A language love affair

A language love affair

Last week, I was invited to a language awards ceremony by a good client of mine. As I’d never met any of the many people I deal with at the organisation, I thought it might be a good idea to go along and get to know them a little. So it was that I found myself at the presentation of the 7th Martí Gasull i Roig award, organised by my client, Plataforma per la Llengua, an organisation promoting the use of the Catalan language.

In most countries, a language award would be a literary matter, given to a writer, or perhaps a publisher. Here, the finalists were a group of Wikipedia enthusiasts, some computer game fans and a bookshop. Because the Martí Gasull i Roig award is about services to Catalan, not use of it. In fact, it is given for defence of the language, or a notable contribution to improving its situation.

For speakers of one of the world’s dominant languages, like English, this is hard to grasp. Why would a language need defending? What would be the point? But our language hasn’t been banned within living memory. And people are not, even now, commonly discriminated against or humiliated for using it. If you think I’m exaggerating, you should read some of the reports I’m asked to translate.

Perhaps in order to understand you need to be in the situation I was in when I first arrived in Catalonia. I had met Marta, who is now my wife, some months earlier and I had almost immediately decided to learn her language – the one she spoke most often and the one she thought in. When I bought my first teach-yourself book, my initial reaction was that Catalan looked a lot like French, but when I heard it spoken I realised it sounded nothing like it at all. Once I started learning Spanish too, I saw that it also had patterns in common with Catalan, but once again sounded nothing like it. But when I arrived in Barcelona in 1999, my Spanish was very poor indeed – Catalan was definitely my stronger language.


This had some awkward consequences. First of all, there is nothing quite like the reaction you get when you speak Catalan to a Spanish person who doesn’t want to hear the language. It can happen with officials or police officers or even ordinary people. You are given a look of disgust that initially has you thinking you might be suffering from bad breath, before you realise that it’s not your mouth that’s the problem, it’s the words coming out of it.

To start with, when I innocently went and spoke Catalan to everyone, this used to lead me into some difficult situations, so much so that, as my Spanish improved, I changed my tack and initiated every conversation with a stranger in Spanish. Over the years, I’ve got better at picking who is likely to respond best to each language, although it’s still not easy in a country where every time you open your mouth you’re making a political statement.

I still sometimes get the killer stare, though. The last time was a few weeks ago at a wine fair in Barcelona where I went to look for a contact from a Valencian winery who had been very keen to work with me precisely because I could speak Catalan (the language is spoken in that region too, which is something I’ll come back to later). So, I went to find my contact, whom I’d never met, but mistakenly picked out a colleague of his, who turned out to be a different kind of Valencian altogether. I greeted him warmly in Catalan, only to find him looking down his nose at me as if I was something unpleasant he was scraping off his shoe and at the same time cocking his head as if he hadn’t quite caught what I’d said. It turned out that my Catalan-speaking contact hadn’t come to the fair at all. I was offered no wine and didn’t hang around that particular stand for very much longer.


Not everyone is the same, of course, but that doesn’t necessarily make things easier. The other problem that I ran into in my early days, when I was gaily speaking my rather ropey Catalan to everyone, was that even Catalan-speakers who are not ashamed or disdainful of the language, think that a foreigner who can speak it will speak much better Spanish. Not only that, they are more or less automatically programmed to switch into Spanish for the “benefit” of that foreigner. This led to terrible difficulties for me. I would go into a shop, my mind switched to speaking and thinking in Catalan. I’d ask for what I wanted, pleased that I’d managed to make a correct sentence. And then the shopkeeper, probably with the best intentions in the world, would switch to Spanish, even though she’d been happily speaking Catalan with the previous customer. Cue a mental meltdown for me as I gibbered unintelligibly in a horrible mixture of the two languages. Catalans, you see, are quite capable of having a conversation where one person speaks Catalan and another speaks Spanish because they are genuinely bilingual. Sometimes these dual-language conversations can last the duration of a marriage. But poor foreigners are generally only capable of thinking in one language that isn’t their own at a time.

That’s why my friends and clients at Plataforma per la Llengua are organising a campaign, asking Catalan speakers to break the habit of a lifetime and not to switch language unless asked to do so. This has been portrayed as the ultimate in rudeness by Spain’s unpleasant right-wing press, but if they could do it they would really be doing everyone a favour. Because if you can understand Catalan it isn’t going to be a problem for you, and it will help you to use the language. And if you can’t, all you need to do is say to the person “Can we speak Spanish please? I can’t understand you.” Despite some stories I’ve heard, I have never found a Catalan who wouldn’t do that, if asked, or even if it was just obvious that they weren’t being understood.

