‘I think it is an important crisis – we need to stop the rot, but it’s got to a point now where I don’t know whether we will be able to set the clock back!’ Discussing Gibraltarian bilingualism, or the lack there of, with the former head of the Westside School Spanish department unsurprisingly provoked an impassioned response. Peter Vila, undoubtedly like many teachers, has watched the decline in students’ handle of Spanish for the past three decades, and cites a combination of factors to blame, none more so than our education system.
The limited and erratic Spanish teaching in primary and middle schools sets us up for failure in his opinion, and the compounding factor of not nearly enough lessons granted a week to the language at comprehensive level is the final nail. ‘How can you expect to develop a society to be bilingual if you don’t give it the time that it merits to teach the language properly?’ Spanish is a core subject of our education system, meaning everyone will take Spanish right up until they are 16, yet if you compare the time allocated to other core subjects, like English, Spanish struggles to gain half of the classroom hours. As a result, Vila was given no option but to trade in the former Spanish state curriculum textbooks to a course designed for teaching Spanish as a foreign language to our local students – and even then it was a struggle to complete the full curriculum in the time allotted. He also cites schooling hierarchies’ ‘stigmatism’ and discouragement of students who wanted to speak Spanish or code-switch in the classroom as a factor in the language slump, ‘whereas it’s a well-known fact being bilingual offers many, many advantages’. Instead, a Spanish-speaking, or Llanito-speaking, student at all ages of schooling is seen as perhaps less intelligent, and less likely to do well. Of course, our education system is English, and as such the language should be encouraged and improved in students who struggle more, but entirely denouncing the spoken use of an alternative language seems narrow-minded.
The other hugely prevalent issue affecting our bilingualism as a nation is the very obvious political complication with our neighbours. ‘Usually, with towns which share a border, you will find that the population on either side of that border will speak the language of the other, and it’s not a problem’ Vila explained, ‘unfortunately, in our case, the aspect of being bilingual or bilingualism is politicised’.
And the same thread of thinking was reiterated when I met with Ronnie Alecio, who over the past year or so has conducted interviews on the Rock for the University of Essex’s Professor Andrew Canessa’s research project, Bordering on Britishness: An Oral History Study of Gibraltarian Identity, which traces the evolution of Gibraltarian identity. After conducting almost 100 interviews with locals, Alecio became increasingly aware of the links between our identity as a people and our language tendencies. ‘I think that the closing of the border, sort of Franco’s turning on Gibraltar, had an effect on the Gibraltarian population, obviously on their identity,’ he explained, ‘making anything Spanish a no-no, so language as well.’ He feels the border closure’s effect on language has been felt most drastically in the last 20 years, in the current younger generations, as a result of the ‘generation that had the doors closed on them’ shifting in attitude towards the Spanish language, and bringing up their children accordingly by speaking to them predominantly in English. That delayed effect has meant that the younger generations of today, who arguably have not been directly impacted by the border closure and have very different ideas when it comes to national identity in relation to our neighbours, do not have that second language so readily at their disposal.
The development is a tricky idea to get your head around, and David Alvarez, a Gibraltarian Professor in English at Grand Valley State University, Michigan, finds the slump bizarre. After moving to the US in the 80s, Alvarez has been a sporadic witness to the gradual decline in bilingualism during his annual visits home, benefitting from an insider/outsider perspective in his observations. ‘What’s striking to someone who left Gib in the mid-80s is the sharp decline of Spanish and “Zhanito” [Alvarez’s chosen spelling for the more commonly used ‘Llanito’] speech among the generations born since the border was fully re-opened in the mid-80s, and across all lines of class and status.’ Vila also expresses incredulity at the flip in our linguistic practices, and calls it a ‘crying shame’ that we neighbour ‘a country which is rich in culture, in literature… and you get [Gibraltarian] kids struggling to order a cup of coffee and a sandwich’.
Both Vila and Alvarez describe Spanish as the language of the home and socialising generally when they were growing up, but it is just no longer in universal use across the peninsular. The introduction of widespread British and American media and increased travel among Gibraltarians, especially to the UK as the number of students attending university has drastically risen over the past 20 years, are all arguably additional causes in the switch to predominantly English speech. Interestingly though, Alecio noticed a lack of understanding and self-awareness in the younger participants in the study when it came to bilingualism. ‘A significant percentage of the younger generation spoke English predominantly,’ he observed, ‘however, if you asked them, they said that they were bilingual or they spoke Spanish as well but when then you spoke to them in Spanish, they would reply in English. So there was a bit of incongruence between what they said and what they actually practiced.’ And this is unsurprising seeing as the term bilingual is one that is unstable even among linguists and scholars, depending on the ability a person has code-switching between two languages and determined by the level of proficiency in each language spoken independently from one another – arguably, a hugely subjective tracer. Vila also observes this misinterpretation of the word bilingual among many Gibraltarians, saying that despite many identifying as bilingual, ‘a very big proportion of people in Gibraltar I would call quasi-lingual because they speak neither [language] properly’.
