[lg policy] blog: Language policy in Catalonia

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at GMAIL.COM
Mon Feb 1 15:11:19 UTC 2010

Here;s a different point of view on language policy in Catalunya:

Sunday, 31 January 2010
Language policy in Catalonia

If you read newspaper articles or blogs in English about Catalonia, I
am sure you will have come across the issue of language policy in
Catalan schools. Sadly, there is a lot of mis-information and urban
myth around and the vast majority of these blogs have no credibility
whatsoever, blinded as they are by their own cultural bias and
narrow-minded prejudice.  Obviously, there are a few honourable
exceptions out there, like Tom, George, Matthew and probably a few
others I have missed.  For centuries, due to its geographical
position, Catalonia has been a country where many people have come and
settled. Being Catalan does not depend on your family origin or
surname, let alone ethnic or cultural background. Everyone can be a
Catalan, regardless of where you are from. The only unwritten rule,
the only "requirement" is that you “care about” Catalonia, that you
integrate socially and basically try to fit in and look for the common
good. I think this is a pretty basic notion: everyone is welcome but
please try to be one of us too.

We even have our own word for “immigrants”, which is a term rarely
used. Instead in Catalan language we use “nouvinguts”, literally
“newly arrived”. This word does not have the negative connotations of
the word ‘immigrant’. I have travelled extensively around Europe and I
don’t know many societies where joining in, becoming part of the host
community, is so easy. Perhaps the US is the only similar society
where becoming a native is so easy.  However, since the early 20th
century, a significant percentage of immigrants into Catalonia have
failed or refused to “join in”. This problem was exacerbated during
the fascist dictatorship of General Franco between 1939 and 1975.
First, there was a huge number of immigrants from other areas of Spain
settling into Catalonia. We are talking about hundreds of thousands of
people, materially changing the demographic profile of Catalonia for
ever. The issue was compounded by the fact that Catalan language has
never had any legal parity with Spanish in Catalonia, and has been
actively persecuted since 1715 until very recently. Due to historical
and political reasons, the Spanish state has always sought to impose
Spanish language in Catalonia, to the detriment of the legal and
social status of Catalan. Over the centuries, this has resulted in
Catalan culture being relegated to a second-class status, often
aggressively persecuted, tolerated at best, in its own homeland.

The result is that the citizenry of Catalonia is made up of a nearly
50% of people whose family origins can be traced to other areas of
Spain (mostly Andalucia and Extremadura) within one or two
generations. Of these group, a significant number, mainly first
generation immigrants arrived in the 1950s and 1960s, do not speak
Catalan, particularly those living in the suburbs of Barcelona and
sometimes even their children and grandchildren are still monolingual
Spanish speakers. However, those immigrants that settled in less
populated areas (Tortosa, Girona, Manresa, etc) were able to integrate
more successfully than those who settled in Santa Coloma de Gramenet
or in the Barcelona suburbs.
After the end of the dictatorship, the prohibition of Catalan language
in official documents, media, education, public use, etc, was lifted.
With the advent of the 1978 Constitution and the Estatut d’Autonomia
1979 (Estatut is the legal framework that sets out Catalan partially
devolved self-government), Catalan language became co-official.

But becoming co-official does not mean that Catalan and Spanish have
equivalent legal status. The Spanish 1978 Constitution states that
“everyone has the obligation to know Spanish”. This “obligation” does
not extend to the other cooficial languages. Instead, speakers of
Catalan (Valencian), Basque and Galician have the “right” to use it.
This legal asymmetry (Spanish obligation for all, Catalan right for
some) causes a problem.

A monolingual Spanish-speaker can live in a nominally bilingual region
of Spain but does not have to learn the indigenous language of the
area, ie: Catalan language. The reason is that the Spanish speaker can
always use the argument that since “everybody has the obligation to
know Spanish”, the Catalan-speaker should switch to Spanish if he does
not speak Catalan. Remember: Spanish is mandatory for everybody, so
all Catalan-speakers are bilingual. Thus, the Spanish speaker does not
have any incentive to learn the co-official language.

