-doc research, was part of a small team that discovered Ebola (Lloviu cuevavirus) for the first time ever in Europe. Despite all this, her greatest hurdle to gaining the title of research assistant –to being able to move on from tiny month-to-month contractual stipends –was passing the English part of her public exam. In all the massive education she had received, this “little” aspect remained a huge problem.

My opinion is begin as young as possible. Research shows the earlier the better for acquiring a second language. This has to be as true for scientists as for anyone else.

A final anecdote from my time at the Instituto: Another student, a renowned bacteriologist, was chairing an international congress on antimicrobial resistance in Barcelona where the old issue of Castellano (Spanish) vs. Catalán was completely moot. The congress took place entirely in English, as is now standard for such events.

The truth is science has long held little professional future for students without a working knowledge of English. And what of other fields? What jobs are currently available for applicants without English? (President, you say? Haha) More importantly, when considering how best to manage primary and secondary education, how severe will the handicap likely become for those trying to carve out a niche in the information age without the new Esperanto?


 ELF [English as a lingua franca], Globish or whatever you want to call it has clearly moved on from professional ghettos like science and aviation to pretty much everywhere else. In business, how many multinationals don’t use English as an official language? Ironically maybe, even militaries, the last line of national(istic?) defense, increasingly find themselves involved in joint operations with the need for a common language. NATO and UN troops currently use English, and I’m told a B2 level requirement is now in place for cadets entering Spanish military academies.

Global English’s universality is historically unprecedented. Never have people in every single country striven to learn a common language. Even the closest approximations, like the 17th century Mediterranean Lingua Franca, from which the ELF acronym gets its name, had a far lesser range. Only in the Old Testament, in the Tower of Babel, can we find a story of humankind enjoying a unified language, before subsequent divine punishment condemns it to myriad, mutually incomprehensible tongues. Anyway, all of us being able to talk to each other can’t be a bad thing.

Some point out that English’s anointment as global language came from U.S. dominance in many influential spheres (science, technology, business, entertainment, etc.), and that such dominance is never permanent. Empires have always come and gone. The argument often follows that English’s privileged global status will one day suffer the same fate, perhaps to be replaced by Mandarin Chinese or some other emergent power’s language.

That scenario seems questionable to me, however, as I suspect whoever winds up being the next superpower would rather do business with the rest of us in English and not wait for the whole world to learn another language. English may very well have acquired its status at a historically unique moment when the globalization of many activities, coinciding with great leaps in communication technologies, created this strong need for a common tongue.

Nor do I take any pride in my own native tongue having been “chosen.” I do feel lucky because it gives me work and I’m not forced to learn yet another language. The “choice” had nothing to do with me, and actually English doesn’t even belong to us “natives” anymore. (Love the term. I always think I should shake a spear and do a little tribal dance when I get described this way). The numerical proportion of English users shifted a few years ago from native to non-native speakers so that we’re now (and perhaps forever more) a relatively small minority. Indeed, I get that in international communication we are often the ants at the picnic, the folks others find most difficult to understand (except for maybe the Japanese –just saying).

How far into the future can we expect English to hold its global status? Here’s linguist David Crystal’s take on it. The truth is, without a (David?) crystal ball no one can really know. But the advantages for students today who can handle English are unquestionable. Getting there with anything less than CLIL programs probably isn’t realistic. The old way certainly didn’t work here.



 Trying to navigate course content in a foreign language indisputably constitutes an added challenge for students. On the other hand, maybe we can agree that challenge itself is good –even essential –for intellectual development. If you imagine a brain as being like a muscle, the extra workout from handling two languages simply must make it stronger. (Check out Mia Nacamulli’s great video “The benefits of a bilingual brain” on youtube or at Sorry I couldn’t manage to link it.)

To this we can add benefits like increased cultural awareness/sensitivity, vastly increased access to information, and of course potential communication with people from literally any country in the world. It’s not really the goals of bilingual education that receive the most criticism anyway, but the implementation. So let’s finally go there.

Marías makes teachers’ English levels his chief complaint, and I still promise to get to that. He oddly says nothing of students’ levels, however, and of course it takes two to tango. So let’s look for a moment at the issue of whether students come into the program with the necessary linguistic base from which to learn content –often complex content. We’ll assume (and it remains for the moment just an assumption) that teachers have the necessary levels and preparation to do their part. But what of the students? Can they (best Jack Nicholson voice) handle the… CLIL?

