Saturday, 27 December 2008

ENG: The Problem Behind the Catalan Normalisation Campaigns

My father is an advanced hobby carpenter, an interest which I cannot say that I share. Whenever he explains the benefits of a certain tool, I feel lost in his enthusiasm. Not because I do not understand the meaning of his words, but because I have never faced the problems which he can now solve.

I am confident that many foreigners feel the same about the policies related to the “normalització lingüística”. As immigrants in Catalonia we rapidly come across manifestations of the support for the Catalan language, but how often are we reminded about why a large majority of Catalan voters think that they still need to be in place or even reinforced?

An overview of the problem can be found in ‘Amb llengua o sense’ - a collection of articles by journalist and comedian Toni Soler. All texts were originally published in Spanish in LaVanguardia so there is no doubt that the author is completely bilingual, but he is above all proud of his mother tongue and therefore worried about its future.

I would say that the historical reasons for his concerns are those we foreigners know the best. Especially Latin Americans ought to have insight into how the Spanish crown used to deal with minority languages (Toni Soler cannot help joking about the ‘laudable cosmopolitan spirit’ which the American Indians once showed when changing for Spanish - so different from those stubborn Catalans). However, while most of us are content to know that the official oppression of Catalan ended after the Franco dictatorship, Toni Soler reminds us that it is not yet the everyday language of the masses of Catalonia, a status which it used to have as late as 100 years ago.

On top of that, two modern phenomena work to Catalan’s disadvantage. The first threat is the market forces; Spanish dominates media since a much bigger number of consumers can be reached in that language. The second one is immigration or, to be more precise, how immigrants integrate into their adopted country. Spain is among the EU countries which attract the most immigrants many of them settle down in Catalonia. Since Spanish, de facto, is the first and often only language of integration - especially so in the metropolitan area of Barcelona – Catalan is losing ground.

It is worth highlighting that Toni Soler disagrees with politicians who criticise foreigners for not learning the llengua pròpia. Instead, he asks why immigrants would want to learn Catalan and he answers himself that to give them a reason to do so is a task for the native speakers of the language (“Donar-los un motiu és cosa nostra.”)

After having convinced us about the uncertain future of Catalan, it is easy for Toni Soler to defend the needs for a positive discrimination of the language and call on politicians not to shy away from admitting that that is what today’s linguistic policies are about. I totally agree – once we immigrants understand the problem we will be much faster to accept the solutions.

A parallell can be made with my native Sweden: all Swedish politicians agree that it is not good if immigrants live in communities where they do not have daily contact with the Swedish language. Not by any standards could such a situation be justified by the fact that many of them speak English, that is, not if the goal is to integrate these newcomers. The efforts by Catalan politicians to build a united community are the same, but to integrate new comers into a bilingual context these must accept to learn two languages. If one of them is already much stronger (Spanish), I consider it logic to spend all public funds on the weaker one (Catalan).

I suggest that the Generalitat urgently commission Toni Soler to sum up his positive defence of Catalan in a short pamphlet to be handed out to all immigrants. It must include historical references supporting his message, but ought to be free from comments on day-to-day politics, since that will only confuse newcomers. And it must be printed in Spanish, English and Arabic, but not in Catalan. Catalan is not yet a language of integration into Catalonia. To acknowledge that problem is a necessary starting point if we want to improve the future perspectives of this language.

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Book details: ‘Amb llengua o sense – per què dimonis continuem parlant català?’ by Toni Soler, Columna 2008.

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If presented in a more straight forward language, as advocated by Toni Soler, I trust that immigrants would have a much bigger understanding of why Catalan needs to be the first language in the school system. That debate is as active as ever: LaVanguardia 1, Avui 1.

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Technorati tags: Barcelona, Bilingualism, Catalan, Catalonia, Spain, Spanish, Vilanova, Wirdheim


mai9 said...

strange that you think that it shouldn't be printed in catalan....

Brian Barker said...

As the "International Year of Languages" comes to an end, you may be interested in the contribution, made by the World Esperanto Association, to UNESCO's campaign for the protection of endangered languages.

The following declaration was made in favour of Esperanto, by UNESCO at its Paris HQ in December 2008.

The commitment to the campaign to save endangered languages was made, by the World Esperanto Association at the United Nations' Geneva HQ in September.

Lenox said...

'Endangered languages'? What's the point in saving them if no one speaks them, can trade in them or work with nthem?
Ahh! I see - to save them!
Like old customs. We should save shrinking heads, tossing out weak babies and gladiatorial sports? After all....