The problem is, if Catalans don’t do as Plataforma is asking them, their language risks being obliterated by default. Because if they choose to defer to everyone who might not understand, their own tongue will simply become a relic, used in homes and among friends. And languages are important. Some anthropologists even say that every time a language dies, a way of seeing the world goes with it – because every language has its own slightly different way of expressing what we see and feel and do.

I shouldn’t have to explain that to linguists, who are the main readers of this blog, but it’s hard, I think, for dominant-language-speakers to understand. I still see Darwinist arguments about the survival of the fittest applied to languages, for example. Spanish or English speakers also tend to see languages as difficult to learn – so why learn one which isn’t “useful”? This is to miss two very important points. First of all, any language is useful if you can communicate in it. And you can certainly do that in Catalan, which has as many as ten million speakers in four different countries.


Secondly, language learning is not a zero sum game. Children particularly, but even adults, don’t have a limited capacity for languages that gets “filled up” and should be “saved” for those “useful” languages like Spanish and English and French. On the contrary, if they are brought up in a bilingual atmosphere, they are more open to learning other languages in the future. This was proved to me years ago when I used to teach English. It was obvious which children spoke Catalan at home – they were the ones who were much more open to the different sounds English confronted them with. The solely Spanish-speakers couldn’t do this because they simply couldn’t grasp the idea that a letter could have more than one sound.

Or take the example of my teenage son. He is trilingual. Having been brought up speaking Catalan and English at home, he found it no problem at all learning Spanish (he’s actually one of the best in his Spanish class at school) because he’s surrounded by the language. Now he’s studying French as well and he wants to learn German. No closed mind there, despite the fact that much of the Spanish media would have you believe that the only language taught in Catalan schools is Catalan. This is a wilful distortion of the truth: what happens is that Catalan schools do all their teaching in Catalan, except in Spanish, English and French classes. It’s a deliberate policy that once again seems quite radical unless you look at it from the point of view of trying to keep the language alive. What it does is produce young people who can speak and read and write and understand two languages rather than one. In any other system that could be devised, the children from Spanish-speaking homes would end up monolingual. They wouldn’t even be able to understand people speaking to them in Catalan, and the language would be under even greater threat, to say nothing of the deepening divisions in society that would be created. It’s no wonder that the original demand for this school system in the years after the end of the Franco dictatorship actually came from Spanish-speaking families who didn’t want their children to miss out.

Now, though, the Catalan education system is highly politically controversial – a target for the Spanish Right. And it is the threat to their language which has been one of the factors driving the Catalan independence movement over the past few years. Catalans don’t want to force people to speak their language but they do want to be able to speak it themselves most of the time and that depends on most people being able to understand it. At the moment, very often, police officers and judges and doctors and nurses and public officials don’t, or refuse to try. Take away linguistic immersion in schools and a good number of other people wouldn’t either. And Catalans are tired of having to wonder every time the Right win a Spanish general election “How are they going to attack our language this time?”


Because Catalan, just like every language, is identity, and not just in Catalonia. It is in Valencia, where it’s called Valencian and is even more under threat than in Catalonia. It is in Mallorca, where the situation is very similar. It is in the quaintly bizarre state of Andorra (the only country where it is the official language, which makes Catalan a United Nations language by the skin of its teeth). It is too in Cerdanya and Rosselló (Cerdagne and Roussillon if you’re French), where many people want schooling in Catalan for their children despite the centralist French government’s best attempts to stop it. And it is in the city of Alguer (better known as Alghero) in Sardinia, where it has just been given equal status with the native language of the whole island: Sard.

I was reminded of all this sitting in a packed theatre at last week’s awards ceremony, which was by turns celebratory and political, entertaining and serious. Top prize was won by a bookshop from Perpignan (or Perpinyà to the Catalans) selling books in Catalan in an area where they are in short supply. A special award was also given to an elderly schoolteacher, who made a rousing political speech in defence of the language she had taught for so many years. The Catalans’ love for their cussed, determined language which, over centuries, has stubbornly resisted efforts by kings and dictators to eradicate it by stealth and by force, was clear on so many faces in the audience as they enjoyed the evening. And, sitting with them, I realised how much I love it too.



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