Recently, the Chief Minister made a robust plea for maintaining a healthy language policy, with both English and Spanish receiving their due, and enabling the Gibraltarian to engage meaningfully and advantageously with the outside world.
He announced that the Department of Education was committed to teaching Spanish from an early age (the earlier the better), and steps have been taken to implement this more enlightened approach.
Linguistic maturity might eventually lead to the elimination of ‘Yanito’. Proficiency in English and Spanish might render our peculiar mix of the two superfluous; after all, it’s when you are stumped for the right word, usually the Spanish one, that you employ the English one.
Our ancestors were still coming to terms with mastering the two languages, and at a time when educational opportunities were more limited, it was natural to view the colonizers’ language with awe and consider your first language, that is Spanish, as somehow inferior.
Still, it would be a sad day if ‘Yanito’ were to disappear. The code switching and code mixing are a source of national pride and unique in southern Europe.
Also, ‘Yanito’ oils the wheels of social interaction, makes us feel at home, and identifies another Gibraltarian as one of ours. Of course, it is not a language in its own right, is mainly oral and ephemeral and used in an informal context.
It would be difficult, not to say impossible, to write a serious book on ‘Yanito’. A ‘Yanito’ dictionary written in twenty years’ time would be very different from those composed by Manuel Cavilla and Tito Vallejo.
Maintaining, or better still, improving our level of English, a more passionate teaching of Spanish and a deeper appreciation of what Spain can offer educationally, and more conscious use of revived ‘Yanito’ would be the ideal.
Which language you prioritise depends to a certain extent on your age. Most school pupils are quite frank about their penchant for English; they feel more at home with English, read English books, watch cable TV, and use social media where the prevailing language is English.
Some will admit to using Spanish, but only at home, and usually with grandparents only. A trip in a local bus can be very revealing linguistically. If you catch an early bus, you will hear only English as the passengers are mainly school children. Later buses will have a more heterogeneous crowd using a mixture of English and Spanish; a bus carrying mainly pensioners will reverberate to the sound of Spanish.
Our cultural diversity combines traces of our Latin heritage with elements derived from the British presence. This blend should be strengthened and in these worrying days of Brexit uncertainty both should be kept alive. We don’t want to forfeit our affinity with Britain but, at the same time, we must relish belonging to the European family of nations.
History binds us to the ancient Roman Empire, to Al-Andalus, and to the wider Mediterranean civilization. Being a small people, with a close resemblance to a classical Greek city-state, we cannot afford to be jingoistic or narrow-minded. Our ethnic mix has made us appreciate other cultures and languages; treasuring English and Spanish, we have the world at our feet, linguistically speaking.
Provocatively, a monoglot Gibraltarian is only half a Gibraltarian because he or she has negated a part of his/her cultural and linguistic heritage. The Gibraltarian is an amphibious creature, supposedly at home in two worlds, in two cultures and in two languages.
I sincerely hope this article will generate a well-meaning and intelligent debate among those who have a consuming interest in these topics.