Author: Graham McDougall
Just as the Euro represents a symbol of economic capital in what is perceived to be a rapidly homogenising European economy, the English language is quickly becoming a symbol of great cultural capital and a highly desirable, borderline indispensable skill; a must for the CV of any young European who wishes to be a important player in this brave new world. A person’s cultural capital can be determined by various factors: the colour of their skin, their class background; but above all, by the knowledge that they possess. Knowledge of English language can open a wide range of employment opportunities across many different sectors, and for this reason there are a large group of young people across Europe clamouring to learn or improve their English so that they too can get a taste of the economic capital afforded to them by possessing a greater slice of cultural capital.
Back in May 2014 I was enjoying a drink with two former colleagues in Madrid’s foremost multicultural barrio, Lavapiés. As our Moroccan waiter brings another tray of drinks, a group of Senegalese and Bangladeshi kids engaged in a fierce game of street football narrowly miss colliding into a bench full of South Americans happily singing songs and drinking wine. The smell of marijuana emanates from street corners and music blares from the balconies above. Summer is finally returning after a bitterly cold winter in Madrid.
My companions and I are all Brits, who, like many English-speaking inhabitants of Spain have found themselves teaching English as a foreign language to Spanish students. The three of us had all worked on two notable and heavily-subsidised government programmes, intended to help develop students’ speaking skills by immersing them in an English-speaking environment. Both programmes, it should be noted, only accept applications from teachers who are “Native English Speakers”. Neither programme is open to Spaniards who have an exceptional level of English, never mind previous teaching experience. English teachers from Britain working in Spain (or indeed, anywhere) therefore carry enormous amounts of cultural capital and in many cases, are free to work teaching English even without any prior knowledge, experience or training. The fact of simply being a native speaker makes you more than sufficiently qualified.
As we three “Native English Speakers” sat there in the springtime sun with our cervezas, conversation moved from work to football to “the problems in Spain…” before briefly touching on the upcoming European elections. I explained that I was in the process of organising my postal vote when they asked who I would be voting for. I told them I would vote Green but that I wasn’t sure if I should vote tactically to help counter the rise of UKIP (UK Independence Party).
“I’d vote for them!” One of my friends exclaimed.
“Well, you know,” he replied. “There are too many immigrants back home and … you know, they’re taking jobs away from English people and they get treated better than we do… Lots of benefits, you know?”
I looked at him inquisitively, waiting for the penny to drop. I kept looking…
“What?” he asked.
“Nothing,” I replied. I searched my mind for a better dictionary definition of irony but to no avail.
The real tragedy here is not so much that my friends didn’t recognise the irony of what they were saying but that there seems to be an incultured aspect of British identity in which we won’t permit ourselves to even think of ourselves as immigrants. Immigrants are brown and black. Immigrants are poor and desperate. Immigrants don’t speak English. There is therefore no irony to be recognised. We are white, we are British and our privilege follows wherever we go. The Moroccan waiters and Senegalese drug dealers involved in the day-to-day parade around us were immigrants, but according to my friends, not us.
It is precisely this mythical view of migrants perpetuated by UKIP that is gaining them such support amongst UK citizens at home, and (bizarrely and tragically) abroad. The issue at hand here is ultimately that of free movement within the EU. A worryingly popular example against free movement cited by UKIP is that there are companies in the UK who only advertise job vacancies to foreign workers in other EU countries. The example given is the hiring and bussing-in of unskilled Polish workers who are then placed in minimum-wage jobs by UK-based recruitment agencies, often in areas of the UK that already have problems with unemployment. This, according to UKIP, is unfair on unemployed British people. But is the hiring of practically unskilled “Native English Speakers” to work as teachers in Spain fair on Spaniards who have already suffered the indignity of the economic crisis; especially those who already possess the ability to speak and potentially teach English?
Well, no; obviously not. However, there is no real problem with unskilled Polish workers in the UK anymore than there is a problem with unskilled English teachers working in Spain. There is, however, a problem with the divisive rhetoric of “New Right” parties such as UKIP, who thinly disguise their xenophobia behind pseudo-libertarian rhetoric. They champion free-market economics, the free movement of capital via trade and investment, whilst insisting on restricting the free movement of the very people who are responsible for the movement of capital: those who work and spend their money abroad.
The other dimension here in Spain is the fallout from the 2008 financial crisis, and a feeling of hopelessness that young Spaniards have been experiencing in relation to their future prospects and employment opportunities. The reason given for attendance by a vast majority of students on the aforementioned courses was to improve their English so that they could go and work in the UK or elsewhere after completing their degrees – knowing that as a result of the crisis Spain would be a difficult place to find work. The economic crisis has therefore not only affected financial capital but also had a direct affect on the importance of the Spanish language as cultural capital. English has now become the order of the day, and in this context, being English or being able to speak English has come to define people in economic terms. A hierarchy has been built from the debris of the financial crash, and this piece of cultural capital is totemically placed high up, reachable only to a select few.
As a result, the way in which Brits perceive themselves whilst living and working in Spain is inherently connected with the cultural capital of our mother tongue. Evidently, we Brits sadly still harbour a borderline colonial mentality when travelling or working abroad, and this mentality, however subconscious, is given further credence when we go to work abroad and find ourselves in a more advantageous economic position than the native population. Moreover, Brits make up the fourth largest ethnic minority group in Spain and often have far more earning power than the other larger minority groups. In this sense, our cultural capital and privilege runs so deep that we don’t see the forest for the trees: we don’t recognise our privilege for what it truly is because we are blinded by it. We are invisible migrants, invisible even to ourselves.
Graham McDougall is a graduate of the University of Sussex, where he studied Anthropology with a focus on religion, political activism, and politics in China. During his degree, Graham did a voluntary year abroad in Hong Kong, and travelled to Russia, Mongolia, China and India. He taught English as foreign language in Spain for two years, and now lives and works in London.