Ideally, students would start with English as early on as possible. In fact, my biggest complaint about the Comunidad de Madrid’s bilingual program is that they wait too long. I should mention there is a parallel, less widespread project called BEDA (Bilingual English Development & Assessment) that begins earlier and is run somewhat differently. Here though I’m talking mostly about the larger, CM version, which unfortunately doesn’t start until primaria. This may be down to budgetary pressures only allowing the program’s resources to be used for obligatory schooling, which begins at age six. But most Madrid children start school much earlier, and it’s lousy budgetary logic to skip the optimal age of language acquisition just to play a long and costly game of catch-up later.

Fortunately though, there have been indications that this systemic flaw will soon get corrected. Cristina Cifuentes, President of the Comunidad de Madrid, recently declared the bilingual program will get extended to infantíl, though as yet with no timeline. We’ll see how that goes. For what it’s worth, my second biggest complaint of the system is cutting out the bilingual classes once again at the Bachillerato level, just when it should be time to seal the deal.

As it stands then, today’s students enter the program with a less-than-ideal linguistic base from which to glean content. Fortunately, though, CLIL teachers have at hand tools and methods specifically designed to mitigate this deficiency. And from what I’ve seen they work.

Much of this methodology is formalized in the LOMCE, (Ley  Orgánica 8/2013, de 9 de diciembre, para la mejora de la calidad educativa), the most recent Spanish legislation shaping education. Without going into too much detail here, I’ll try to touch on the most relevant aspects. The Spanish system allows every elected government (administration, for U.S. readers) to reshape the nation’s educational system according to its own wishes –down to minute curricular details. This causes frequent seismic shifts in what schools and teachers are asked to do, while often making educational policy hard to discuss free from political partisanship.

The LOMCE came bundled with salary cuts for teachers, increased class sizes and other measures hard to imagine any educator liking. Regarding the bilingual programs, though, some of the changes clearly make sense. And although the legislation covers all public schooling, not just those programs, they apparently did contribute to some of the larger, farther-reaching methodological shifts.

A leading researcher from the Complutense University’s Facultad de Educación explained to me that the old methods just weren’t getting it done. “It was the CLIL programs,” she said, “that caused the changes because the metodologia explicativa (explanatory method?) wasn’t working for the bilingual classes.”

Specifically, the LOMCE calls for making lessons more student-centered, more project and presentation oriented, and for fostering the use of emerging digital resources along with students’ creativity and initiative to shape their own learning and make it more memorable and motivating. Research shows even in native contexts that lecturing is the least memorable way of getting concepts across:


[These results are typical of countless similar studies.]

Naturally, teachers know what engages students. Last year, in a survey I conducted of Primary school Natural Science teachers, virtually all of them ranked in-class experiments as the most motivating activity, followed by group-work and watching videos.

Video use is indeed an important complement to this emergent methodology. On Youtube alone, Teachers can choose from short videos demonstrating virtually any scientific principle within the academic syllabus.

Meanwhile, several different platforms allow students to create multimedia projects individually or in groups that can be monitored and controlled by teachers. The possibilities for accessing and creating material are multiplying exponentially.

Strings of words spoken by the teacher or scrutinized on paper (much as I love them!) are no longer the only game in town –good news for everyone but especially for students receiving content in a second language.

Textbooks are still with us, to be sure, but they are also reinventing themselves. The Natural Science ones I have seen made specifically to accommodate the LOMCE are much slimmer volumes that require students to generate a lot of the material themselves: conducting research and experiments, creating mindmaps and keeping journals.

A friend in the publishing industry explained it to me like this: “The previous law (LOE) required that content be exactly the same for the English Science books as for the Spanish ones, and the publishers took this to mean translating the Spanish texts word for word. The resultant tomes were very text-heavy, great long paragraphs that students couldn’t understand.”

This new style of books, alongside the technological and methodological improvements, are moving things in the right direction if truly acquiring English is really to be one of the Spanish system’s educational goals.


CLIL methodology can be highly effective, but students and teachers must obviously have at least minimum English levels for it to work. So, finally, what about these teachers?

