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Letters from the Atlantic Letters from the Atlantic by Barrie Mahoney

'Writing Inspired by an Island in the Atlantic'

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Do You Speak English?


Do You Speak English?

I wonder if anyone has made a New Year’s resolution to learn a new language? I admire any expats who make a determined effort to learn the language of their host country and are willing to try to avoid asking that embarrassing question “Do you speak English?” at every opportunity. After all, without a basic knowledge of the language, culture and customs, much of the new life that was hoped for will never be achieved. No, I am not talking about not seeking translation support when dealing with medical, legal and financial matters, where it is often important to seek professional assistance. I won’t pretend that learning a language is easy as one gets older; it is not, since learning a new language takes perseverance and effort.

I was pleased to read in the papers this week that both Prince George and his sister, Princess Charlotte, are learning Spanish at their young age. They do have one major advantage, of course, in that their nanny is Spanish. As well as an acceptance of the need to reach out to a wider world, the appreciation, skill and some proficiency in communicating in another language will help these young people to recognise that they do not live in a solely English speaking world and will help to give them a wider perspective of countries and cultures outside the United Kingdom.

During my time as a school inspector working in Wales, as well as England, I was always pleased to meet many young children who were confident in speaking both Welsh and English. The very act of learning a second language at such a young age makes the brain more receptive to the learning of other languages later in their school life. I recall detailed research reports that indicated that children learning both Welsh and English achieved far higher success rates when it came to learning other languages than their English counterparts. The message is clear; to be a successful linguist, it is important that youngsters start learning a second language, any language, early in life.

I often hear from would-be expats who wisely make a determined effort to learn the language for some years before they even attempt to move to Spain. Others arrive in Spain and suddenly realise, and panic after a few brusque encounters at the Town Hall, that some grasp of the language would be useful. It is at this stage that those long forgotten Linguaphone tapes suddenly see daylight after many years. Sometimes, newly arrived expats find themselves attending over-crowded language classes provided by the Town Hall, whilst others seek private lessons or attend a ‘crash course’. Whatever the approach, a recognition that not everyone in the world speaks English is a good start.

Many teachers of Spanish will confidently assure expats arriving in Spain that anyone over the age of 50 can successfully learn the language. I question this assertion as basically a ploy to gain more generous fee paying students, although I am sure that many will contradict me. Let’s be honest, most older people find that learning a new language later in life to be challenging, but certainly not impossible. Whatever the result, the effort is always appreciated by the locals, and the ability to speak a few sentences, and to understand what is going on is invaluable when starting a new life in Spain, or any other country for that matter.

Many experts maintain that a grasp of English, Spanish and Chinese is all that is needed to conquer the linguistic world. I believe this to be true, since Spanish is the second most used language in the world after English. It always pleases me when I hear that Spanish is being taught in British schools, since I have always believed that this is the natural second language, and considerably more useful than French in today’s world. No, I am not a great enthusiast for the teaching of French in British schools, but it is certainly better than nothing at all.

I was once told that the best way for expats to learn a new language is to have an affair with a new partner from the country of your choice. Now, I am not suggesting that expats go in for partner swapping, but the point is that for learning to be successful, it requires a thorough immersion in the culture and traditions of the country, and not only learning the language as a dry academic exercise.

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​Overweight ‘Bridegrooms of Death’

Overweight ‘Bridegrooms of Death’

I guess that many of us may have over indulged during the Christmas and New Year festivities, and I assume that many are now in the period where reluctant gym memberships are booming, as well as desperate subscriptions to Weight Watchers. Sadly, all those temptations do have a price to pay when we see that we can no longer squeeze into our favourite clothes.

One of the many fat inducing temptations readily available in Spain and the Canary Islands are ‘Churros con Chocolate’, which is basically deep fried pastry strips, rolled in sugar and dipped into hot chocolate as they are eaten. This ‘snack’ is hugely popular in Spain, Portugal and the Canary Islands, as well as the United States, France and Mexico. Depending upon the time of day, and the state of your appetite, they can be both delicious and disgusting at the same time. Indeed, it is not unusual to see locals polishing off a huge quantity of churros in cafe bars for their breakfast. Needless to say, it is an excellent way to pile on the pounds, as well as keeping the health service busy with the coronaries that are the result of this over indulgence. My advice is to avoid them at all costs.

Speaking of being overweight and diets, you really should take a look at Spain’s ‘Bridegrooms of Death’, which is the cheerful nickname given to Spain’s elite infantry regiment, ‘La Legión’. The regiment is loosely based upon the French Foreign Legion, as a prestige combat unit with its best known member being General Franco during the Spanish Civil War.

Usually admired for their handsome physical appearance, these fine men are usually well known for their tasselled caps, to keep the flies off, and open necked shirts, to keep the ladies interested. Their uniform traditionally does not have a top button, which aids their reputation as “the top totty killers of Europe”. Sadly, this much-coveted reputation is rapidly disappearing, since it was found that a significant percentage of the 3000 troops were found to be obese, based upon their body mass index (BMI) of over 30.

This elite force is now having a few problems in the obesity department and the troops are now being given dietary advice, nutrition tips, as well as additional exercise to overcome their rapidly expanding waistlines with a target loss of between 500g and 1kg a week. Although ‘La Legión makes the valid point that significant weight gain may be as a result of cultural, pathological and psychological factors, I firmly believe that churros and hot chocolate are to blame.

So, there we have it. As we humbly trot off to the gym at the beginning of this New Year, and preferably to one that does not include a bar and restaurant, let us think long and hard about these fine Spanish men who are undertaking one of the biggest battles of their lives - that of losing weight without the comfort of a plateful of churros and hot chocolate to fall back on. Sadly, for many, I suspect that it will soon not just be the top button of their shirt that is missing.

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