What is it with the British and foreign languages? Spanish is arguably the second easiest (after Italian) mainstream language to learn. All words are spoken as they are written. All letters (except ‘h’) are pronounced. It is such a serious problem for the British that maybe it’s genetic; a linguistic disorder blighting a whole nation.
How is it possible for school children to be taught a language for five or so years and on completion visit the country and be unable to order even a cup of coffee? This is not the case for their counterparts on the continent. Ask yourself this question: How many friends of yours speak a foreign language? This obviously refers to British friends. How many would be able to sit down with a group of foreigners and converse sensibly in their language? You’re struggling, aren’t you?
There is one school of thought that presents a plausible reason for the linguistic desert of Britain. Every person speaks the same language from Lands End to John O’Groats. Numerous dialects but exactly the same language. This is because Britain is an island, which means no land borders with any other country. No cross border intermingling with other cultures and their languages.
This is not the case for any of our continental counterparts. When two countries share a land border there is cross fertilisation of the two languages. The peoples living in the border areas especially will find it natural to adapt to a foreign language. In a small country with a number of land borders the whole population is living in a border area. This is probably why the Dutch are arguably the best linguists in Europe. If you get lost abroad then ask a Dutch person; he or she is more likely to speak your language than any other nationality.
In Britain, then, we have had no opportunity to absorb a secondary language in a natural way. All efforts whether at school or beyond, are artificial and abstract thus difficult to learn.
So when the British family lands on the Costa with genuine intent ‘to learn the lingo’ this genetic linguistic disorder means the odds are stacked against them. Furthermore, these long odds worsen because the easiest way to absorb a language is to immerse oneself in the culture of that language. On the Costa, although obviously much smaller than the indigenous culture, there’s a solid and self-sufficient British ‘way of life’. There’s the Sunday roast. There’s everything and chips. There’s Britain’s favourite dish - chicken tikka masala. All served in thousands of British establishments. There’s a whole range of UK bitters; plus of course, the black stuff. British films at the cinema. English instructions on ATM’s and ticket machines. British estate agents, lawyers, accountants and financial advisors. There are British funeral directors and even a British cemetery. There are British schools with British teachers following the British curriculum. There are UK national papers printed in Spain plus the local English papers. A number of British radio stations and all the TV channels that are available in Britain. British supermarkets purveying British food. Spanish supermarket chains stocking more and more UK lines. In short, the British family arriving on the Costa does not have to learn Spanish. They will try, by the various methods, but the vast majority are doomed to fail. They will fail trying to learn a language in isolation of its culture.
They will fail because the whole of their time is spent in the British culture on the Costa, save the few hours a week attending Spanish lessons.
Excerpt from Steve James’ as yet unpublished book ‘Why don’t we just sell up and move to Spain?’