That, of course, if investigated further and validated is a worrisome prospect, and yet, the issue has hardly been given much spotlight whatsoever, much like the decline of the other victim of what Vila dubbed a linguistic ‘crisis’ – our native “Llanito” or “Yanito”. This, our unique form of communication, is also a difficult one to define. Chief Minister Fabian Picardo has been quoted describing it as our ‘local patois’, Tito Vallejo, author of The Yanito Dictionary calls it ‘gibberish’ – its definition is far from concrete. In conversation with me, Vila said, ‘I don’t really think that it is a language as such, I think that it is an adaptation, a pigeon, a crossover of one language and the other, to suit our needs’ made from a combination of linguistic influences on the Rock. Alvarez has a similar take saying he would describe “Zhanito” ‘as a largely Spanish-based dialect that splices Andalusian Spanish with British English in unpredictable ways and that, to make matters even more complicated, includes loan words from a variety of other languages, chiefly Arabic, Hebrew, and Italian’.
Alecio, however, offered a much less secure definition when probed, perhaps resultant of the fact that of my three interviewees, he falls into the younger generation of Gibraltarian post-border closure millennials. He describes it as a vernacular with ‘no rules’, yet harbouring ‘unspoken rules’, whereby some words are always spoken in the English, some social situations demanding the official tone of our British influence, and yet others being chiefly expressed in Spanish or code-switches. Unlike Vila and Alvarez, who both experienced first-hand adolescence and young adulthood within the confines of a closed border Gibraltar, Alecio does little to describe the words unique to our peninsular, and associates Llanito in much more general terms with code-switching and simply altered pronunciation and accentuation of chiefly Spanish words. He is cautious to provide a secure definition of Llanito, citing the way language is always changing, and developing and, even if Llanito is not technically a language, trying to standardise its use by writing it phonetically or otherwise is a pointless exercise. ‘It changes and it varies from family to family – even from ‘Quarri’ table to ‘Quarri’ table they might say things differently!’
The point he makes is that ‘there is no right or wrong way of speaking it, because it is not an official language’ and so to treat it as such, by trying to pin down definitions somehow defeats the freedom, natural fluidness, and in many cases unconscious way it has always been used. Vila connotes the stark reality he feels the situation has come to, as unlike Alecio, he feels practising the dialect, much in the same way as you would a language, is the key to keeping it alive, and that means in its written form too. At this point though, he sees the crisis as too far gone to fully recover: ‘I mean we used to have worksheets in school with Llanito exercises, but I had to give up using them, it got to a point where it was ridiculous because [the students] didn’t have a clue, and that was so sad.’
Alecio was less pessimistic about the decline in its usage, as he said he does not think we will ever be a monolingual, solely English speaking country, and that ‘some form of Llanito, what people speak on the Rock, will carry on’. Alvarez though, puzzled by the decline in both Llanito and bilingual practices, was equally hopeful that the situation could be improved: ‘After all, if Basque-speakers, Catalan-speakers, and even the Maltese can be fully bilingual, why can’t we?’ But the question is what the difference will be moving forward to reverse the slump and spark a new era of bilingualism on the Rock. The task is that of ‘political will’ in Vila’s eyes, to save not only Spanish speech in our community but also our Llanito, ‘that which so distinguishes us from other places that are bilingual’. He sees code-switching and Llanito use as ‘minimal’ these days, ‘watered down…[to] linkages; “fu”, “colega”, “mira”, “tu sabes”, “quillo”’. To get back to the great diversity of language he experienced growing up, the government must make a commitment to educational reform. Alvarez has similar ideas, saying ‘hopefully, far-sighted politicians and educationalists will see that bilingualism (in an even more robust version than my generation knew it) would be a boon for Gib.’
And you can hardly disagree with them, nor can you call their passion unfounded. Llanito is undoubtedly an expression of our very individual and unique identity as a population that has been caught between two cultures for over 300 years – not to mention the wealth of numerous other Mediterranean and North African influences. We are arguably British by historical accident and no matter how proud we are of that cultural heritage, the Latin/Mediterranean side to us which is rooted eternally in our geographical position in the world should not be denied, especially not on account of fluctuating political issues. After all, the point agreed upon by all three of my interviewees – and me for that matter – was that our bilingualism and the added component of our inimitable Llanito, is a resource far too valuable and important to simply allow to fade out, or as Vila put it, ‘rot’ away.
words | Molly McElwee
TEST YOUR LLANITO:
Escoge la palabra de la lista que debe sustituir la palabra subrallada:
1. El gamberro le tiró un patuca al perro.
2. A mí me gusta el pisup.
3. Se dió una pechá de caramelos.
4. El cartero picó a la puerta.
5. La pompa se averió.
6. Se reventó una pipería.
7. Nadamos al raft.
8. El policía reportó al conductor.
9. Necesito un sacatapón.
10. Juguemos a la tablita.
sopa de guisantes llanó bomba balsa pedrusco atracón tubería denunció parchís sacacorchos
1. El niño aguantó al amigo por el brazo.
2. Me gustan los bizcochos.
3. Mi padre compró un saco de cinén.
4. Tomé cuécaro esta mañana.
5. Encontré un chapú para el verano.
6. Me encantan los dulces.
7. Saltó como un esprín.
8. Lo pegué una mascá.
9. Me dió un palpit de que me engañaba.
10. Compré un pan de lata.
galletas avena pasteles agarró resorte cemento tortazo empleo pan de molde corazonada