Hello everybody, how are you?" asks the teacher, and two dozen Spanish-accented voices reply in unison, in well-drilled English: "I'm fine, thank you."
It's back-to-school last week for these Spanish nine-year-olds, which means means being plunged not only into a new class but into a whole new language.
Spaniards have long ranked among Europe's underachievers in foreign languages and a decade ago, Spanish regions began responding by launching intensive English “bilingual colleges”.
Ten years and one big economic crisis later, parents are as keen as ever to improve the job prospects of their children by immersing them in English.
“These children are going to have opportunities that their parents did not have,” said headteacher Maria Dolores Villalba.
Her school, the Doctor Tolosa Latour Public College here in the working class Madrid suburb of Vallecas, launched one of the region's first such intensive English immersion schemes.
But experts warn that for some families, the zeal for teaching in English may be doing more harm than good.
"What they are doing is ruthless," said Yolanda Juarros Barcenilla, a mother and English teacher.
"It is a very strong immersion which leads a lot of pupils to fail.” In the schoolyard at Doctor Tolosa Latour, hundreds of pupils with gap-toothed smiles and new bags chattered noisily in Spanish about their holidays on the first day of the new term early this month.
Once inside the classroom, however, they had to switch to English, for in the “bilingual” system more than half of the 22 hours of weekly lessons here are given in that tongue.
“I went to the beach,” one pupil told her teacher, Beatriz Polo. “I played with my tablet,” said another.
The native Spanish teachers must stick strictly to English in classes of science, sports, art and music.
“The idea is for the children to start speaking in English from the first year of primary school or even from infant school,” said Villalba.
“There are many hours of English over many terms and they learn it naturally.”
The European Commission's most recent survey, dating to 2006, showed 56% of Spaniards spoke no second language.
Five other EU countries ranked worse: Ireland, Britain, Italy, Hungary and Poland.
But with its huge tourism industry and millions of foreign visitors each year, some argued that Spain had no excuse.
Language learning in Spain “has always been an area for improvement,” said Antonio Cabrales of University College London, the United Kingdom and author of a study on Spain's bilingual schools.
“Even compared to countries that do not rely as heavily on tourism as Spain does, the knowledge of English among its adult population and even among its young people, is worse.”
Juarros complained however that the strict bilingual system penalises those whose parents cannot help them with English at home.
“You cannot teach the names of bones in the body or a list of plants to a child who does not speak English,” as a first language, she said.
She said the standard of English required of schoolteachers had improved greatly since 2004, but “they lack fluency and richness”, which threatens the quality of teaching.
Cabrales said his study indicated that there was indeed a negative impact particularly on pupils whose parents did not have higher education.
Those children get “significantly worse” results in the subjects taught in English, he said.
That has not put off parents such as Jose Manuel Calderon, a 40-year-old labourer who dropped off his eight-year-old son Miguel for his first day at the bilingual school.
"We switched schools so that he would learn English," he said. "You need it for everything nowadays." — AFP
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