First, any teacher working in public bilingual schools had to pass a qualifying exam including a speaking part. It seems farfetched to suggest that someone whose English is incomprehensible could pass such a test –despite Marías’s diatribe.

As I said before, my own experience –most recently last May training a group of Science teachers for the Comunidad de Madrid –runs counter to the doubters. For the course, I required each of the 20 or so teachers to present a science experiment in English as they would for their own classes. All were engaging, informative and easy to follow. Occasional confusion between words like sun and sand, course and curse, etc. was very much the exception. Pronunciation, anyway, is a rather special issue, and we’ll travel there shortly.

English competence is rising steadily in Spain. Teachers, far from immune to this general surge, are –along with their CLIL programs –largely responsible for it. Evidence of the  improvement can be seen in many areas.

No longer are the beginners groups the most crowded at academies. Demand for B2 and even C1 levels has been stronger for several years now. Meanwhile, the average age in Spain for students taking and passing the corresponding Cambridge exams is lower every year –so much so that they have added a First Certificate for Schools option to match content to the ever-younger examinees.

The speed of this improvement may even be surprising some of the very institutions helping bring it about. A quick anecdote from a few weeks ago: I joined a team of academy-based teachers who got to watch the latest Star Wars movie with about 170 primary students. We had planned a 45-minute speaking activity to do with them afterwards. One of the organizers told me beforehand, “These kids are younger than expected, A2, so we’ll have to feed them any vocabulary they’re going to use.” Further worry led to these 10-12 year-olds being supplied with paper and markers so they could just draw pictures. However, they turned out to be quite conversant in English (as were, I daresay, their regular school teachers) –impressing, even wrongfooting, those I’d come with.

Again, this is very much thanks to CLIL and the new emphasis English has been given in schools. And it’s exactly the teachers Marías throws under the bus who have played the biggest role.

It would be dishonest not to admit to a few bad apples, a toxic few who somehow slipped through the cracks with truly dysfunctional English, who don’t care and make their lessons a rambling mumble (mumbling ramble?) no one could possibly understand. I do hear about them occasionally from my own students. But to keep this in perspective, there have always been bad teachers mixed in with the good and great, not just in bilingual programs. It’s also worth pointing out that many of the mocking reports reaching me focus on (mis)pronunciation, which is likely much less of a problem than many believe. Here’s why:


I’m giving accent/pronunciation its own section here because it looms disproportionately large as a beacon for level, a litmus test for workers and even within certain native contexts a signpost of social standing/status.

Marías focuses –obsesses –on pronunciation as evidence of an English teacher’s preparedness, but while hardly alone with that he’s way off base. His insistence on the native standard, like so many of his references, is highly anachronistic. When he ticks off the countries he accuses local teachers of not being from –or sounding like they were –he’s citing only a small percentage of today’s English speakers.

But before weighing the present and future of evolving pronunciation standards, humor me in one last walk through the quirky past of English teaching in Spain.

Pronunciation suffered special neglect here, within the general shelving of speaking (If you ask in favor of what, you’re exactly right). Chronically undertaught in the old-school classroom, it often went uncorrected too in academies, even by native-speaking teachers who I guess just couldn’t be bothered.

There is a great difference between unfairly chastising speakers for not sounding “native,” and ignoring phonetics completely. As with any language, functional differences between sounds and comprehensible intonation patterns can and need to be taught. Lack of guidance allows what could be one-off miscues to ingrain themselves in students and become vastly harder to unlearn down the road.

Then there’s the fact that Spanish offers almost perfect correlation between letters and sounds –a boon to learners like me, but a clear danger to the novice student who, in lieu of proper guidance, might be tempted to apply the same rules to English words. Indeed, such pronunciation can fast make familiar words, like the names of famous actors, wholly unintelligible to English-adjusted ears. Can you guess who Hone ByeNay was? This is evidently the sort of pronunciation Marías had in mind. (Oh yes, John Wayne. Showing my age too.)

While I don’t believe this sort of pronunciation is nearly as endemic as Marías makes out, I’ll admit a few of my younger students take pleasure and mirth in recounting gaffes made by certain teachers. Such ridicule is definitely unkind and probably unfair. Apart from other advantages, the latest generation enjoys a level of exposure to native accents (from the Internet, DVDs, native-speaking classroom assistants, etc.) the previous one at their age could scarcely have imagined. We do find ourselves in a transitional moment though, and it’s true that some teachers have managed to equip themselves with stronger English skills than others –including Marías’s bugaboo pronunciation.

