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The ties that bind us

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As the University launches a unique international collaboration with the Cervantes Institute to bring its Spanish language and cultural offering to Scotland for the first time, the man in the chair, Professor of Contemporary Spanish Literature, Alexis Grohmann, reflects on its impact on Edinburgh and Scotland, language learning's myriad mental and physical wellbeing benefits, and…

As I speak with Professor Grohmann, Scots are soaking up the sunshine of a now increasingly common heatwave and very possibly daydreaming of losing themselves in the streets of romantic old towns, lazy days on the beach and warm summer evenings spent enjoying local delicacies with friends and families. With these attractions in abundance, it’s no surprise that Spain remains our go-to holiday destination.

Throw in the incredible cultural success of Spanish language and bilingual series such as Money Heist, Narcos and White Lines in recent years, and it is little wonder that demand for Spanish now outstrips French as a Higher subject of study in Scotland’s schools.

“Spanish has the second highest number of native speakers, after Mandarin Chinese,” says Professor Grohmann. “As the official language of 20 countries, with 500 million speakers across all seven continents, speaking Spanish creates enormous opportunities to experience travel and living and working in different cultures.”

Unique partnership

And Professor Grohmann should know, having dedicated his career to exploring Spanish language, literature and culture. Today, he is honoured to hold the world’s first Cátedra Cervantes/Cervantes Chair. The culmination of more than two decades of discussions between the University of Edinburgh, the Cervantes Institute and the Consulate of Spain in Edinburgh, this unique partnership extends the Spanish language and cultural non-profit organisation’s presence to Scotland for the first time. Founded by the Spanish government in 1991, the Cervantes Institute now has 92 centres in 47 countries globally, promoting and supporting the teaching, study and use of Spanish abroad and promoting Spanish and Hispanic cultures.

“This collaboration is not just for the University, it’s not just for the city, it’s for Scotland,” Professor Grohmann says. “Rather than an institute in its own right, such as those in Manchester, London, Leeds and Dublin; in Edinburgh we have the privilege of charting new territory through the world’s first Cátedra Cervantes/Cervantes Chair, a position held by an individual embedded within a university, in this case, me.

“By collaborating closely with the Cervantes Institute in Manchester, the Consulate of Spain in Edinburgh and backed by Spanish international construction company, Sacyr, we’ll deliver a focused programme of cultural and learning activities in what I hope will be the first steps to eventually opening a full institute.”


Being the first Catedrático Cervantes/Cervantes Chair is especially poignant for Professor Grohmann, who credits the Cervantes Institute with helping to ignite a passion for Spanish language, literature and culture on which he’s built a career and the fulfilment of a 30-year-old dream.

“From a young age, I’ve been passionate about contemporary Spanish literature, and how Spanish writers captured and amplified the enormous change the country was experiencing from the 1970s, in works that were outward looking, and played a huge role in changing the country’s reputation,” Professor Grohmann recalls.

“As a PhD student in Scotland in the 1990s, I’d travel regularly to the institutes in London, Manchester and Leeds and occasionally Dublin to hear writers speak, and to participate in cultural events. And I’d spend each long car journey home wondering why we had institutes in Scotland promoting French, Italian, Chinese and Russian language and culture but not Spanish. I couldn’t understand it.

“My predecessor at the University, as Head of Spanish, Portuguese and Latin American Studies, Dr José Saval, began discussions with Cervantes nearly two decades ago. I became involved around ten years ago and, since taking over from Dr Saval in 2014, I have worked with Deputy Vice-Principal International, Alan McKay, and recently also with the Consul General of Spain, D Ignacio Cartagena, to establish a presence for the Institute. We owe it to ourselves as a nation – it’s way overdue.”


Born in Thessaloniki, Greece, with German heritage, Professor Grohmann grew up bilingual and avidly advocates language learning’s immense and diverse benefits.

“Neuroscience studies show how learning a language rewires the brain, adding a whole dimension to our neural capabilities,” Professor Grohmann reflects. “It’s never too late to start, and the more languages you speak, the easier it is to learn a new one. Growing up speaking Greek and German, I’d also watch a lot of film and television in English, with subtitles that helped me learn the language, and I spent many years learning French not only at the German school but also at Thessaloniki’s well-established Institut Français.

“As your language skills quickly develop, you become a slightly different person in each language. Alexis in Greek is different to Alexis in Spanish and even more distinct from Alexis in English. The culture coded into a language allows you to discover and manifest sides of your personality in ways you can’t in others. Speaking languages is also immensely freeing and helps you connect with people and build relationships, which greatly impact your physical and mental wellbeing. There’s even evidence that maintaining good relationships can stave off dementia.”

Language teaching

As Cátedra Cervantes/Cervantes Chair, Professor Grohmann will oversee a diverse and rich programme of cultural events and activities across Scotland every year. He also has enhancing Spanish language teacher training nationwide firmly at the top of his priority list.

“There’s so much demand for Spanish language learning in Scotland’s schools that we’re fast running out of experienced teachers,” says Professor Grohmann. “I still don’t feel the majority of countries, Scotland included, teach languages in the right way, with students learning to pass exams rather than speak and really experience the language. Nevertheless, the interest among Scottish teachers, many of whom will give up their Saturdays to join us for language teacher training, gives me hope.”

International relationships

Since 2016, of course, it’s difficult to discuss our relationship with other European languages and cultures without considering Brexit’s impact.

“The brutal fact is that since the UK left the EU, people in Scotland, like England, Wales and Northern Ireland, are suffering,” comments Professor Grohmann. “It saddens me that our children will not have the same opportunities to live and work across the 27 member states I found so enriching.

“Europe has been a melting pot for centuries. Go back far enough, and everyone can claim mixed ancestry. I’ve never felt bad about being a foreigner in my 30 years living in Scotland. I see a country that will continue to try very hard to punch above its weight in forging international relationships, being open, kind and welcoming.

“It’s heartening how the Spanish and Scottish governments recognise that we must maintain links to the continent. We may not be in the EU anymore, but we are still European. Institutes such as the Cervantes send a message that the ties that bind us will help us overcome these difficulties.”