School Enrolment in Spain part 2

See here for Part 1 of School Enrolment in Spain.
After a good look at “colegios públicos” on Google Maps, I went along to the ayuntamiento (town hall) to start my real-people-research. The ‘Department of Education’ ended up being a nameless office on the second floor. In fact, a lady from the information desk readily accompanied me to make sure I got the right place. I’m consistently surprised by how patient and helpful people are despite my terrible Spanish.
In fact sometimes I wonder how they understand me at all. I stammer out stuff that I’m not even sure is Spanish, it’s probably French with a few more o’s and a few less nasals, muddled with English word order, and yet somehow they get it (probably from my body language) and answer me as if I were a normal respectable citizen. This did not happen when I moved to Paris. No-one was quite this indulgent, believe me.
ah, the joy of tax stamps

ah, the joy of tax stamps

One of my main aims was to find out which schools I can or should apply to. Our address is close to the border between two municipalities. One school I had in mind, which is just five minutes walk away, is actually in a different municipality, and the official told me there is no way to enrol there unless we get ourselves declared resident in that municipality. (I later found out this is not quite true.)
There are five other schools in our municipality within a 12-minute walk (thanks Google Maps for this precision!) so it’s unlikely I’ll actually end up having to drive them to school, something I really want to avoid.
He *thinks* the applications are in March. I guess he too is lacking a decent web site with all the basics spelt out.
In the list of establishments he jotted down for me, he marked one school with a small asterisk and another with a large asterisk. “Those are good,” he said matter-of-factly. I assume that the size of the star is linked to just how good he considered them to be. Then he told me the rest of the procedure is done through the school directly, and stood up to shake my hand. My visit was fast drawing to a close. I was still trying to figure out where to get my volante de empadronamiento to prove residence in my municipality, otherwise I would have tried to get more details on exactly what makes these two colegios better than the others.
Downstairs in the town hall, I paid for a couple of tax stamps (oh, the happy memories of Lebanese bureaucracy and tax stamps) and got my volante de empadronamiento. So the next stop is to speak to some schools directly. And gather local opinions on “good” schools in the hope of unearthing some actual information. Or failing that at least practise my Spanish.

School enrolment in Spain Part 1

I may have gotten out of doing the school run for an extra year, but it’s now time to get my head around enrolling my little Beiruti. The application process seems to run in February or March and there are several reasons why I should be getting a head start, not least of all the length of time it takes me to understand anything in Spanish. Also I might have to take her birth certificate to a sworn translator.

In addition, she’ll be starting a year later than most kids. That’s because apparently all sane mums put their kids in school from the tender age of three (or before). That’s how they stay sane. For the crazy ones applying later, it’s supposed to be harder to find places in your school(s) of choice. I’m not too worried as there are several within walking distance.

So I have been online trying to extract information from the individual websites of local state schools …which do not seem to have been designed with this purpose in mind. Going online in Spain is a bit like going back in time a decade. Think Mordac the Preventer of Information Services but less evil. The fact that it is all written in Spanish is the least of my problems. It’s not quite as bad as trying to find a Beirut bus map, but close.

The sites that I actually managed to find for schools are labyrinths of lists of pdfs that you have to open if you want to know what’s in them. There are plenty of wonky photos of finger painting preschoolers and even video clips of songs in assembly. So many that it’s hard to get past them to find out anything at all about enrolment, school-day times, languages taught, or any of the other questions that have been filling my mind this past week.

One school near my house I discover has, not a website, but a blog. Plus a blog for the parents association of that school, one for its library, one for the preschool and one for extracurricular stuff. All of them dying the slow death of blogs that were meant to be simple websites with the occasional update. Remember back when everyone thought that if you ever wanted to update your online content you needed to do it diary style??? There’s really only so many times you can blog to update the secretary’s opening hours, and to be honest I don’t want to scroll through a year’s postings to find them.

schools have more bars than zoos these days

schools have more bars than zoos these days

Still, I managed to find the enrolment form used a few years back, when the school still remembered they had a site. I also found details on the points system, probably outdated, but it gives the spirit of the thing.
The places are assigned on the basis of points awarded for circumstances like the following:

  • having a sibling in the school (this gets the most points)
  • living in the catchment area (next biggest factor if you’re in the right catchment area, or just a few points in a neighbouring catchment area)
  • having a parent working in the school
  • having a parent working in the catchment area
  • having a disability
  • coming from a single-parent family
  • coming from a large family

I can see we won’t have much of a points capital.

