B is for Bad language learner

25 09 2011

Mayor Bloomberg

As a precaution against the recent hurricane that threatened his city, the mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg, “issued warnings and press statements, often in basic, un-accented [sic] Spanish”.  This prompted a Spanish-speaking New York resident to launch a Twitter feed that  caricatured the Mayor’s “broken Spanish”. “The feed soon went viral and has attracted a large online following” (according to the BBC’s website).

As a second language user myself, and as a language teacher,  teacher trainer and methodology writer, it offends me when anyone who attempts to communicate in a language that is not their own (whether they be mayor, football coach, actor, ex-pat, or student) is mocked in this way. However ‘bad’ his Spanish is, surely the mayor should be congratulated, not caricatured?

I tweeted to this effect – that I didn’t find it particularly funny, and that this seemed to be a case of ‘damned if he does, damned if he doesn’t’. However, a fellow tweeter in Brazil, Higor Cavalcante, went so far as to blog his disagreement, arguing that, as mayor of a city with a large Hispanic population “Mr. Bloomberg has the obligation to speak excellent Spanish”. (Not to mention Chinese, Greek, Yiddish and Korean either, I suppose).

Excellent Spanish.  Not just good, or passable, but excellent.

I suspect Higor is a good language learner.  He certainly writes beautifully in English. But maybe Mayor Bloomberg is not a good language learner. I’m sure he would love to be able to speak excellent Spanish, but maybe for him excellence comes at a cost – a cost that even his billions can’t meet.  Yet  should he be penalised for trying?

Good language learners often find it difficult to understand what it’s like to be a bad language learner.  They think you can just flip a switch and out it flows. As a bad language learner myself, I run up against this constantly.

Ok, I said it. I am a bad language learner. I am a bad language learner for a variety of reasons, biographical, psychological and maybe even physiological (I have terrible ‘phonemic coding ability’ – maybe related to the fact that I can’t sing in tune either!).

It’s not that I haven’t tried. I’ve been to classes, I’ve done conversation exchanges, I’ve studied the grammar, I’ve memorised lists of words, and I read five to ten thousand words of Spanish daily.  Yet I’m still barely B2-ish, speaking-wise, exacerbated by an uncompromising anglo accent.

But I get by.   I’ll always sound like a guiri (or gringo) but I can live with that, despite the scorn heaped on me by other, more proficient Spanish speakers. (Once a Californian woman, on hearing me speak, held up her arms in the shape of a cross, as if to ward off evil spirits). As I said, good language learners seem to think that anyone can learn a language to C2 level in a matter of months – and that the failure to do so betrays some moral weakness.  But for us drones, it will take years and years, and we may still never  get beyond B2 (or even A2 for that matter).  However, we shouldn’t be discouraged from trying. Mockery doesn’t help. Nor the implication that our lack of success is a moral failing.

I took this photo

Besides, how many hundreds of hours would it take to bring Mayor Bloomberg’s Spanish up to a level that would satisfy his critics?  And doesn’t he have better things to do with his time? He’s the mayor of New York City, for heaven’s sake.  His time is cut out just getting the trash collected and the subway running on time. If New Yorkers want a Spanish-speaking mayor, let them vote for one.

So, a plea on behalf of the bad language learner: never, never, never mock a second language speaker – even if it’s someone (like George Bush or José María  Aznar) whose politics you disagree with. It’s a cheap shot. And, if you are a language teacher, it ill becomes you.  It’s your job to encourage second language use, however non-target-like. What’s more, ridicule is counterproductive.  There is nothing more de-motivating than being laughed at.   As Earl Stevick (1980, p. 130) eloquently put it:

When two people speak with each other in a language that is foreign to one of them, either or both may be laying their lives on the line – at least their lives as speakers of that language. Such an understanding therefore calls for sensitivity on both sides. Sensitivity here means more than just seeing the dangers and shying away from them. It includes sensitivity to what the other person is able to do, and is ready to try.

On the plus side, I think that being a bad language learner has made me a good language teacher. I am very, very sympathetic to the drones.  I know what they’re going through. I am endlessly patient and encouraging. I would never mock them, because I know how de-motivating it can be.

So, Señor Alcalde, all power to you  – I applaud your bad Spanish!  At least you are trying.


Stevick, E.W. 1980. Teaching Languages: A Way and Ways. Rowley, MA: Newbury House.