Catalonia’s Supreme Court validates the current linguistic immersion public school model

The highest Catalan court has clarified how to execute the sentence of the Spanish Supreme Court that had recognised the right of 3 families to school their children in Spanish and not in Catalan. These families will have their individual rights respected, but the current school model will not be changed. Catalonia’s education model has been validated twice by the Spanish Constitutional Court and has been in place over the last 30 years, guaranteeing full knowledge of both official languages –Catalan and Spanish– by all its pupils. Experts advise that the current school model prioritises the weakest official language –Catalan- following the principles of equal opportunities and social cohesion. The model has been praised by UNESCO, the European Commission and the European Parliament.

CNA / Gaspar Pericay Coll

March 9, 2012 12:02 AM

Barcelona (ACN).- Catalonia’s school model has been explicitly endorsed by Catalonia’s Supreme Court (TSJC), validating the linguistic immersion principle that guarantees social cohesion and fosters equal opportunities. On Thursday the TSJC issued a resolution on how to implement the previous Spanish Supreme Court (TS) sentence on an appeal by 3 parents who took the Catalan Government to court for denying to school their children in Spanish within the Catalan public education system. The TS stated that the families had the right to school their children in Spanish in Catalonia. The TSJC recognises the individual right of the three families but it explicitly states that “it cannot be inferred, from reading in an out-of-context and literal way a sentence from the Supreme Court’s decision, a general stance directed at using Spanish as the taught language in Catalonia’s entire education system”, since “it exceeds by a far reach this court’s [TSJC] scope”. In fact, the TSJC implicitly criticised the Supreme Court for not clarifying how to implement these families’ rights in the current school system, which is defined by laws approved by the Catalan and Spanish Parliaments, and approved by referendum by the Catalan people. Constitutional law experts stressed that Spain’s Supreme Court cannot modify laws, as this is the Constitutional Court’s role. Furthermore, the Constitutional Court already ratified on two separate occasions Catalonia’s school model, in 1994 and in 2010. In fact, Spain’s Constitution states that every citizen has “the duty to know Spanish”. As results show, all pupils of Catalonia’s public schools are completely proficient in both Catalan and Spanish at the end of their school period. Furthermore, the current model, which has been in place for 30 years and has been praised by international organisations, already foresees exceptions for families requesting their children to be taught in Spanish, until they are able to understand Catalan and express themselves in the language. However, the demanding families’ intention was their children to be taught in Spanish throughout their schooling. Education experts, such as the Universitat de Girona Professor Jose Ignacio Vila, affirm this will not guarantee the children will know the Catalan language when they leave school. These pupils might know Spanish but not Catalan. On Thursday the lawyer of the families announced they will appeal the decision at Spain’s Supreme Court, with the support from a Spanish nationalist association ‘Convivencia Cívica Catalana’. Every Catalan party except the People’s Party (PP) and Ciutadans, which together have 15.5% of the MPs in the Catalan Parliament, celebrated the TSJC decision and its explicit endorsement of the current school model.

The TSJC’s sentence was received with a lot of expectation in Catalonia since the decision could have pushed for a radical change in the country's education system, and future society. “We are where we have been standing, and we will not move from here” stated Artur Mas, President of the Catalan Government. Mas said that the model will not be reformed, although he was open “to fine tune small issues if needed”.

Guaranteeing equal opportunities and social cohesion

In Catalonia's public schools, Catalan is the language of instruction in order to guarantee that all pupils end their studies knowing both official languages: Catalan and Spanish. The reason for this is that many children, especially from working-class and immigrant families are not exposed to the Catalan language at all. On the contrary, children coming from Catalan-speaking families are exposed to Spanish, since it is very present on television, on the street or in the school playgrounds. Therefore in order to guarantee equal opportunities all children taught in Catalonia’s public schools are provided with the skills to perfectly use both official languages. All subjects but Spanish and foreign languages are taught in Catalan, and Spanish is taught as a subject. Children that do not understand Catalan (because they come from non-Catalan speaking families) follow an adapted programme during the first years, not segregated, to learn Catalan language.

Experts emphasise that if Catalan was not the instruction language, many children from Spanish-speaking families would not know Catalan language sufficiently. Therefore these children will be in a clear disadvantage in the future, since pupils coming from Catalan-speaking families, which are taught in Catalan language, are perfectly proficient in Spanish language at the end of their schooling. Furthermore, in the future there would be two split language communities: a Catalan-speaking community knowing both Catalonia’s official languages, and a Spanish-speaking community knowing only Spanish.

