Friday, July 12, 2013


I am British, I speak English primarily but also Spanish. I can get by in French and have a handful of words in Bulgarian, Hungarian, Zulu and Afrikaans. If you asked me what languages do Gibraltarians speak I would say they are trilingual speaking English, Spanish and Llanito.

Given Gibraltar’s close links with Britain it is natural that English should be the major language. Apart from anything else we need English for our education, in law as well as business. Spain is our neighbour so it is equally sensible for Gibraltarians to be able to speak Spanish. To be bilingual in this day and age is a great asset and in English and Spanish we have the two major languages other than Chinese.

Across the border in Spain they are busy trying to teach their children English not specifically because of the closeness of Gibraltar but because it is the major language internationally. Schools that offer a bilingual curriculum are cropping up in every town: the problem is the quality of the teachers often leaves a lot to be desired.

Over the generations that border workers have come to work in Gibraltar they have developed their own patois originally based on words that dock workers collected from English speakers and visiting ships. These words now make up part of the argot of La Linea.

All this came to mind because in the Spanish media recently there have been articles bemoaning the fact that Gibraltarian children do not now speak Spanish as a natural tongue. The point being made is that their parents learnt by ear and are natural Spanish speakers whilst their children are not and only learn Spanish in classes at school.

I was surprised to learn this fact and when I was first told a year or so ago I asked a teacher who informed me that this was so. Curious really given the influence of Spanish in our lives in cross border visits and the media.

I remember talking to a retired Gibraltarian teacher who told me that prior to the evacuation at the time of the Second World War the majority of Gibraltarians spoke Spanish and not English. Those who spoke English would probably have been the business classes who had close links with the military. He added that when the evacuees returned and schools were re-established on the Rock the Religious Brothers who came to teach here had to first undergo Spanish lessons.

I have no reason to doubt his words but that would mean that in the period of 60 years Gibraltar’s children had gone from being Spanish speakers to English speakers.

Language defines a people and the mixture of language in Gibraltar is part of what makes a Gibraltarian a Gibraltarian. The unique ability to switch from English to Spanish at the drop of a hat with a stop along the way into Llanito. However if the Spanish are correct and our young people speak English and only treat Spanish as a foreign language then could that also endanger the future of Llanito which requires a knowledge of both tongues.


Following my article in Panorama on Tuesday about whether our young people are learning Spanish as a second language or speaking it naturally I received a kind message from Bart Van Thienen. Bart had read the article in Panorama on the internet and posted it for his friends.

Although I am grateful for his kind words what interested me more is what he posted on his Facebook page. Bart wrote: “A very interesting article for my Belgian friends, we too as Flemish people had to await the Second World War to get education in our own language and even justice in Flemish (dialect of Dutch). Even today the Belgian king speaks Flemish with a heavy French accent although French speakers are only 30% of the population...”

I was in Brussels a short while ago and the French – Flemish divide is a bit of a nightmare. When I go to Paris I always try to use what French I have and I have to say despite their reputation Parisians are normally generous in allowing for mistakes. However what do you speak in Brussels? How do you know if a person, restaurant or shop is French or Flemish?

My guidebook told me as people can be offended if you speak French to a Flemish speaker or vice versa the best thing to do is speak English. Which is what I did. When I thought a person was French I did risk a mumbled few words but was never quite sure whether they were actually Flemish in disguise.

I know there are people in Gibraltar who believe that as the Rock is British then English should be the common language. I know people are annoyed when they go into a shop and find if they speak English they are simply not understood because the staff are Spanish. You have seen these issues debated in Panorama either in articles or in the letters column oft times before.

However it is a fact that if Gibraltarians can speak English and Spanish then it is an enormous asset to our community because we have the two major languages in the world, other than Chinese, covered. So both in the worlds of business and tourism we are one jump ahead. Compare that to Spain where few speak English, not even the country’s leaders, or the UK where they speak English normally at home and very loudly and slowly when confronting Johnny Foreigner abroad.

The trick for Gibraltarians is to use their language skills to enhance the nation and have a balance so that Gibraltar is neither a language colony of the UK or Spain. However I believe that what really defines a Gibraltarian is the ability to slip in to Llanito: but as I said in my last article surely to do so you need to speak Spanish.

Some 20 years ago I used to record a radio programme called “If It’s In The Press, It’s Got To Be True!” For some episodes I took the Llanito conversation columns from Panorama and used them in the script. We had a Spanish actress on the show, who spoke good English and was in fact an English teacher. I duly presented her with the script and her face was a picture. She said I know most of these words, but I haven’t a clue what it means. That’s Llanito for you.