This could easily turn into a red-tape rant but I’m afraid I’m a non-believer. I just don’t think that everything bureaucratic is easier in the UK or wherever Home is. It may be easier for us, but it isn’t for foreigners (though the websites are more legible!). I’ve seen the other side of the coin when I looked into moving back to the UK with my US-born husband. Now that really is paperwork. Actually just getting British passports for my kids born abroad was hard because we didn’t fit in the boxes.

And although you get the feeling that the goalposts shift at times (sometimes getting closer) in Mediterranean countries, goalposts in the UK sometimes feel unattainably far.

I think I’ve done about as much research as I can online. I dare say I shall soon concede defeat and do it the Lebanese way, and without a doubt the Spanish way too: face to face. It’s so much easier sometimes to just have everything spelt out on some easy-to-navigate website, the Anglo-Saxon way. But you can’t buy an education online as if you’re ordering a book off Amazon, any more than you can integrate a real-life community online. And after all, there’s nothing like actually talking to the relevant people in the actual context. You get all sorts of perks you don’t get doing things the impersonal way.

Anyone else going through/been through the whole procedure? Any advice on what to expect? This whole school thing is new to me but I’ve plunged into a few other blogs to get an idea of what we’re in for, including this one and this one. Next on my list is a trip to the Department of Education at the town hall, and some real-people-research to work out what is considered a “good” school in Spain and what factors we hold to be the most important in our choice.

Translated books: The Gruffalo

Although I do OPOL English with my kids I am still trying to indirectly bolster the French they get with their dad. We aim for consistent OPOL-ing, but we do allow ourselves to sing in other languages. Another good way I try is through books. Songs and books seem to work well as an exception to the OPOL rule, without undermining our consistency the rest of the time. It’s a bit like playacting, so it seems alright to transgress, as it were, into the other language, without fear of abandoning the spirit of OPOL. My husband, though, allows less transgression since his is the language with less support, while I actively seek to redress the balance of languages by making some of the kids’ “English time” with me count as “French time” by reading and singing in French…and occasionally in Arabic.

In theory I’d prefer authentic resources in a target language. However, I’m short of some good suggestions for really lovely French books, and I don’t want to order a huge selection from Amazon, only to be disappointed. So in the meantime I have acquired a couple of translations. After my three-year old was given some Julia Donaldson CDs, including The Gruffalo, I got the French and Arabic versions of the book (more on the Arabic later).

The Gruffalo translated by Jean-François Ménard

The Gruffalo, translated by Jean-François Ménard

The whole collection has been quite a hit. The French translation is beautifully done and my little Beiruti already knows it by heart. It sticks close to the original without sounding forced. The repetition of “terrible” which rings so well in English has been replaced by a vast array of synonyms in French, a language which prefers to avoid any repetition at all (to the point that it has synonyms for country names eg Outre-Rhin for Germany, and transalpin for Italian).

The only minor issue I had with it isn’t really linguistic, it’s more of a parenting qualm. The mouse says three times to the Gruffalo:  “Tu vois, je ne t’ai pas menti,” – ‘You see, I wasn’t lying.’ In the original, although it is clear that the mouse is indeed stretching the truth when he says that all the animals are scared of him, the word “lying” isn’t used. When you are trying to teach a three-year old always to tell the truth, it doesn’t feel quite right to show lying as entertainment and I would have preferred to avoid an explicit reference. Otherwise we’ve been delighted with it.

What have been your experiences with translations? Can anybody recommend some great original French books for 3-4 years old? 

My issues with je ne sais quoi

Elle Decoration (of course)

Elle Decoration (of course)

One of the problems with moving abroad and immersing yourself in another language is that you forget how to say foreign words in English. I mean all those borrowed words that are commonly used in English. The English language has adopted loads of French words like “ambience”, “connoisseur”, and “rendezvous” (or even fake French words like “en suite”). I’m sure there are plenty of words from other languages that I’m less attuned to as well.

