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 Catalan.

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 elections).

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 area.

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 cohesion.

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 speakers.

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 children?

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

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.


kalebeul said...

A bheil Gàidhlig agaibh?

Jan said...

I agree with the current educational language system in Catalunya, it has to be the best way of ensuring that children become fluent in both languages. As english immigrants we are learning catalan by attending the official courses and are very grateful for them since we live near a catalan speaking village. We know very little spanish though, and can't cope with the confusion in our ageing brains caused by trying to absorb two languages at once... but maybe one day!

Rab said...

Hello Jan, thanks for your comment.
As you rightly say, “it has to be the best way of ensuring that children become fluent in both languages”. The problem Catalonia has is that there are many people in Spain, some living in Catalonia, who do not want this happen and would only be too happy to create divisions in society and see Catalan language and culture die out.

A friend of mine went to Barcelona to study Spanish and at first she was a bit resentful about Catalan language. She had not been told anything about it and was quite shocked to see the language was in almost normal social use. In the end, she became completely fluent in both. and mastering Spanish and Catalan enabled her to learn French and Italian without too much pain. I am sure it is slightly confusing every now and then but think about it as a “two for the price of one”, that’s what she always said. Next time you travel to France or Italy you will be surprised how much you pick up.