Catalonia – the return of the language question

Children in Tarragona: 'For a country for everyone, schooling in Catalan' (by R. Segura) CNA
Children in Tarragona: 'For a country for everyone, schooling in Catalan' (by R. Segura) CNA

Comparisons are often made between the status of Scots and Catalan as ‘minority’ languages and Catalan is often regarded as the poster-child of linguistic revitalisation. There are certainly some similarities; Scotland and Catalonia are both historical European nations of a comparable size, self-governing but part of larger states dominated by global languages (English and Spanish) linguistically close to the local variety. The role of the two languages in shaping and defining national identity are quite different, however, and that is reflected in their relative status in public life.

To some extent Catalan is not really a minority language in terms of number of speakers or status in the territory in which it is spoken. In many respects it resembles an official state language and Catalans are justly proud of the  post-Franco developments on its legal protection and obligations (e.g Ruiz et al 1996). The 1978 Spanish Constitution made Spanish (or Castilian as Catalans call it) the official state language but the Catalan Statute of Autonomy the following year declared Catalan to be Catalonia’s “own language” and the official language of Catalonia, alongside Castilian. A transformative process of ‘linguistic normalisation’ (language recovery) was then put into place by the centre-right Catalan government. Again this was scaffolded by various laws from the 1983 Catalan Linguistic Normalisation law to the 1998 Language Policy law which states “the Catalan language shall normally be used as the vehicle for learning and non-university teaching”. Significantly the 1983 law makes specific reference to the “prohibitions and persecutions of the Catalan language and culture unleashed after 1939” (Bateman 2006:100) but this was removed for the 1998 law, much to the concern of some language activists who feel Catalan’s history of persecution is an important reason for protecting it.

Normalisation has been a delicate process as there have been very large numbers of monolingual Castilian speakers in Catalonia, immigrants from the poorer regions of Spain attracted by the buoyant local economy. The same process is continuing today with over the last decade large numbers (in Spanish terms at least) of immigrants from outside of Spain (Maragall 2009).  Catalan is now the principle teaching language used throughout primary and secondary education but policies also emphasise ‘linguistic diversity’. Multilingualism is promoted by using Catalan as a basis for acquiring fluency in Spanish and learning other languages as well. By the end of compulsory education pupils should know the two official languages of Catalonia (and be able to read and write in both by age 7) and have a good knowledge of at least one other, usually English.  In the Catalan-speaking Balearic Islands there was even talk of a more ambitious policy of eventual trilingual education with children being taught in Catalan (or the Mallorquin dialect), Castilian and English.

In September of last year, however, the story took a dramatic turn. In the face of growing Catalan nationalism the Spanish Government approved a wide education reform “to fight school failure” by  recentralising part of the school curriculum. The Spanish Education Minister, José Ignacio Wert, of the conservative People’s Party (PP), is infamous in Catalonia for stating in 2012 that he wanted “to Hispanicise Catalan pupils”, and continues to push for a reform that will deliberately undermine Catalonia’s education model described above, which has been in place for more than 30 years.

Unsurprisingly the proposal has caused outrage in Catalonia where according to the nationalist Catalan News Agency (CNA) the Government “fear it would split Catalan society into two separate language communities, breaking apart the current social cohesion and creating a linguistic problem that does not exist at the moment”. Currently The Basque Country, Andalucía, Canarias and Asturias joined Catalonia in their opposition to the reform (the Autonomous Communities that not run by the PP). The 12 regional governments run by the PP supported Wert’s reform.


Bateman E (2006) Molts noms a un sol amor: many names for a single love, Scots Language Society, Blackford
Maragall E (2009) Decentralizing Education in Spain and Catalonia: opportunities and challenges, lecture, LSE London
Ruiz F, Sanz R and Solé i Camardons J (1996) Història social i política de la llengua catalana, Contextos 3 i 4, Barcelona

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