Erik Wirdheim said...

Mai 9,

Don't you worry. If there would ever be a brochure like the one I suggested, rest assured that the first version would be in Catalan. Not to do so would be for politicians to have to admit that historic campaigns aimed at foreigners have not worked and they won't do so.

I personally know many foreigners living here and feel sure that those who are prepared to read even the shortest text in Catalan don't need to be won over.


Personally, I'm not especially interested in Esperanto, but I am happy to see that you seem content with the efforts UNESCO is making to protect endangered languages.

Now, let me point out that I do not think that Catalan belongs to that group. The risk for Catalan is that it never re-establishes itself as the first everyday language of Catalonia. Even the most pessimistic calculations will reveal that Catalan has as many speakers as, for example, most (non-endagered) Nordic languages.


Well, first of all: already a visit to 'not-very-Catalan' Vilanova i la Geltrú will show you that "no one speaks them, can trade in them or work with them" isn't an especially correct description of today's status of Catalan.

And even if it would be, as is a fact in the Franja of Aragon, it is my conviction that, yes, there is a point in saving the language.

In most economic matters you'll find me a quite rational liberal, but when it comes to culture that doesn't work. Not only small languages but many art forms (theatre, opera, ballet, museums) would be lost if exposed to a combination of market forces and the survival of the fittest.

And that does matter - as human beings we need our history and culture and we need diversity.

However, some events and phenomena which used to be considered fascinating by our ancestors, are perceived as cruel in modern society. In those cases, culture must evolve. Now, that is not a big problem here in Catalonia, but rather in other parts of the Spanish state.


Florenci Salesas said...

Dear Lenox, I speak Catalan so as my parents spoke them, so did all the ancestors I know, so I am doing with my kids. For me it's my normal way of live, to share information, love, hate and make jokes. I speak other languages, none of them so well. I like and love all of them, but once again not so as my native one. I don't think any language is worse or less important than mine, but I think that, in return, mine isn't either. I don't believe in 1rst class languages: no language can beat what Inuit people speak for talking about what exists in their Polar environment. I think that this is a quite normal and positive thing.

Once I was asked by a Mexican lady about why we are still continuing speaking Catalan, being Castilian a so spread language all around the world. I couldn't stop myself by replying "by the same reason you don't spit in the face of your mother" (which maybe is the way some of the people who ask such kind of question treat their parents, I don't know). I am sure the Queen Elizabeth, for instance, must be a nice woman and of course far richer and well learned than my mother. But I don't replace her by my mother by any of those reasons. My mother has been who taught me about how world works and the name of all the birds, plants, rivers and places, jobs and tools in our environment, and why they have those names.

I'm sure it would be a lot more practical to just leave Catalan die. So could do my mom, because she is a lot less important than Queen Elizabeth in news agencies terms, at least. But I am not such bad son, sorry to deceive you. I will defend both of them - my mom and Catalan language - before they die. Catalan will have the status it deserves in its own country. I was a kid through Franco times and I was physically punished for talking my own language at the school, so was my father (and he was a man). Yes, here is an imposed language, of course. But this one isn't Catalan, I suspect.

A last thing: some few days ago I received a surprising mail from a Brazilian lady who used an article I wrote about Buster Keaton in Catalan, in my blog. She congratulate me for that information that helped her a lot and commented me how easy was to understand that language she didn't know by comparison to other French or Spanish resources. I discovered that, with a good attitude, Catalan can be read quite well by nearly all romance language speakers, because it's a pivotal language, situation that shares with the Occitan (both are nearly twins) That open the doors to an amount that reach more than speakers, something Spanish can't. I know this is a bit of over simplistic enthusiastic conclusion. But I discovered that if I don't have so automatic amount of readers as if I were doing my blog in Castilian, what it's sure is that those I have are more open-minded. I have less Spanish readers, but those I have are better ones. Quality over quantity. Quite a nice way to maintain clean my site from idiots.

Anyway, that interesting liberal way of thinking you expose applied to language policies, will have results with the same English language, dear Lenox. Look what happened with Latin, and Rome was the biggest empire in history. Even the net, even all the best sellers, movies and tv series made in the beautiful language of Shelley, it will be replaced in the future for other best prepared. Everything has its time. And things are going really fast in our amusing world. Maybe when this will happen, we both are still alive, even old as sequoias, I admit. Then I will try to shut up my mouth, and be nice enough for no not saying you "What's the point in saving English if no one speaks them..." Life is so hard, isn't it?

Have a nice day.