If parents worry their children may inherit odd pronunciation from their teachers, I’ll say this: Kids have a hard-wired, internal pronunciation corrector. I have no proof, but I know it’s true. Defying common sense maybe, bad pronunciation just isn’t very contagious. It’s one of the mysteries of life and language acquisition. It’s also one reason many school kids have more native-sounding accents than their own teachers.

Start early enough and the learning goes “on wheels” (cool Spanish expression). There’s absolutely no reason to think, as Marías and many others seem to, that Spain’s past trouble with English –and its sounds –is somehow a life sentence.

And what exactly is the problem with someone’s accent sounding foreign anyway? I mean unless you’re training to be a spy. My own Spanish will never make anyone believe I’m a Spaniard, but I can (and often do!) say whatever I want. It’s easy to let accent become a gauge of how well someone handles a foreign language because it’s the first thing you hear. But it’s pure surface. In the 15 or so TESOL-SPAIN conventions I’ve taken part in, the best talk I ever heard was given by Peter Medgers, a non-native. He didn’t sound English (or American or whatever) and so what? His plenary (the Ventriloquist) was hugely evocative and thought-provoking. If anything, his slight Hungarian accent added to the effect. We all express our identity and personality in the way we speak and sound, natives and non-natives alike. Who would have it any other way?

Another example: while hunting for videos succinctly demonstrating scientific concepts for the aforementioned course I gave teachers, I came across several excellent ones on Youtube by a guy who calls himself the Crazy Russian Hacker. Along with his strongish accent, he makes about every kind of grammatical and lexical miscue imaginable [Here he is]. But he’s compelling, concise and was chosen by that group (and others since) as the best and most engaging speaker when set against several mostly native others. It’s no surprise he has million of views and a huge following.

So speaking just like a native (and which one?) is unnecessary and unreasonable as a goal. Far more important is effective communication. And to judge that you need to listen to someone for more than a few seconds.


Having established that teachers and students meet baseline requirements for embarking on a CLIL adventure, and in Madrid I think it’s fair to say they do (albeit with room for improvement), we are then left with some issues that fall under “be careful what you wish for.”

Even when –or especially when –bilingual programs are effectively implemented, the concern emerges that students will be left with knowledge gaps in their L1. This is also sometimes linked to feelings of resentment toward the stricture to learn English in the first place. Central as these objections are to a large-scale bilingual ed program, they often get camouflaged as implementation problems. The intention may be to steer the discussion away from larger, perhaps unwinnable, debates and move it into a subtler, wonkier realm of methodological tweaks, over which the speaker implicitly claims some sort of expertise.

The actual word in Spanish is implementación (Anglicism alert!), though I also hear como se ha implantado, which leaves me even more mystified. Implanted? Maybe the complaint is that the program was somehow enacted too abruptly, or that it came from the political “right.” (In Madrid, this program is the Partido Popular’s baby.) The como se ha implantado comments are usually lamentative, with no solutions offered other than abandoning the program altogether (Marías’s “solution”) or somehow slowing it down (I’m not even sure what that would mean). The obfuscation between how vs. whether this “implantation” should take place makes already complex problems even more confusing. So let’s try to untangle them one at a time:


By this I don’t mean mastering gapfills. Despite their epicentral importance in the bad old days, there’s not much real-world market for that skill!

What I mean is the concern that by learning content such as Natural Science in English, students will be left unable to handle it in their native Spanish. Calling it an “implementation,” issue suggests that CLIL, done properly, should leave students with a kind of equality of knowledge in each language. But this seems unrealistic. People will always feel more comfortable discussing a subject in the language they have, well, discussed it in. So there’s clearly some degree of tradeoff. Time doesn’t allow for classes to be taught twice, in L1 and L2. It would be stultifying anyway, like the horror of having to listen to the in-flight safety instructions on a plane in two languages you understand.

So yes, if done effectively, CLIL classes probably will leave students with a better handle on at least terminology in the L2 for certain subjects. In theory at least, this effect should be much more lexical than conceptual –and temporary, since looking up vocabulary is a relatively minor task if the underlying concepts are well understood. Maybe it’s a little more complicated than that, but arguing that content knowledge will somehow be forever language-locked in one part of the brain seems untenable.

