The Spanish Language Blog

The Beatles was a band that swept over the world with startling speed, even a country like Spain couldn't avoid this English steamroller thanks in part to Radio Luxembourg and its shortwave transmissions of rock n roll into Spain. One person, in particular, who was an admirer of the group, also used the lyrics from these transmitted Beatles songs to help teach English to his students. Juan Carrión, now 90 years old, was an English teacher at the University of Cartagena and his story was the inspiration behind the movie Living Is Easy with Eyes Closed by David Trueba which was selected as Spain's entry for the Best Foreign Language Film for the 2015 Academy Awards.

During the time Juan Carrión was teaching languages, there wasn't an established teaching method employed in Spain. Instead, he had to create his own classroom teaching strategies and help his students succeed in language learning. One tool that he employed which made him different from his peers was his use of music in the classroom. By getting his students to listen to songs and their lyrics, he believed that this would help them improve their listening comprehension. His notions today are backed by research that states that using music in the foreign language classroom produces positive "emotional and learning enhancements". In a University of Edinburgh study and workbook the author states that songs are an authentic, challenging and enjoyable method of getting students involved in the language which can lead to them practicing outside of the classroom.

What makes Juan Carrión so unique are the lengths he went to so that his students would learn correctly what was being sung by the artists. You have to remember that Juan didn't have the albums of his favorite band which meant that he had to write down the lyrics to the Beatles songs as he heard them on the radio. Not an easy thing to do even for native speaker.  As you can imagine his notebook was full of lyrics and some empty spaces where he couldn't figure out what they were saying.

John Lennon in Spain

As luck would have it, in the autumn of 1966, Juan discovered that John Lennon was in Almería filming the movie, How I Won the War. This was a difficult time for John since he had just finished touring non-stop for three years and the fame surrounding him was becoming a tremendous burden, so much so that he was considering leaving the band. Unlike the stereotypical rabid Beatles fan, Juan was a quiet and modest teacher with a goal—to ask John to fill in the gaps in his notebooks of copied lyrics and ask John (and the Beatles) to publish their lyrics on the album sleeves like other bands.

Going to Almeria from Cartagena by bus in the 60s was certainly a long and hot drive along winding country roads and stopping at every village along the way. Juan did this not knowing if he would meet one of the most famous rock stars at that moment. After one week of trying to arrange a meeting he was finally permitted to meet with John Lennon as he was playing soccer with fellow actor Michael Crawford. His first words directed to Juan were "you're late". John was probably just as shocked at the appearance of this not quite middle-aged "groupie" asking for help with understanding his lyrics and "demanding" that the Beatles print their lyrics so everyone can understand what they are saying in their songs.

As a result of this 40 minute encounter, John Lennon took the time to fill in gaps and add some notes of his own to Juan's notebooks. John was fascinated so much with the idea that his music could be used to teach people English he even promised Juan that he would stop by and visit his school one day (a promise that he couldn't keep). Whether or not Juan was the motor behind the change, in 1967 the Beatles published for the first time the lyrics to their songs in liner notes of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band and would do so for the remainder of their albums. It should also be noted that "Strawberry Fields Forever" was penned by Lennon during his stay in Almería.

Today, you can see the movie that was inspired by this story starring Spanish Actor, Javier Cámara (Talk to Her) and Jorge Sanz (Belle Époque). Winner of seven Goyas, the Spanish equivalent of the Oscar, including Best Film, Best Actor and Best Director, this movie changes some of the details of Juan's pilgrimage but stays true to the spirit of the times and the character of this unique and compelling language teacher.

Here is a brief interview with Juan Carrión (in Spanish).

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