On April 8, I will have spent three months studying abroad as part of the Erasmus+ programme in Barcelona, Catalonia. I’m about halfway through my time here and have spent a great deal of that time attempting to learn both Spanish and Catalan, which has been extremely eye opening.
Despite my fears at being completely isolated over here, I’ve met a lot of amazing people from all over the world, who I’m now lucky to call friends. From meeting these wonderful people, I’ve learnt all about their cultures, and one thing I’ve found particularly fascinating is the number of languages that other European countries learn throughout their time in school.
All the friends I’ve made in Barcelona speak English, as well as their own native language, as well as at least an additional one or two. This was baffling to me when I was first meeting people, but now it makes a great deal of sense.
From childhood people learn English as it’s one of the most widely spoken languages – but really because it’s the language most accepted by Western countries. They grow up speaking their native language – so that’s already two down, with minimal effort. In areas like the Italian region of Switzerland, kids learn at least four languages with tourism reasons in mind. They learn all the languages of Switzerland – French, German and Italian, as well as English – and the friend I’ve made from this region also speaks Spanish. Her ease at switching between languages is magical to watch – with her ability to nail each accent also amazing.
Meeting such a wide group of multi-lingual students really emphasises the ignorance of most native English speakers. In every other culture, you must learn words to travel, but in the case of predominantly English and American tourists, I have heard so many people not even able to order a coffee in Spanish or Catalan, presuming the staff will just be able to speak English. This presumption is stiflingly ignorant, especially when you consider that literally everyone in Barcelona already speaks both Spanish and Catalan.
This ignorance extends to the attitude native English speakers have towards immigrants or tourists who speak broken English when in Ireland, England, or America. When you consider the lack of effort native English speakers put into learning basic words of another language for their holidays, this makes for a pretty nasty picture.
Meeting such a wide group of multi-lingual students has also brought into question the effectiveness of the Irish education system when it comes to languages. I’m speaking broadly but when a majority of Irish students travel abroad for Erasmus, they can speak very little of their native Irish, never mind the language of their host country. It’s embarrassing, honestly, to have to admit that the system of teaching languages in Ireland is so poor that even after spending approximately fourteen years learning Irish, I still can’t speak my native language.
A few of my friends have been quite shocked that my Irish companions and I don’t fluently speak Irish. It’s unfathomable to them that we don’t speak our own language in Ireland, despite in certain regions.
It’s been a topic of conversation frequently that the Irish system of education doesn’t support language learning, but this has never been more evident than during my Erasmus experience. Ireland needs to examine its system and compare it to other European cities to see where it is going wrong. We don’t want to birth another generation of ignorant, solely English speakers and for this cycle to repeat – action needs to happen sooner.
For now I’ll tip away with my broken Spanish, Catalan, and French (despite studying it at honours level for six years), but just know: Irish education system, I’m disappointed in you.