The upside, of course, is while students may be slightly less silver-tongued discussing, say, photosynthesis in their L1, they will now be able to broach the subject in international contexts.

It should also be pointed out that the LOE’s ban on using Spanish terms in the English content classroom was lifted in the LOMCE. The goal, after all, is bilingual education, not monolingual. One Science teacher I know heard the following from her own daughter: “Mamá, el hielo melta.” She quickly supplied the correct Spanish word.

Relatedly, as of this writing it has yet to be established that students taking Science in English will also have their pruebas externas (important biannual exams for Primary), not to mention the PAU (Prueba de Acceso Universitario), in English. Crazy as it sounds, the possibility looms that they will suddenly have to do them in Spanish. Now there’s a genuine implementation problem!


Talking about colegios bilingües in Madrid may actually sound pretentious if bilingual is understood to mean a native-like skillset in both languages. Perhaps that’s why Marías takes umbrage at the term’s use in his column, decrying the project as neither bilingüe nor –preposterously –even educación. Admittedly, relatively few teachers or students here fit the above definition. Rather, I think bilingual is just being used to indicate the involvement of two languages, as in bilingual dictionaries or public notices.

Movement from the second definition to the first, however, may well be the program’s endgame. If students are indeed meant to become truly bilingual one day, then the same must be said of Spanish society as a whole. And not everyone would welcome such a transformation. If we buy the truism that language and culture can’t be separated, are we talking nation-sized identity crisis?

Some of this reticence is also on display in the Marías piece, if passive aggressively, when he talks of ”the desired tongue” and “the language of Elton John,” or when he rails against import words like “crowdfunding.”

Actually, you used to hear more disgruntlement about having to acquire English as relates to cultural identity. “I’m Spanish,” the line went, “why do I need to learn English?” This sentiment, which I jokingly referred to earlier as identity theft, seems to be on the wane for various reasons. First, the battle seems essentially won. English is now far more entrenched as the international language. Relatedly, as such it no longer belongs to native speakers. This makes the obligation to learn it a slightly less bitter pill to swallow for anyone carrying lingering resentment from the age of empires when Spain and England were constantly at each other’s throat. Any cultural residue in the language, say using tea to refer to a kind of meal, is surely so much inert, ancestral DNA. Today communication happens between people from all over the globe, each of whom contributes a grain of their own culture. Lastly, the bilingual program is, once again, bilingual not monolingual. No one is talking about replacing Spanish as a language or culture, and frankly such a notion would be absurd.

“I’m proud that my daughter knows more English than me,” a student recently told me. “That’s what we pay for and expect from the schools. I don’t think parents really worry about the cultural thing. We see the need for English and know it will give our children much better opportunities. Anyway,” she smiled, “I think we’re so chulos (cocky?) we can’t even imagine our own language getting replaced or whatever.”

This perhaps being true, there is at least one real problem related to many children learning English better than their parents have. Parents can find themselves out of the loop when it comes to helping with homework. This is a sizeable drawback given the crucial role they play in their children’s education. At the same time, it would be completely wrong and defeatist to try and stunt children’s progress just to forever keep them from surpassing their parents’ level. Lesson plans are not designed to rely on parental co-teaching, and both paid and unpaid support is widely available. In any case, a parent’s role in prioritizing and encouraging schoolwork is still  paramount and unaffected by any bilingual project.

Friend and colleague, Ma Elena Pérez Márquez, has published a fresh and original article in Spanish obliquely addressing this issue, which she has kindly allowed me to link here.


A Primary teacher first alerted me to the issue of excessively lexis-heavy CLIL classes. “It’s just vocabulary,” he said. “We have to teach them parts of plants I wouldn’t even know in Spanish, and all the bones in the human body.” I’ve heard similar complaints from students who’ve been saddled with long lists of words to memorize, with barely a mention of their underlying concepts.

I don’t know who decided exhaustive taxonomy was the way to do bilingual education. I suspect –and hope! –this happened more under the LOE, perhaps because students were judged to have insufficient English skills to follow explanations while teachers could literally risk their jobs by resorting to Spanish.

