'Locals expect newcomers to learn a bit of Catalan out of politeness,' language secretary says

Francesc Xavier Vila blasts Madrid for obliging citizenship applicants to learn Spanish but not Catalan if living in Catalonia

Students at the Autonomous University of Barcelona (by Albert Segura Lorrio)
Students at the Autonomous University of Barcelona (by Albert Segura Lorrio) / Guifré Jordan

Guifré Jordan | Barcelona

March 20, 2022 11:20 AM

Some internationals struggle to speak Catalan despite the public resources available to learn it. As authorities focus on encouraging newcomers to learn the language, Catalan News interviewed Catalonia's language policy secretary, Francesc Xavier Vila, to examine the reasons why some foreigners are not interested in Catalan and to what extent this may pose a problem for them to integrate as well as a long-term issue for the language's strength.

Why do some internationals in Catalonia speak Spanish but not Catalan?

They feel encouraged to learn Spanish, but they don't feel the same draw to learn Catalan. People arriving from other places tend to use Spanish with Catalan speakers and they tend to answer in Spanish, too. Thus, in more and more places, Catalan speakers find themselves in a position where they can't use the language as they used to. They have to explain the situation of their language and gain the sympathy of newcomers. Also, legislation and law should be applied.

What legislation should be introduced? Does Catalan get enough institutional support to be used by internationals?

Catalan is not a state language. It is neither the national language of an independent state nor a language that is treated on equal terms to another, such as Dutch and French in Belgium, or French and English in Canada. If you want to become a Spanish citizen (living in Catalonia), you must learn Spanish. But if you learn Catalan, that currently doesn't count as a means to become a Spanish citizen. This is completely unequal and damages the status of the Catalan language. This makes people think that you have to learn Spanish, but Catalan is optional.

Is Catalan key for foreigners to better integrate into society?

The local people expect you to make this small act of sympathy and learn a little bit of the local language. This is a sign of politeness. In individual contexts, Catalan speakers are nice and switch not only to Spanish, but also to English all the time - and that makes it easier for newcomers. The problem comes when this happens again and again and again. This makes the pressure to learn the local language vanish. Some people would simply prefer not to have Catalan at all in the environment. They would prefer to live their whole life in Spanish, or in English, or in any other language. This poses a problem. Some internationals have the feeling that they are integrated but at the end of the day, they are living in their bubble, their expat community bubble. They are not really getting integrated into the local society.

Are the free courses offered by the public CNPL entity effective?

They work to a certain extent. They are underfunded, we do not have enough resources to for everyone. There are many more people asking for lessons than courses available, but yet, thousands are enrolled in these courses every year. One of the problems is that many people take the initial levels and when they are able to have a basic understanding they do not continue on to intermediate or higher levels. There are plenty who go on, but many others drop it. In order to cater to everyone, we also offer online courses through parla.cat.

Should university courses switch languages if one person doesn't understand Catalan?

The practice of switching language on the spot because someone complains that 'I saw the course was in Catalan but I assumed you wouldn't mind changing the language because my preference is that', is at the very least impolite. They are violating the rights of those who did things well, checking the language of instruction before enrolling. Universities are not language schools and the goal of the Erasmus program is to learn the local language and culture, not to impose yours on to the local population just because you do not want to go to a language school.

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