You would be forgiven for thinking that the best way to resolve the
problem would be to change the law so that there is absolutely the
same legal equivalence between the two languages. Alas, this has never
happened in Spain and I don’t think it ever will. Even now in 2010,
Catalan members of Parliament are banned from speaking their own
language in the Spanish parliament and the Spanish state refuses to
make Catalan language an official working language in the EU, despite
being the 12th most spoken language.
To correct and remedy this legal and social inequality, and unable to
change the Spanish Constitution to implement legal parity between the
two languages, a consensus was formed in 1980 amongst all Catalan
parties (except the Catalan branch of the Partido Popular) that
education policy will be used to ensure that every child in Catalonia
has the best chance possible of becoming bilingual in both Spanish and

This was implemented by making Catalan the “vehicular language” in
Catalan schools.

There are two objectives with this policy:

1) to correct the social imbalance of language use and knowledge
caused by Franco’s dictatorship and mass migration, on top of
centuries of persecution;

2) to prevent the formation of separate educational systems based on
language and ensuring all children, regardless of background, studied
and played together. Catalan society should not be divided because of
language and family background.

The latter point is paramount to understand why all the mainstream
parties, even the Catalan branch of the Spanish PSOE, support this
policy, and why opponents of the policy can’t attain any significant
electoral support. (Even the PP is stuck at c15% in Catalan

Many immigrants from other areas of Spain do not speak Catalan, But
this is not always because they don’t want to, but because they never
had the opportunity to learn it and the chance to use it socially.
When they started a new life in Barcelona, Catalan was banned from
public and official use. Public usage could lead to problems with the
authorities and it often did for thousands of people who dared to
confront the regime and ended up beaten up in prison or worse. On top
of that, many immigrants were manual labourers with a very basic
education in any case. Most of these families settled in the Barcelona

It was the mass vote of these families for the PSC-PSOE in the 1980s
and 90s, and not for the more Spanish nationalistic PP, that made this
Catalan-first educational policy possible in the early ‘80s. Most
people in their 30s whose parents are originally from outside
Catalonia will recognise this picture:

Both my parents’ families are originally from outside Catalonia. My
father’s family are from Fuencaliente, in the province of Ciudad Real.
My mother’s side of the family are from Cadiz. Both arrived to
Catalonia in their late teens, in the ‘60s, in abject poverty and with
no education. They could hardly read and write and they had nothing to
their name. The majority of immigrants from other areas of Spain,
particularly from the south, arrived in similar circumstances. When
this generation of parents (those arrived in the 50s and 60s) were
able to choose how they wanted their children (those born in the 70s)
to be educated, (when they had a chance to vote in democratic
elections in the early 80s) they agreed on one thing:

+ They did not want their children and their neighbour’s (ie Catalan)
children to be taught separately in different schools.

The overwhelming consensus was that children born in Catalonia,
whether from a Catalan-speaking family or a Spanish-speaking family,
should study together and play together. The idea of having an
educational system divided along language lines was anathema to the
vast majority of my parents’ generation: they wanted their children to
have equality of opportunity. And they have voted accordingly ever
since until today.

Having seen the impact of a dual educational system in Scotland, I can
safely say that the social problems caused by such a divisive
framework is hugely detrimental to social cohesion.

Of course, the consensus was not total –it never is. There has always
been people in Catalonia who object to their children being taught in
Catalan. This has always been the case and is not a recent event. But
they, as the electoral results evidence, are in the minority and their
argumentative logic is unsustainable as I will expose below.

So we know that educational policy in Catalonia is that the vehicular
language for tuition is Catalan. Although this is the official policy,
it is not always the case –law adherence is a funny business in Spain.
Schools often apply a flexible interpretation depending on the
teacher’s fluency in Catalan language and the social mix of the school
intake. Moreover, schools run a system of personalised support for
those pupils who require further help, for example newly arrived
immigrants’ children, are given specialised support.

