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The Coufal-Dalmau family
The Coufal-Dalmau family
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Photo by Tei Kuroyanagi
As ever larger numbers of foreigners move to Catalunya, more and more of them will undoubtedly meet and settle down with a local. While such mixed marriages will play a part in altering Catalunya’s social landscape, they also have interesting consequences for the children that result from them. With one parent from another part of the world, kids are exposed to influences that reach beyond Catalunya’s boundaries—not to mention the potential for long foreign holidays visiting relatives. And for many children, it also entails being raised in a household where, from the day they are born, each of their parents speak to them in a different language and it’s certain that a whole world is opened up to those lucky enough to be fluent in both a mother- and father-tongue.
Language may be a barrier to many things but love obviously isn’t one of them. When Ivan Coufal first met his Catalan wife, Anna Dalmau, 17 years ago, the fact that they didn’t share a common language was no impediment to romance. Ivan was born in what was then Czechoslovakia, but moved to South Africa when he was four. Trained as an engineer but now in charge of the Empuriabrava Skydive centre on the Costa Brava, Ivan grew up in a multi-lingual environment in South Africa: he spoke Czech at home with his parents and English and Afrikaans to his friends at school.
Now Ivan and Anna are able to converse happily to each other in either Castilian or English, while with their children, Ivan speaks in English and Anna in Catalan.
Ivan said that rather than being confusing for them, the two youngsters, aged nine and seven, are able to shift seamlessly between languages. The fact they also hear Castilian spoken at home and watch some Spanish television means they already have a good grasp of a third language as well.
“Anna and I speak to each other in Castilian, but I speak to the children in English and she speaks Catalan to them,” he said. “They switch between languages with no problems at all. We also have lots of friends from Madrid and Valencia who come to stay, so the children have to make the effort to speak Castilian as well. I think it’s a huge advantage for them, especially as English is the language that we all have to speak.”
Someone who has no doubts about the benefits of having a foreign parent is Raquel Duran, a 20-year-old history student at Girona University. She has an English father and a Spanish mother and feels she has gained not only linguistically but also culturally by having grown up with exposure to two different worlds. While Raquel definitely prefers Catalan sun to English rain, and isn’t a fan of the UK’s pub culture, Britain doesn’t feel like a foreign country to her.
“When I was a kid we used to spend every Christmas with my English grandparents and family, then they came to visit us in the summer,” she said. “Now I am planning to carry on my studies at university in England. For me it’s an easy adjustment to fit in there, although it does take me a little time to get used to the accent in Newcastle where my grandparents and cousin live—they speak so quickly.”
At home, Raquel speaks English with her dad, who owns a language school in Banyoles, and Catalan with her mum. When they speak together as a family it is either in Castilian or Catalan depending upon the situation.
As well as taking classes with her dad, Raquel said she improved her English by reading, a pastime that received a kick-start from the most unlikeliest of cultural sources—The Beano comic.
“I am a good reader and have read a lot since I was a kid. I started off with reading The Beano because my grandmother used to post one to me every month,” she said. “That really helped to improve my English.”
It is clear that Raquel’s friends, who have had to study hard to learn English, would like to have had her upbringing: “They envy me because I can speak English so well but didn’t have to make any effort. For that reason, I would speak to my kids in English and Catalan. Sometimes people think children get confused by having to deal with different languages but they don’t—I am proof of that. Being exposed to different languages is a very rich experience. It’s not just a new language but a new world.”
Despite her ties with England, though, Raquel said the fact that she grew up in Catalunya has given her a stronger affiliation for the place.
“I do feel a connection with England but I am from here,” she said. “If people are speaking badly about England I will stick up for it. But if you ask me I would always say I was Catalan.”
Anthony Llobet appreciates the value of having parents of different nationalities but never got to enjoy the linguistic fruits his background offered. Born to an English mother and Catalan father, he grew up in England and moved to Blanes with his family when he was 20. But he arrived in the Costa Brava unable to speak either of the local languages.
This was because his father, instead of speaking Catalan or Castilian to Anthony and his brother when they were growing up, only spoke English. Even when they came in the summer holidays to visit relatives, they spoke English and Anthony admits he never understood what his Catalan family were saying.
“As a family, we spoke English and at school I didn’t learn another language,” he said. “At the time my dad said that languages were not important and when he did try to speak to us in Catalan, we just laughed at him. It is such a shame.
“When I came here I didn’t speak any Catalan or Spanish, but it didn’t have to be like that. I was just like any other English person and didn’t get the advantages of having a Catalan father.”
When Anthony, who had trained as a hairdresser in the UK, moved to Blanes, he worked for several years in a salon in Sant Cugat, commuting there six days a week. After a two-year spell living in the Netherlands with his Dutch partner, they returned to Catalunya and in 2000 he opened his first salon, the English Hair Salon, in Barcelona’s Gràcia district.
Eight years on he runs three salons in the city and speaks good Castilian and basic Catalan. “Now at least I can talk with my Catalan relatives, although it feels really weird speaking to them in Spanish,” he said.
Anthony’s experiences of not learning his father’s language as a child and struggling to learn a foreign language as an adult have made him determined that his five-year-old daughter shoud have a good grasp of English. She lives with his now ex-partner in Madrid and he visits her every second weekend.
“My daughter speaks Dutch with her mum, English with me, Castilian at school and Catalan with my ex’s boyfriend,” said Anthony. “She copes really well with it and can speak each of them really well.”
And he now jokes with his father—who speaks Catalan with his grand-daughter—about his embarassment at speaking a different language with his own children.
“I still say to him...‘why didn’t you teach us Spanish? If you had spoken it to us all the time, we wouldn’t have laughed at you’.”
BENEFITS OF BEING BILINGUAL
Being brought up able to speak two languages fluently has some obvious advantages: at school, you’ve got two exams under your belt; when travelling, the choice of countries where you can order the more complicated items on the menu without fear is doubled; and you will always find work in a call centre and/or the diplomatic service.
But that’s not all. Medical studies show that speaking two languages can increase and improve a person’s brain power. A 2004 Canadian study carried out tests on over 100 people aged between 30 and 88, and the results revealed a higher mental sharpness amongst those who were fluent in two languages. It’s believed that this agility can help prevent mental decline in old age, so using two languages is comparable to other activities that scientists say keep the brain youthful, including playing a musical instrument, regular reading and doing crosswords.
While this study was done using people fluent in two languages, those of us who decide to learn a second language from scratch may also benefit in these and other ways.
For instance, another survey from 2004 was carried out in the UK by Philip Beresford for the Michel Thomas Language Centre, looking at the advantages of speaking a second language, although not necessarily fluently. Beresford found that a person who speaks a second language could earn £3,000 a year on top of the average salary.
The same report revealed that there was a common perception that speaking foreign languages made people sexier and more intelligent; this information was gleaned from a survey of dating agency bosses who were questioned about what assets their clients looked for in perspective dates.
Whatever the reason that people speak more than one language—due to the luck of their parents or a voluntary desire to improve their chances with potential partners—it is becoming increasingly common across Europe to find bilinguists. A 2005 report produced by the European Union discovered that over half the citizens of the 25 member states of the time could speak a language other than their native tongue well enough to be able to hold a conversation; this was a rise of three percent from the previous study, done in 2001.
So while we haven’t all been fortunate enough to be raised in a multi-lingual family, it is clear that many people are looking to improve their grasp of foreign languages and take advantage of at least one of the accompanying benefits.