The English have worked out their own pronunciation of these words, a slightly anglicised version which is basically a bit easier to say without twisting your mouth into all sorts of unaccustomed shapes.
The thing is, when you go and immerse yourself in all things French/Italian/whatever you somehow lose your grip slightly on your mother tongue. You go to real cafés instead of Starbucks, you learn new recipes in French, you learn to say hello every time you walk into a shop and goodbye (not thank you) when you leave, you listen to French radio until you can finally get the gist of what’s been happening from the dry, high-speed, minimally informative news reports on FranceInfo (it’s hard, believe me). You sit through lectures on Molière, on thème and version, and if you’re crazy like me, you even go to Arabic classes in French.
It feels like uphill work, but when you have a chance to relax into English you suddenly find you can’t speak it in the same way any more. The French words just come faster sometimes, and even the way you make sentences gets gallicised. It’s worse if all your English friends speak French too because you just babble on, mixing languages. Linguists call this code-switching, but it feels like babbling to me.
I don’t babble like I used to, because for three years I’ve been aiming for pure English with my kids. But when I go back to England, I have no idea how to pronounce the borrowed words. I have unlearnt those in-between words that can swing from one language to another.
The problem is how normal Brits view this. Speaking “foreign” is not well thought of in England. It’s decidedly pretentious to go throwing foreign-sounding words around. I’ve been there, I do get it. To me, too, it sounds ridiculous when people come back from a holiday in Florence saying “Ciao bella!” And it isn’t just me – Kate Fox talks about this reaction in her great book Watching the English.
It’s a curious thing really, because many French words adopted by the English language are related to concepts we aspire to or admire. Its a legacy left over from French being the language of the aristocracy; more recent adoptions testify to our continued awe at French style, cooking and general savoir-vivre (oops). Think of words like boutique, cuisine, haute couture, etiquette, première, encore, etc.
But a Brit using such fancy words excessively, or saying foreign words in a foreign way (that is, trying to say them accurately – quelle horreur!) means you’re a swaggerer, or trying too hard. Fox puts it down to the importance we English accord to modesty (or at least, an appearance of modesty).
The result? When I speak to Brits, I either avoid words that sound French because I can’t remember how to say them in English, or I have a stab and end up mispronouncing them by both English and French standards at the same time. It’s all rather comic, so long as you can leave the country again, I suppose.

Playing truant

This is likely the last year I’ll get to dodge the back-to-school rush. While everyone else was wrapped up in the “vuelta al cole” in September, I dawdled in the near-empty park with my two little ones, and enjoyed the peace of the library on weekdays. People are curious about why my three-year old isn’t in school, even though, like in most European countries, the mandatary age for schooling is six. Notwithstanding our disregard of popular opinion on the subject, it has been a very interesting phase in terms of learning. Some snippets from the past few months show that plenty of learning (including academic knowledge) takes place when kids are just getting on with life.

  • My daughter wants to push keys on my laptop while I’m just completing an online purchase. I’d prefer not to have to start over due to some random button-pressing so I let her hold my bank card and read the numbers with me as I enter them. Next step is to click on “pagar” - pay. When I tell her this, she replies: “There are two words in Spanish for ‘pay’.” “Really?” I ask. “What’s the other one?” She replies: “La cuenta (the bill).” From which I gather that the local café culture has more benefits than just letting us sit back with a café con leche.

    SMS-speak should come easily

    SMS-speak should come easily

  • She finds a scrap of card on the floor with a crease down the middle. “It’s a card to send someone,” she tells me, “Can you write it?” Rushing to get dinner ready I tell her: “You write it…you can write Hi or Hello or Dear….” running out of relevant words that she could conceivably decipher on her own. After dinner, pyjamas, stories and bed, I’m clearing the floor and come across the card again. I almost throw the scribbled-on scrap away but glimpse letters: HLO. I double-check with her what she meant to write in case the letters are random: “Hello.”
  • I’m reading her Le Gruffalo (yes, in French,): “Une souris se promenait dans un grand bois profond…” (“A mouse took a stroll through the deep dark wood,” in the original text) and she interrupts to say: “But it says: ‘une sourisss’ “,  pronouncing the silent ‘s’ at the end. It’s not the first time we discuss how we write X but we say Y. So we then continue reading the book (which she has learnt by heart in that way kids do) and randomly mispronouncing words the way they are written. A week later, “sur le neZZZ” (“on its nose”) still has her in giggles. In the meantime she is learning the illogical spelling of these words off by heart. “Tonight it’s pizza for dinner,” I tell her, pronouncing it pizz-ah. “And we say ‘peet-sa’”, she replies.
  • She is studying a water bottle from the supermarket Carrefour. She points to the E in Carrefour, looks up and tells her dad: “On ne dit pas le ‘e’.” (We don’t say the ‘e’).  Since no-one else was saying the word this means she had worked out what it said (in context obviously), pronounced it in her head, compared the spoken word with the letters, and spotted where the spelling didn’t match the usual pronunciation.

She is currently getting 2-3 hours of one-on-one Spanish play a week, as well as lots of passive exposure to Spanish. The rest is probably two thirds English (me) with the remaining third French and English at the same time (mealtimes and weekends). So far it is working, judging by what comes out of her mouth. I’ve even felt we could afford to throw in a little Arabic, so even her 14-month old brother now turns and points excitedly skywards when asked “Wayn el-’amar?” (Where’s the moon?)

Update: More on the French and Arabic translations of The Gruffalo here.