Since the 1980s until today, the consensus amongst the mainstream
Catalan parties and wider society is that this is the best system to
ensure that as many pupils as possible become bilingual by the time
they leave school. And the consensus is also that any other system in
which Catalan language is not given prominence would result in even
more children leaving school as monolingual Spanish speakers, just
like their parents.

This not only would hinder their employment prospects, like it did for
their parents who could not work in the professions or join the civil
service once Catalan language was no longer banned from public use;
but it would also cripple Catalan society with a mass of
school-leavers unable to master the indigenous language of Catalonia.

The economic impact would be undesirable. It would result in a
two-tier workforce: those who are bilingual and those who are not, in
a region/country/nation (call it what you like) that is, at least
officially, bilingual.

Obviously, ceteris paribus, employers will tend to hire the bilingual
speaker, which will result in wages for bilingual speakers being
higher. This applies more so in the public sector: taxpayer money
would be wasted by recruiting monolingual speakers when there are
plenty of bilingual speakers available to serve customers that could
be monolingual or bilingual. However, more worrying would be the
social consequences of such a development. Not only in terms of
careers prospects, but in wealth and income inequality. And more
importantly, in inequality of opportunity and social cohesion.

In a nutshell, this is the very same scenario that our parents
generation wanted to avoid and that is why there is no real support
whatsoever (apart from fringe groups) for a tiered educational system
based on language. It would lead to social division and inequality of
opportunity later in life.

Our parents’ generation understood this point a long time ago –and
they did not have to travel to Scotland to see how damaging separate
schooling networks, based on cultural markers, are to community’s

Even with the current system, there is an alarming number of
monolingual Spanish-speaking children in Catalonia who are not fluent
in Catalan. However, there are hardly any children in Catalonia, if
any at all I dare say, who are monolingual Catalan speakers.

This happens for two reasons:

Firstly, Catalan-speaking parents are always bilingual as we know that
knowledge of Spanish is mandatory according to the Constitución. The
social and legal presence of Spanish language in all areas of life
means that by the time a child reaches adulthood, even in the most
remote area of the Catalan countryside, the mix of education policy,
social and legal pressure ensures that fluency in Spanish is achieved.

Secondly, however, the same cannot be said of some monolingual Spanish

Since the highest law in the land (the 1978 Constitución) does not
force them to learn Catalan even if they live in Catalonia, some chose
not to –and more worryingly object to their children being given the
best chance possible of becoming bilingual.

So now it is time to pose a few questions:

1) Should the educational system be tinkered with to please a small
percentage of the population who object to their children being given
the best chance possible of becoming bilingual in a bilingual region?

The answer has to be no. If anything, I would question the suitability
of parents who want their children to remain monolingual in a
bilingual region. Are these parents looking after their best interest
of their children by preventing their gaining fluency in the
indigenous language of Catalonia? Or are the channellig their
political frustrations, their cultural predudice through their

Additionally, if a concession is made on language policy, who is to
say that creationism won’t be next? Or physical education or history

And a further question is:

2) Should migration flows change or dictate language and educational
policy in a self-governing adminstration?

And before you answer, think carefully because if this principle is
accepted, then surely it applies not only to Catalonia but to any
other society in Europe where there has been massive migration flows
from people from othoutise the host community.

Once you have thought about these issues, and considered the different
options, there is only one question left:

3) Why would then these people object to current Catalan educational policy?

And the answer can only be anti-Catalan prejudice for most,
particularly for the most strident Spanish nationalist groups. For
others, and in this group one has to include the growing number of
anglo-saxon immigrants, monolingual narrow-mindedness and ignorance
about Catalonia play a significant part. Those who question the
current consensual policy but are emotionally detached from the whole
Spain/Catalonia settlement, should be aware that ultimately the sole
objective of many Spaniards attacking the current framework is to
erode further the social usage of Catalan language in Catalonia and
set corrosive divisions in Catalan society based along language and
cultural lines.

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