Nevertheless, favoring rote memory over thinking and doing, over understanding processes and interconnectedness, is plainly just bad teaching –CLIL or no CLIL. At least this problem is in fact implementational and as such eminaently fixable. Indeed, the LOMCE [the new law, for those who haven’t been keeping score] clearly requires educators to go in a different, more productive direction.

Use of the above methods, combined with younger students’ ever-improving English levels, should ideally see this silly shopping-list style of “teaching” relegated to the annals of failed gambits.


Shifting students’ learning processes from a solid L1 to a developing L2 certainly does imply consequences for them, their parents and perhaps to some extent the parent culture. And the stakes could hardly be higher, with the future of a whole generation’s children in play.

The decision to embark on a full-scale bilingual education project shouldn’t be taken lightly. A detailed accounting of its associated risks and rewards should be done before making the choice.

What I have tried to show is that many objections framed as implementation hurdles are existential to the program and need to be viewed as such. The inherent side effects must somehow be embraced if the aim of vastly improved English acquisition is truly deemed worthy.

If the game isn’t seen as worth the candle, though, the program should indeed be scrapped. The worst option would be to pay lip service to its goals while quietly circumventing or sabotaging it from within. This –in many ways the history of English teaching in Spain –would be the worst possible outcome, a tragic waste of time and money. Far better to just cut bait. Life is too short for doomed half-measures.

Real implementation problems, meanwhile, absolutely do need to be spotted and solved to help move this new and complicated endeavor (¿apuesta?) in a direction that benefits all. To this end, any constructive proposals readers can supply in the comments below would be highly appreciated. I promise to try my best to get them in front of people positioned to do something about them.

Certain improvements already seem to be in the works, e.g. starting the program in infantíl instead of primaria and a new requirement for CLIL teachers in Madrid to have a C2 level. (This compares with C1 previously, and only B2 –I’ve been told –in other autonomous regions.)

In the Comunidad de Madrid, parents are free to choose between bilingual and monolingual schools (except in very small pueblos with only one school). As it happens, the bilingual schools are in much greater demand. I’m also told the CM program is the one other comunidades autónomas are trying to emulate. Javier Mariás might consider people expressing such preferences to be duped paletos, but I certainly don’t.

I’m a fan of the program, in case that hasn’t been clear yet. Let me end with one more stealth benefit it offers.

Rather than the conventional studying of a language –English in this case –for its own sake, wherein students who’ve enjoyed less exposure than their peers will invariably be outperformed, using it as a vehicle to approach other subjects allows those students the possibility of shining in other intellectual or academic fields. This in turn enables them to build a stronger, more confident English-using identity. Jim Cummins, a Canadian expert on bilingual education, describes this process and what he calls “incompetence identity” in a keynote speech here. (The relevant bit begins around the12½ minute mark.)

Reflecting on my own experience in a level 4 Spanish class at university, I can fully identify with his point. I felt unmotivated because my competence was so far below the other students I couldn’t make meaningful or interesting contributions. I had none of the idiomatic flourishes they’d picked up studying abroad, nor was there any room in the class for sharing intellectually challenging ideas. The content was, straight up, por/para, the subjunctive, conditional tenses, etc., all of which I’d been hearing about for years, yet still couldn’t navigate very well.

Only when asked to give a presentation, about the lives and work of two Mexican painters, did I feel engaged, that I actually had something of interest to contribute.

Despite that one positive experience, the class was such an overall drag –especially compared to the highly inspiring material my other subjects were engaging me with –that I stopped studying Spanish altogether. Only later, circumstances led me to reconnect with the language in far more practical ways. As a result, I now feel very lucky to know two languages with something approaching a bilingual level.

I bet many of Madrid’s students already feel that way.


2 thoughts on “Forked Speech

  1. Shaban says:

    This is quite informative and interesting. I never read about ELT in Spain, yet have learned a great deal and could relate to all aspects mentioned above. The situation seems identical to my own country’s, Egypt.
    The insight is power in the article and the arguments are solid.

    Hats off!

  2. David says:

    Excellent post. J.Marías was unfair to the many teachers that go the extra mile everyday to teach our students skills that will benefit them all their lives, despite criticism. It would be a lot easier for us teachers to keep doing what has always been done, but we choose not to. And that´s a point J.Marías does not make because it´d invalidate his entire article.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *