I try to avoid getting involved in these matters, but sometimes I just can’t resist. Madrid’s mayor, Ana Botella, made some recent remarks about the city when campaigning for its candidacy to host the Olympics. Madrid got bounced in the first round of the final selection, and Ana Botella became the brunt of countless jokes regarding her seemingly ragged use of English.
The catch phrase is now “a relaxing cup of café con leche (coffee with milk)”, and it has become so famous that even my little 3rd-graders know about it, and so infamous that you can now buy coffee mugs online with the sentence stamped on them in different colors and fonts.
It has been ridiculed and parodied beyond belief, with jokes and videos spreading like wildfire far and wide throughout the social networks . Such was the uproarious laughter that I finally caved in and decided to check out on Youtube the video and endure the suffering for myself and by myself, in the comfort of my living room.
I’ll be as brief as possible, and resort to my expertise as a teacher to provide a fairly balanced opinion. To be honest, it wasn’t great but it was a far cry from the disaster that I expected given the backlash it received. Ana spoke with a heavy accent, had several fairly serious pronunciation issues, and clearly hasn’t mastered the language. That explains the forced diction and the artificial gestures. Basically she looked as if she was trying to pull off the tough task of speaking in public in a foreign language and she did the best she could. For the most part the speech was standard, not very inspired, promotional garble which was delivered with difficulty. And the famous Spanglish that everyone is laughing at hardly exists. The speech lasts 2.50 seconds and more than halfway through it, she spits out the now notorious “a relaxing cup of café con leche in the Plaza Mayor.” She mentions the Madrid de los Austrias, and immediately adds what that all means in English. The rest of the talk was given in English.
First of all, you can call a cup of coffee “relaxing”. Several “experts” from Spain have expressed to me their utter disbelief that Botella would use such an adjective to describe a cup of joe, but the fact is you can. Just to clarify that one. As for the use of “café con leche”, that was just a little friendly use of local language. Probably not the best choice, but still, even I could see that. Plus, it’s not that easy to translate.
Verdict: the speech wasn’t topnotch, and Botella’s English needs work, but it wasn’t horrible either and certainly not worthy of the thrashing it took.
So, after listening to two weeks of relentless criticism and watching the clip myself, I have come to the conclusion that the event has accentuated two very grave and present facts: Spain’s English level is still wanting; and God help you if you make a mistake because if you do you’ll become the laughing stock of the nation.
As for the first part, there is nothing surprising about that. Spain has for years suffered from an inferiority complex when it comes to speaking this language. It’s the famous “asignatura pendiente”, as they say here. Back in the 90s, most parents came to me saying that they couldn’t help their kids because they had learned French in school. Then came the gradual switch to English, which, though taught throughout a student’s life, produced poor results. Poor teaching and general disregard for the language. On top of that, as many will tell you, Spain dubs all of its TV programs and movies. The industry is one of the finest in the world, but it does have its downside. It prevents youths from picking up the language naturally, and, what’s worse, it fosters an aversion toward the language. Few people spoke it, and not very well at that. And I am talking about the capital. Once out in the smaller cities or in the country, forget it.
The effects of the past faulty educational setup and social antipathy are still being felt today. A recent report rated Spain in the middle ground when it comes to competence in English, 18th, to be exact, and behind some 15 other European nations. That’s not so hot. But I am here to tell you that, despite the rejection and the mediocre teaching techniques, it is heads and tails above what it used to be. With the arrival of bilingual education (Madrid is nearly at the forefront of this movement) things are turning around considerably. We are still talking about a change that will require a generation or two to come into its fullest fruition, but it will happen. I am not concerned.
What does unsettle me is the vicious blasting over practically nothing. I browsed through about the first 100 comments and couldn’t find a single one that had anything fair to say about it. The chiding was merciless, but that behavior is as traditional here as watching soccer. The Spanish are often the first to admit that they don’t like to speak English because of their sense of embarrassment about saying the wrong thing. This I find amusing because their love of swearing shows they don’t seem to have any qualms about blurting out in Spanish, “Holy shit! That motherfucker is really pissing me off,” in front of their grandmother.
Then again, after the berating Ana Botella received, I don’t blame them for not wanting to utter a single word of English, because look what happens to you when you slip up. I would shut my mouth too.
So suddenly everyone is an expert in English. In some cases even more so than the English themselves. Take the Comunidad de Madrid’s standardized exam to check on the progress of its bilingual program. The actually exam itself was Cambridge’s Young Learners of English tests which are recognized by the European Union as valid measurements of a child’s level of the language. The exam has three parts – Speaking, Listening, and a combined part on Reading & Writing – which are graded from 1 (being the worst) to 5 shields. That means a student can receive a total of 15 shields.
Cambridge oddly asserts that there is no passing or failing in these exams. However, if you receive ten or more shields, then you are ready to go on to the next level. Hmm. I’ll have to think about that one.
In any event, if you can achieve that number, then you have what is considered to be an A1 level. Cambridge does not specify a minimum in any one category, as long as you obtain ten. This standard is admitted by the European Union.
The Comunidad de Madrid has decided that it would use the Cambridge exams but assess students differently in two ways:
1) Evaluate just the Speaking and Listening, requiring a total of 7 shields to pass, and 4 have to be in speaking, and at least 3 have to be in listening. So, in short, they require at least a 70% on a test, and, in some cases, that isn’t enough, since if the speaking is a three and the listening is a four, you don’t pass. On one occasion, a student had a 5 on listening and a 3 on speaking (yes, that’s 80%), and failed.
2) They could also assess all three parts in which a pupil needed to obtain 11 shields (and at least 4 in speaking), to pass. In theory, a child could get up to 13 out of 15 shields and still be turned down. How’s that for motivating.
Of course, none of this has anything to do with how Cambridge looks at it, and that’s considering it’s their test. The Comunidad de Madrid simply decided that it was going to prove to the world that its standard was tougher than the rest without really justifying it at all.
This kind of cockiness is known in Spanish as “chulería”, and in Madrid, it’s as common and typical as a relaxing cup of café con leche.