Scott Thornbury’s post on his blog: B is for Bad Language Learner

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Following a discussion I had with Scott Thornbury via Twitter on whether or not Michael Bloomberg, the mayor of New York city, should address citizens in his less-than-communicative Spanish, Scott wrote the following post on his blog: http://scottthornbury.wordpress.com/2011/09/25/b-is-for-bad-language-learner/

This was my reply:

Dear Scott,

First of all, two things: I’m sorry it took me a couple of days to comment here, but I wanted to do it properly =). Second, reading you say I write beautifully in English makes me self-conscious to comment here now, and might just become more important to me from now on than my CPE.

Now, in parts:

1) I do NOT agree with the mockery. You said I went so far as to blog my disagreement, but if you read my post carefully, you’ll see I have never condoned the mockery, and never would I. I’ll explain my views on Mr. Bloomberg’s use of Spanish below, but I do NOT agree with, and have NEVER condoned the mockery, not of the mayor, not of any student of any foreign language ever. (If I may be so bold, nevertheless, Mr. Bloomberg, being the mayor of New York City and a media tycoon, should take it in his stride, shouldn’t he?)

2) “(Not to mention Chinese, Greek, Yiddish and Korean either, I suppose)”. I have never said that, and I don’t think so. Spanish is the second most widely spoken language in the United States throughout the country (which, by the way, has no official language), and it seems to me a leader in New York City has the obligation to speak excellent Spanish, yes. Mr Bloomberg should, Mr Obama (obviously) should, they all should. I have never seen Mr Obama speak Spanish, though, not out of populism anyway. He doesn’t speak Spanish, so he doesn’t address the nation in Spanish. Period. If he needs to get a serious message across, he’ll do so in English, the language he speaks. He’ll leave Spanish to the interpreters, to CNN en Español.

When Barack Obama visited Brazil last year, he made a point of learning a few sentences in Portuguese to use while speaking to a million Brazilians in Rio de Janeiro. He didn’t make his speech in Portuguese, mind you, or summarized his speech in the end in Portuguese. He, in our jargon, established rapport in Portuguese, and we were flattered. My point is: when you are in a position of authority advising people on what to do on the days and in the hours leading up to a hurricane, do so in a language – whatever it is – you are comfortable with. Don’t use a moment like that to get the ‘latino’ vote (and this is an extremely prejudiced term, not to mention inaccurate.); when you’re trying to be charming, during an empty populist speech, for example, then knock yourself out in any language you see fit. My problem was never with Mr Bloomberg’s nonexistent Spanish (he was reading Spanish, not speaking Spanish. He doesn’t speak any Spanish), it was with his trying to sweep the Spanish-speaking community off their feet at a time of national crisis. Bad timing;

3) By excellent Spanish I never meant at C2 level; I meant communicative, fluent Spanish (if Bloomberg spoke Spanish like you do, Scott, then I’d be the first to tell him, “go, Mr. Mayor, Spanish it is!”);

4) I don’t think he should be penalized for trying, either, and I don’t think whoever it was that created a blog to mock him out of sheer lack of what to do should’ve done that either. I just think that, if Mr Bloomberg wants to address his Spanish-speaking constituents in their language, he should learn it, however many hours it takes him. That not being the case, he should take his cue from Barack Obama and stick to English;

5) I mentioned in my post a Brazilian soccer coach (who used to coach the South African national team) that gave an interview after a match in English beyond comprehension. He became a national joke (no, I don’t think that’s right). His interview was turned into a song, subtitled, mocked all over the country (the world) and Joel never gave an interview in English again (I suspect he never ever tried English again anywhere – here’s the interview: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V5RWMxEALSA). I believe, Scott, this interview proves both my point and yours. It proves yours when it shows beyond a doubt that mockery is profoundly detrimental even for the most hard-working, courageous of students. It proves mine when I say students should, regardless of their levels, try out language in bars, restaurants, passport controls and international trips in general the world over. However, for the very few who have the chance, I’d say giving interviews and adressing nations are much more advanced functions of a foreign language, which demand a grasp of the language neither Mr. Bloomberg nor Mr. Santana are any close to attaining.

I therefore second your plea, Scott. Let’s never, ever mock our students for their well-meant attempts (and though I don’t think Mr. Bloomberg’s was well-meant, I’m not for mocking him either.). However, as a teacher – and because not everybody is – let’s try and, as much as possible, protect our students from ridicule. If any of them had been my students, I would have strongly recommended they refrain from public speaking for the time being.

Let me finish by saying it still feels a bit fantastic to be discussing something with you. =) “A-Z of ELT” (“Beyond the Sentence”, “Uncovering Grammar”…) is one of the most important books in ELT for me ever.

Best wishes,
Higor.

PS: You think I’m a good language learner because you’ve never seen me in a French class!

To which Scott replied:

Thanks for coming on board, Higor. It’s admirable that you should rise to the challenge of defending – and clarifying – your original comments. The basic point you are making – that Mayor Bloomberg should learn Spanish – is well made and, I think, fairly uncontroversial. In fact, it seems that he is the first to admit this, and has been taking Spanish classes for the last seven years (see Declan Cooley’s earlier comment, in which he posted this link:http://www.matthewbennett.es/1008/bloombergs-spanish-good-enough-for-new-york-press-conferences/

Your related point – that he shouldn’t use it until he has learnt it – seems to me a little unrealistic (and maybe using it is part of the learning of it?), as does your point that his use of Spanish is opportunistic (that he is currying favour with the Hispanic community), and, furthermore, that it was inappropriate, given the severity of the occasion. I’m not sure if it’s wise to impute motives for a person’s choice of language without knowing more of the facts, but I tend to give a speaker the benefit of the doubt, and assume his/her language choices reflect his/her best understanding of the context variables currently in operation. Like most speech events, the mayor’s pronouncements in advance of the hurricane probably had a double function: to warn, and, at the same time, to build what one writer (Aston, 1988) has called ‘comity’, i.e. kindly and considerate behaviour towards others. (Aston argues that comity is a major factor in public discourse, and this would explain Obama’s use of Portuguese in his speech in Brazil). Bloomberg was doing what everyone does when they open their mouth – he was simultaneously transacting and interacting – and he was doing this in the context of a strongly multilingual and multicultural society, hence his use of Spanish.

¡Digo yo!

Interesting discussion all around. What do you think?

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One thought on “Scott Thornbury’s post on his blog: B is for Bad Language Learner

    Lígia said:
    September 29, 2011 at 8:53 pm

    I tend to agree with Scott… specially when he says we have to give Bloomberg the benefit of the doubt, that the fact the he used some Spanish could have had more to do with “building rapport” and showing consideration than anything else… Also, I agree with something he mentioned in his blog: learning a new language can be a great challenge for some people and, of course, being the mayor of NYC, Bloomberg has a lot on his plate, and probably doesn’t have a lot of time to turn his mediocre Spanish into a great one (on the other hand, I agree that speaking good Spanish is important for any public authority in the US).

    But anyway, it is a great discussion, and it generated a lot of interesting comments. And, of course, it probably feels very nice to be involved in a discussion with Scott Thornbury!

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