December 19, 2006

Catalanism: The Language

Catalan nationalism“Utilitza la llengua”, “this university discriminates the language”, “en Català”. They are but a few signs of fierce militance around my university´s campus which to me come across as grossly exaggerated.

After three months and a half here I feel I can speak with at least some expertise on matters of society here in Catalunya. After all, it´s a matter that we, Erasmus students, come across with all the time, and discuss even more.

Militant Catalanism seems to express itself mostly in constantly claiming and reclaiming language-rights for the Catalan-speaking majority. Not such a bad thing, I hear you say, and in principle I agree. The point, however, is that bilinguality rights are continually marginalised, not such a great thing for those who speak really only one of the two official languages, Spanish.

My Argentinean housemates don´t have a single good word for the language. They find it ugly and go around speaking only Spanish, managing to do so with a little force here and there. I chose to take a semester of (freely offered) language classes, nonetheless making only small progress.

Despite my good-will and attempts, however, I encounter fairly little understanding. When I do group work in my class, there are still students who send me (and only me) emails in Catalan, which I just can´t understand completely. My housemate Mario, who has a Catalan girlfriend, complains that his girlfriend´s social circle doesn´t make the least effort to accommodate his lack of Catalan by changing the language. This contrary to us, he argues, who all spoke English when a friend of mine came to visit. Fair enough to me, even more so because Spanish is not nearly as drastic a language change for Catalan speakers.

Classes at the university are taught in two languages, some in Catalan, others in Castellano. Still, at times a Castellano-speaking teacher, in the heat of a debate, turns to Catalan. Meanwhile, students, as a standard rule, address their professors in Catalan.

So, in this context: why all this unnecessary militance? Why this great hatred of biligualism? One voice in my head says that locals are just not very interested in foreigners here, another says that can´t be generally true. Then, do they all hate speaking Spanish? After all the time I´ve spent here, the Catalans still owe me the answer.

Photo: Catalan nationalist marches in February of this year.

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  1. I’m not the only Spanish speaker amongst my friends who has encountered Catalans unwilling to ‘understand’ us when we use Castellano, getting more response when we use English! It entirely their choice to act like that, but it’s entirely my choice to find it rather rude. Catalan is not spoken anywhere outside of the region, nor is it taught anywhere outside the region, so why they expect people to know it is ridiculous. I know you’re in a slightly different boat as you’re living there but I still feel their treatment of you sounds unreasonable. Welsh speakers (who I find a good analogy to the Catalans in a number of areas) don’t do this in my experience.

    19 Dec 2006, 15:13

  2. Hero

    You have obviously never been to a small shack-like pub in the centre of a council estate then have you.. isn’t it.

    19 Dec 2006, 15:28

  3. No, but I tend to avoid those even round where I grew up. The smoke disagrees with me.

    19 Dec 2006, 20:51

  4. Thanks Holly for your support! Well, what can I do but learn more Catalan, make the most of it and avoid those most rude and all too patriotic.

    Funny you make that comparison with Welsh although I find it quite applicable. Also a nation within a state and also quite a minority group within that state. However quite a few less Erasmuses I´m sure!

    19 Dec 2006, 21:51

  5. Poor catalan boy

    First of all, catalan is used outside the ‘region’. It is spoken in the Balearic Islands and Valencia amongst other areas.
    Secondly, the case of some argentinians refusing to learn the local language brings up a much wider debate taking place in Europe about cultural integration of inmigrant people and to what extent should they adapt to their host countries.

    Then to the main point. It takes more than a few months to wholly understand the subtleties of catalan politics. It is my opinion that the debate around language in Catalonia is permanently intoxicated by the feroucious attitude of the right-wing spanish media. This in turn is answered by an obstinate defense of the catalan language by many catalans. This stubborness in all matters that have to do with catalan language is, in a way, a response of many years of aggression. Try reading Libertad Digital, El Mundo or listening to La Cope. Journalists there earn their living and large audiences by constantly comparing catalan society to germany under the nazis rule. With this kind of treatment there isn’t much room left to quietly discussion of language issues with erasmus students and ex-pats.
    Now you may be wondering why right-wing media in central Spain invests that much effort bashing catalan politics. Well, they happen to be just as nationalist, but of a different sign. And then of course you have to take into account that major state-wide parties are often supported by smaller catalan or basque parties. A way of eroding the party in power by its opponents is to constantly accuse them of being supported by extremist and ‘not-proper-castillian-spanish’ allies. Even at the price of alienating the relationship between Spain and its minorities. So there you have it, at the end of the day it may well be that it’s a justle for power what complicates your every-day life.

    08 Jan 2007, 11:30

  6. Martin

    I was in Valencia as an Erasmus student myself – and many times before on holidays in the Catalan region north there – so I think I could also add my opinion about the matter.

    Like many others, I came to Catalunya with basics of spanish language – only to find that I can’t understand the strange local “spanish” at all. That time I could have done what many people do: blame Catalans. Why can’t they speak Spanish like the other spaniards?

    Well, I did not. I decided not to be ignorant and I started to learn Catalan, because I really like this part of Europe. Now I can speak it almost fluently – but what the heck – if you already know Spanish, it is sooo easy to learn at least to read Catalan. As you said about your Argentinian friend: many castellano-speakers do not even try to do that little. He doesn’t need to, because nobody is really forced to speak Catalan. On the other hand, you definitely HAVE TO speak Spanish. We foreigners usually prefer Spanish – but that doesn’t mean it’s Catalan fault not to share this preference with me or you or anybody.

    One more thing. Catalanism is not militant. There are lot of emotions, but there is absolutely no violence. Another thing. If group of Castellano and Catalan people talk together, they speak Castellano. Always. Catalans have to speak spanish, not the opposite. Bilinguality? Theoretically, maybe, they’re both “co-official” languages. In reality, however, Catalan is rather just “tolerated”.
    Gracies per la vostra atencio i bon dia de republica txeca..;-)

    29 May 2009, 19:00

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