Why Spain’s planned language system change in Catalan schools infuriates society

Catalan has been the working tongue in the classrooms for decades, and now Madrid plans to introduce Spanish using direct rule of the country

An almost-empty classroom on November 8 2017 (by Gemma Sánchez)
An almost-empty classroom on November 8 2017 (by Gemma Sánchez) / Guifré Jordan

Guifré Jordan | Barcelona

February 18, 2018 01:03 PM

The language system used in Catalan schools for the last three decades is under threat. The Spanish government is planning to use its direct rule of the country to change it, despite the system having garnered society’s consensus. Currently, all schools in Catalonia use Catalan as the working language–although pupils also learn Spanish and English. Now, Madrid is determined to give parents the option to use Spanish—instead of Catalan—as the main language for teaching.

As everywhere else, parents here fight for multilingualism in the classroom, but this does not exclude a prevailing wish for Catalan to be the working language. Inasmuch, the measure has sparked outrage in the education community and among political parties. But why?

Eighty years of difficulty

Teaching in Catalan was reintroduced in the late 1970s, shortly after the restoration of democracy. Nearly 40 years of a fascist regime under dictator Francisco Franco had just come to an end following his death. During these infamous four decades, the Catalan language was all but criminalized. Parents weren’t even allowed to give their children Catalan names, and speaking the language was completely forbidden in classrooms.

Consequently, by the late 1970s, hardly anyone alive at that time had received a single lesson in Catalan at school ever, and hardly anyone could teach it. Only in the 1930s, between the Miguel Primo de Rivera and Francisco Franco dictatorships, did pupils hear Catalan in the classroom.

What’s more, in the 1950s and 1960s a massive migration wave coming mainly from southern Spain dramatically changed Catalonia’s demography. The country went from 3.2 million inhabitants to 5.1 in 20 years, and most of the newcomers spoke not a word of Catalan, only Spanish.

An effort to save Catalan

Catalan was secretly spoken during Franco’s regime, but languages are fragile things indeed, and their survival not automatically guaranteed. Due to factors such as the increasing number of non-Catalan speakers, and the tongue recovering from active repression, officials of the newly restored self-ruled Catalonia in the 1980s were concerned about the survival of Catalan.

Thus, the Catalan Parliament passed the ‘linguistic normalization bill’ in 1983, with all lawmakers in favor but one, who abstained. This law was the stepping stone for the integration of Catalan at school, and it was later improved upon in 1998. “Catalan, as Catalonia’s own language, is also the language of schooling, at all levels of education,” reads the 35-year-old regulation. Within ten years, all pupils were being taught in Catalan, without any major political or social opposition. The feeling of pro-independence in the country was almost non-existent at that time.

As years went by, the new language system at schools proved to be working quite well. Not separating children in schools due what language they spoke improved societal cohesion, which, following Franco’s death, still saw some residual division between old and new Catalan speakers. It also ensured Catalan’s survival, and that everyone learned both languages, thus boosting equal opportunity.

language protest

Praise at the EU level for multilingual system

The system even garnered international praise. For instance, the High Level Group on Multilingualism, a group of experts giving advice on the matter to the European Commission, evaluated Catalonia’s and other territories’ language immersion at school. “It was felt that these methods should be disseminated throughout the Union,” read the final report of the group in its positive evaluation.

Spanish-speaking students whose parents did not speak or had not been taught in Catalan learned the language, and were able to use both, effectively. Spanish was and is in classrooms, as is English, but pupils began being able to finish their studies fluent—if not bilingual—in both Catalan and Spanish.

Exposure to Spanish warrants exposure to Catalan

Those growing up and being taught in schools in Catalonia actually do get their fair share of exposure to Spanish. The language is taught in school, but also often spoken at home, and it’s additionally the main tongue heard in the media, at cinemas, and in a big chunk of Barcelona’s metro area.

With this level of exposure, it’s not abnormal for those taking university entrance exams to test at the same level of both Catalan and Spanish. As of 2013, 99.77% of Catalans understood Spanish, while 94.33% living in Catalonia could understand Catalan, according to the country’s statistics institute.

A ‘discriminatory methodology’

Yet, in 2006, everything started to change. Ciutadans, a new unionist party, came to life, and its manifesto included an unprecedented measure. “We will abolish [language] immersion [at schools],” the text read, defending that parents should be able to choose the schooling language for their children. “We think the obligatory linguistic immersion in Catalonia and the fact that it is the only working language at schools, is a discriminatory methodology and harmful for students.” According to Ciutadans, this “affects the Spanish-speaking students’ performance at school.”

The party first got 3 out of 135 seats in the following election and it has since grown to 36, voted by 1 in 4 citizens. Its manifesto for languages in schools hasn’t changed, and in the last decade, they also garnered support from the People’s Party. Both claim that the increase of the pro-independence feeling in the country is, in part, due to the school being taught in Catalan, and its alleged “indoctrination.”

Language versus politics

But a language – even a linguistic identity – is not a political viewpoint. What’s more, Catalans studied in Francoist schools for four decades. During almost half a century, propaganda was actively pushed on students, as well as their language—a primary source of identity for children—repressed. Yet, upon the dictator’s death, supporters of his regime in the country were scarce.

Those who supported Ciutadans anti-immersion manifesto also achieved a sentence by the Spanish Supreme Court saying that Spanish should be used in 25% of the lessons in classrooms. This has not been put into practice, because all Catalan governments have rejected eliminating the current language system. Yet, the education department has put in place a measure to individually ask for schooling to be carried out in Spanish. Less than 100 families per school year request this individualized help, out of the more than a million pupils that fill classrooms.

Direct rule changes the situation

The Catalan government, the education community, a big part of the society and most political parties–even the unionist Socialists, making it 70% of the seats in Parliament– have always flatly rejected any change in the language system of schools. And they have succeeded in their goal of maintaining it unchanged, thus far. However, the situation is now quite different. The country has no executive following the Spanish government’s takeover last October, and the education department is ruled from Madrid, for the first time ever.

Pre-enrollment for next school year starts in just a month; for the first time, the process will exceptionally be led by Spain. And for those fighting against linguistic immersion, it looks like a once in a lifetime opportunity to introduce a box where families can tick schooling in Spanish. Rajoy’s cabinet is considering the measure, without having given details on how this would work.

Division after years of cohesion?

As of 2013, according to Catalonia’s statistics institute, Catalan is understood by 6 million in the country, spoken by 5 million, and written by 4 million. Madrid’s hinting at the possibility of changing the status of the language has already sparked outrage. Will the country have twice the number of classrooms at schools? Will there be enough rooms, teachers, and money to do so? Will students be divided into Catalan-speakers and Spanish-speakers, an unprecedented situation? Will social cohesion prevail?

It is still unknown whether Madrid is considering these points, or the advice given by the post-Franco transition 1983 law on the protection of the Catalan language. The legal 1983 text, as well as its amended 1998 version, reads: “The administration has to take the convenient measures so that students are not divided into different centers for language reasons.”