Spanish nationalists have blamed Catalan-language instruction as a sinister force for fostering separatist sentiments. But the question of language and identity is much more complicated, as is Catalonia’s history of using its classrooms to foster unity.
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In Spain, minority languages like Catalan (which is spoken by roughly 17 percent of the country’s population), Galician (7 percent), and Basque (2 percent) are known as lenguas propias, their “own language.” The lengua propia label “conveys this view of the worth of the language as private and particular, rather than public and generic,” explained the University of California, San Diego, anthropologist Kathryn Woolard in a 2005 paper on Catalan identity.
So-called “minority languages” play a role in identity for communities all over the world—from Canada’s Gaels in Nova Scotia to Colombia’s Wayuu tribe to Hawaii’s Pidgin-speakers. Sometimes that role is explicitly political. Schools are often leveraged as vehicles to sustain and promote the minority language, as was the case in Oakland, California, whose district in the late 1990s passed a now-defunct resolution officially recognizing African American Vernacular English, or Ebonics, as black students’ primary language. And if language could be a tool for enhancing solidarity, it could, in the words of the 2016 study “Political and Linguistic Identities in an Ethnic Conflict,” just as effectively serve as a “powerful tool for social discrimination.”
Spain’s central government in Madrid may have acted on this logic as part of its efforts to either promote Spanish unity or suppress Catalan nationalism, depending which side you’re on. In 2013, the Spanish Ministry of Education, Culture, and Sports proposed a controversial education reform targeting the country’s autonomous communities that included changes to schools’ “linguistic model.” The new policy diluted Catalonia’s language-education law, mandating that schools conduct some instruction in Castilian, i.e., “standard,” Spanish, and requiring that the regional administration pay for a student’s private schooling if she requested a Spanish-only education. Then, in 2015, the country’s Supreme Court ruled that at least 25 percent of instruction in Catalonia’s schools had to be in Spanish, and that subjects taught in the majority language should include core academic areas.
These rules could be framed as educational-equity measures designed to ensure Spanish-speaking students in Catalonia could have the opportunity to learn in the language they best understood. Indeed, a government census conducted in 2013 found that 36 percent of Catalonia’s population 15 and older listed Catalan as the language with which they identify, compared to 48 percent who said it was Castilian Spanish.
But elsewhere, the discussion of Catalan schools had a different subtext. Spain’s Congress considered a motion earlier this month aimed at stamping out “ideological indoctrination” and “nationalist hatred” in Catalonia’s schools. And Madrid’s Ministry of Education has since September sent two notices to the Catalonian government requiring it to address alleged incidents of indoctrination in schools, alluding to dozens of cases. These concerns tend to center on things such as curricula and teachers’ messaging, but some observers suggest it’s impossible to divorce those anxieties from the fact that language identity is the cornerstone of education in Catalonia. In an interview with El Mundo, Jordi Cantallops, the education inspector in Barcelona, argued that indoctrination in schools happens in large part through the language-immersion program. “For decades an exclusive identity concept has been promoted, Catalanization, with linguistic immersion, or rather linguistic imposition, with Catalan as the only vehicular and communication language in the centers,” he wrote in Spanish.