Catalonia’s current school model has been in place for the last 30 years and is widely accepted within Catalan society. It is supported by all school teachers’ unions and associations, academic experts –both at Catalan and international level–, many civil society organisations, and the political parties not supporting Spanish Nationalism. However, controversy has been growing over the past number of years, mainly fuelled by Madrid-based politicians and Spanish nationalist movements. They accuse Catalan authorities of marginalising the Spanish language, which according to them is in danger in Catalonia. However, all serious and rigorous studies point out the contrary: the language in the weakest position in Catalonia is Catalan, not Spanish. Nonetheless, Spanish nationalists have focused on the situation in Catalan public schools to state Spanish language is marginalised.

A model endorsed by all 22 magistrates

The TSJC sentence was discussed by 22 magistrates and has been approved with the votes in favour of 21 judges. The only magistrate not voting for the sentence, Judge Núria Clèries, released a particular vote, giving even more emphasis to the importance of maintaining the current model based on linguistic immersion. She also added that the demanding families received school information in Spanish, as they requested.

A model endorsed by international organisations, the Spanish Parliament and Spain’s Constitutional Court

The Spanish Parliament approved a parliamentary motion backing the Catalan linguistic immersion model at public schools in September. It was approved with the votes of all of the parliamentary groups except those from the People’s Party (PP) and Unión Progreso y Democracia (UPyD), which does not get any parliamentary seats in Catalonia. The motion received 192 “yes” and 148 “no” votes.

The European Parliament voted on March 24th 2009 to adopt the report 'Multilingualism: an asset for Europe and a shared commitment', which defines the system of language immersion in Catalonia as the most effective tool to promote multilingualism. The text also opposes recognising the right of parents to choose the language of schooling of their children, since in some cases it may go against social cohesion. And maintains that “it is vital to safeguard multilingualism in countries and regions in which two or more official languages coexist.”

Furthermore Catalonia’s school model has been praised as “good practice” by international organisations such as the European Commission and UNESCO, as it does not create separate language communities. The European Commission has repeatedly praised the model of linguistic immersion, suggesting even extending it to other EU countries as “good practice”. Brussels rejected the idea in 2008 that the Spanish language in Catalonia was discriminated against and said they had never received complaints about it. The European Commissioner for Multilingualism at that time, the Romanian Leonard Orban, admitted after a visit to Barcelona, that Spanish-speakers can “easily” live in Spanish in Catalonia because Catalan-speakers can change the language that they are speaking “without even realising it.”

In September 2007, the report of an expert group commissioned by the European Commission opted to “spread” throughout the twenty-seven member states of the EU “the know-how acquired in Catalan schools, where sophisticated methods for immersion have been implemented over decades.”

A model endorsed by education experts

The model works, according to education experts and exam results. Jose Ignacio Vila, Professor of Education Psychology at the Universitat de Girona, wrote the following in the blog ‘Catalan Views’: “when a society wants bilingual people, the socially weakest language needs to prevail in school education”. Following this principle, Catalonia’s education system gravitates around the Catalan language. However, as Vila explained the systems is flexible and adapts to the pupils’ needs. The school model “guarantees families the choice to decide their children’s school language during initiation to reading and writing learning (8 years old). In practical terms, there are some 10 Spanish-speaking families as an average number that decide to school their children in Spanish. In the following years, the Spanish language is a school subject”. In fact Catalonia’s school system has two tracks, not segregated, as Vila explained: “a programme to maintain the family language aimed at the Catalan-speaking students, and a programme of starting linguistic immersion aimed at Spanish-speaking children”. In this latest track, children do not lose their Spanish skills, but they win Catalan skills. When they start managing Catalan, they stop following the adapted programme. Otherwise, without linguistic immersion, the knowledge of the Catalan language would not be guaranteed for all pupils.

Despite linguistic immersion, Spanish-speaking students have less Catalan oral skills at the end of their schooling

Results show the model works. Vila stated the following: “regarding linguistic knowledge, there are no differences between Catalan-speaking and Spanish-speaking students in their knowledge of the Spanish language. In addition, there are no differences regarding the knowledge of the Spanish language between students from Catalan schools and those from the rest of Spain. The differences exist in relation to the knowledge of the Catalan language. At the end of obligatory schooling, as it happens in the rest of linguistic immersion programmes around the world, the Spanish-speaking students have less Catalan oral skills than Catalan-speaking students.” Therefore, with fewer school hours taught in Catalan, the difference regarding Catalan oral skills between Catalan-speaking students and Spanish-speaking ones is likely to grow.

However, Vila also clarifies that the current model does not produce any difference regarding the writing skills. “There are no differences regarding writing language skills. In fact, the Spanish-speaking students have Catalan writing skills on a level with those of Catalan-speaking students along the obligatory secondary education, after nine or more years of schooling”.