The current crisis of the British Council, most famous for its language assistantship programme, made me reflect on the importance of language assistants who came to my high school in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
It is only now, thinking back, that I realize the value of the language assistants who came to Northern Ireland in this period, a time when the province had a very homogeneous population and very little cultural diversity beyond the obvious sectarian divide. Looking back, I can see that these language assistants were among the first people from outside the Anglophone world that I got to know properly. They helped inspire my love of languages, but they also played a crucial role in broadening my cultural horizons.
It was through working with language assistants that I came to understand the gulf between my textbook French and Spanish and the living, spoken languages. They helped me to see language as a living ecosystem, not as a set of written formulae. I often felt frustrated to see the chasm between my stilted French and Spanish, with memorized subjunctive phrases designed to meet the ‘A’ Level marking criteria, and their fluent, colloquial, speech. Like most lessons in life, this was difficult to swallow.
Intercultural communication can be hard. I often wonder about how the experience was for our assistants, who came to Northern Ireland during a period when the province was largely cut off from the outside world, and the violence of the Troubles refused to die. Our Spanish assistant in 1997/8, Luís Antonio Sierra Gómez, actually ended up publishing his own history of the Northern Ireland Troubles, available at https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=DBjB87E78zYC
I wonder now whether Luís was perhaps still in Northern Ireland in August 1998, when the Omagh bomb claimed the life of two Spaniards, Rocío Abad Ramos, aged 24, and Fernando Blasco Baselga, just 12. I wonder how many Spaniards have picked up Luís’s book to try to understand the strange conflict in which these two young people lost their lives. The value of intercultural communication is clear.
Connor Doak, Lecturer in Russian, University of Bristol