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.
- - -
Book details: ‘Amb llengua o sense – per què dimonis continuem parlant català?’ by Toni Soler, Columna 2008.
- - -
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.
- - -
Technorati tags: Barcelona, Bilingualism, Catalan, Catalonia, Spain, Spanish, Vilanova, Wirdheim