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Fighting over language May 4, 2008

Posted by Daniel Martin in General.
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I am posting an article from The Guardian which covers the controversial topic of ‘linguistic normalisation’ in Spanish schools while echoing opposing views. Voice your own view by sending a comment.

Spanish speakers fight to save their language as regions have their say

In some parts of Spain ignites a fierce political war of words over the language of Cervantes. A growing number of activist groups in Catalonia, the Basque Country and Galicia claim they are being denied the right to speak Spanish by regional nationalists who use language as a political weapon.

But the speakers of Spain’s other ‘official’ languages – Catalan, Basque and Galician – insist that, on the contrary, Spanish is thriving and regional authorities have to save their own languages from being lost forever.

Since Franco’s death in 1975, a process of ‘linguistic normalisation’ has taken place in autonomous regions that have their own languages. The Basque, Catalan and Galician tongues, repressed by Franco after the end of the civil war in 1939, have been promoted with millions in public funds, in the hope that more people will speak them.

But now Spanish speakers complain that their language is being marginalised by regional nationalists in revenge for the way their own languages were suppressed in the Franco years. They are appealing to the Spanish constitution, which guarantees the right to speak Spanish along with the three other official languages.

The battle has centred on the classroom, with Spanish-speaking parents in the regions worried that their children will be unable to read or write Spanish well, as they will only be taught in Catalan, Basque or Galician – minority languages compared with Spanish, which is the first language of about 322 million people worldwide.

The Basque Country has three types of teaching: in Spanish, Basque and bilingual. Just 5 per cent of parents took the Spanish-only option in primary schools this year, and the Basque government said it has had to cut back on Spanish-only teaching due to the lack of demand.

But Susana Marqués, of the Platform for the Freedom of Linguistic Choice, claimed that schools teaching Spanish have become ghettoes hampered by lack of funding because the authorities are keen to promote Basque at all cost. She said the Basque authorities want schools to have a high level of Basque in order to receive generous local funding. ‘The only way to do this is total immersion in the language. In 20 years of this policy they still have not managed to get bilingualism here. It is not the language of the street. And 70 per cent of companies here never use Basque.’ Marqués’s group has appealed to Spain’s ombudsman, Enrique Múgica, arguing that their rights are being denied. But Patxi Baztarrika, deputy head of linguistic politics for the Basque government, said: ‘Spanish is present and should be. To say that Basque poses any threat to it is ridiculous.’

In Catalonia, Catalan is the language in all state schools, with Spanish only taught for up to three hours a week. An anti-nationalist party, Ciutadans (Citizens), was launched in 2006 to oppose ‘linguistic politics’ in Catalonia, but its leader, Albert Rivera, has received death threats. ‘Fifty per cent of the population of Catalonia are from Spanish-speaking origins, and it is impossible to study in Spanish in private schools or in state schools,’ said Carina Mejías, spokeswoman of the opposition right-wing Popular party in the Catalan parliament.

Bernat Joan, a Catalan Euro-MP and expert on linguistics, said: ‘This protest would only be legitimate if students did not have adequate Spanish teaching. This is not the case.’

In Galicia, at least half of teaching must be in the regional tongue. Gloria Lago, a founder of Bilingual Galicia, said: ‘The children ask to be taught in Spanish and this is not allowed because the law prevents it. When the bell goes, they start speaking their own language.’

However, Marisol López, Galician head of linguistic policies, insisted: ‘Children study in two languages. If we don’t discriminate positively in favour of Galician, Spanish will dominate.’

Talking Points

Spanish: 332 million speakers

The third most spoken language in the world, after Chinese and English. Spoken widely in Spain, Latin America and US

Catalan: 9.1 million

Romance language spoken in Catalonia, and parts of Valencia, Balearic Islands, Sardinia, south west France

Galician: 3-4 million

Romance language spoken in Galicia, parts of Asturias and Castilla y León

Basque: 1 million

Language of unknown origin, spoken in the Basque Country of north west Spain and south west France



1. Michael Newman - May 7, 2008

As an American I was thrilled to see this article. Why? Because I no longer have to feel that the journalistically lazy tactic of “this side says X and that side says the opposite of X” is a American problem. It’s clearly a problem in the “quality press” in the UK too.

I have just completed a large-scale study of attitudes towards languages by teenage students in Catalonia. Most of them were Spanish speakers. Not one of the Spanish speakers expressed any resentment about the use of Catalan as primary medium of instruction. Not one believed that their Spanish skill weren’t up to snuff. The only complaints (and even in this group there were few) were from immigrants who did not see themselves staying in Catalonia. Keep in mind that they were talking to me, a foreigner, with a horrendous accent in Catalan and only a bad one in Spanish.

The laziness of the reporting can be seen in the fact that while the death threats to the leader of the “pro-bilingual” Cituadans were mentioned, the number of votes that party garnered was not. I suspect that they were about the same number as the death threats.

This is manufactured outrage, and the Guardian fell for it.

2. rafa - May 5, 2008

Absolutely,I agree with you, Daniel…. I know this problem perfectly because I have friends who live in different places in Spain and their children have problems to study in Spanish, actually one of my friends have had to change his residence because of this kind of problems… I think everybody can study languages, as much as they want, but on the other hand, everybody should be able to choose the language that they want….. and this isn’t happening in some places around Spain.

3. Tónio - May 4, 2008

Learning Spanish is compulsory by law to all citizens (not only children), and the schoolchildren are taught to read and write a perfect Spanish. Are not the Spanish nationalists using the language as a weapon? Up to today, nobody has ever showed a single proof of children (or grown-ups) “unable to read or write Spanish well” (as the proficiency of Castillian, Galizan, Catalan, Andaluzian students and so on… are basically just the same all over the kingdom). You can’t say the same for the Galizan case, what about the “need” of learning the Galizan language (which is spoken by a majority of the population and bla bla)? Sure, if you speak a minorized language nobody gives a fuck… Save Spanish? Sure, and save French in Occitane and Breizh, they’re having a lot of problems killing the last Occitan and Breizh speakers… It won’t be long.

Bilingual Galicia is actually a (pro-Spanish) monolingual association proposing a linguistical segregation of kids – and a monolingual education system. I don’t see where is the “bilingual” on that! But, hey, at least they don’t want single sex schools… I think their opinions are laughable at best, specially if you know the actual situation where the Galizan language is a) highly diglosic, and b) taught almost as a foreign language in schools – only with a decrease in pre-requisites, of course… GB just wants to erase the Galizan language of the educational system (and its resulting death).

4. englishuniverse - May 4, 2008

All I can say is that anybody being schooled in Spain needs to speak, understand and write Spanish perfectly. If this is not happening -and I know for a fact it’s not in some parts of Spain- things have to be changed.

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