Linguistic tribulations

Linguistic tribulations

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A couple of weeks ago, my son made his live broadcast debut. He’s joined up with a couple of Argentinian enthusiasts for Scottish football who invited him on to one of their live YouTube appearances to discuss the weekend’s matches. Why Pol started following Scottish football, I’m not quite sure, but considering he’s only 14, he gave a very good account of himself. And I was especially proud because he was speaking what’s effectively his third language – Spanish – and to Argentinians, who have the reputation of being able to talk both hind legs off any proverbial donkey you care to introduce to them.

When Pol was born, my wife, Marta, and I decided each to speak to him in our own language. So, ever since, I have spoken to him in English and Marta in Catalan, and he normally follows the same language division when he answers. We didn’t really do this with any big plan in mind, it just seemed unnatural to either of us to speak to our own child in a language that wasn’t our own. The result is a bilingual household and, often, bilingual conversations between Marta and me, but it’s never seemed to be a problem to any of us.

Outsiders, of course, might see things differently. My mother used to say, in an almost accusing way: “But it’s so difficult for him.” To which I’d reply that actually, it wasn’t hard at all because it was what he was used to. I knew it wasn’t difficult for him because we started discussing it before he was two, when I asked him what language he had to speak to a whole list of people, and he answered correctly for every single one.

Our own bilingual household is one thing, though, and the bilingual society of Catalonia is quite another. This is a country where to open your mouth is to make a political statement. I discovered this as soon as I arrived here more than 20 years ago in the unusual position for a foreigner of speaking better Catalan (and that wasn’t very good) than I did Spanish. The problem was that when they heard an Englishman struggling to speak Catalan they thought they’d be helping me by switching into Spanish instead. The logic goes that if someone can speak a little Catalan, their Spanish must be a whole lot better. Instead, they left my brain utterly scrambled and my mouth speaking a horrible mixture of the two languages.


Pol, of course, has always been exposed to Spanish too. It’s on the radio and television and in films, it just wasn’t in our house very much. But when he got to school he began to come into contact with children who only, or mainly, spoke Spanish and began to copy them in his own way, making lots of mistakes at first and then gradually improving. Because the rather strange fact of school life in Catalonia is that, while all the lessons, except for Spanish and foreign languages, are in Catalan, the language you most often hear in the playground is Spanish. Why this is, no-one seems to know, but it may be a result of the Catalan tendency I’ve already mentioned to switch language when even only one of a group doesn’t understand.

Classes in Catalonia are in Catalan for a good reason, although it’s one that’s sometimes difficult for outsiders to understand. The idea of language immersion, as it is known, is to ensure that everyone who leaves the Catalan school system, no matter what their background, can at least understand the Catalan language. In fact, it was parents from Spanish-speaking backgrounds who originally asked for things to be that way, convinced that knowing Catalan would be an advantage for their children and that this was the best way to achieve it. Because, as Pol’s story proves, children from Catalan-speaking homes will always learn Spanish. In fact they achieve levels of Spanish above the average for Spain. The converse, however, is far from being true. Without immersion, children from Spanish-speaking homes would be highly unlikely indeed to learn very much Catalan at all.

Why is this important? Well, if Catalan-speakers are to be able to go about their daily lives in their own language, they need everyone to at least be able to understand them when they speak. No-one demands that they speak it if they don’t want to and, as I’ve already mentioned, bilingual conversations are common here. But if there are too many people here who know no Catalan, more and more will switch to Spanish, and Catalan will be on the road to extinction.


Now, though, immersion is threatened by groups of dissident parents who have taken their case against it to the Spanish courts and won. Spanish judges, following their tendency to make rather than apply the law, have decreed that 25% of the school curriculum in Catalonia should now be taught in Spanish. No-one yet knows how or if this will be applied. The Catalan government insists that it won’t, the Spanish government that it has to be. Considering that Catalan politicians now have little appetite for a fight following their botched attempt at declaring independence five years ago, it will probably come into force one way or another before too long.

So things are not looking good for the future of Catalan, because the more people who claim they can’t understand it, the more they will insist on things being done in Spanish. And arguably even more worrying than that is the decline in the social use of Catalan. Only just over one in three Catalans now say they habitually use Catalan socially. 15 years ago, almost half of them did. Just as we find in the school playground, one thing is to immerse people in a language and quite a different matter is to persuade them to speak it.

If there is any hope at all, perhaps it comes from an unlikely quarter. Catalan is also spoken in the Valencian region of Spain, although for years the language has been mistreated and abused in many quarters. An attempt has even been made to claim that it is a different language altogether, although it is about as different from Catalan as the English spoken in Scotland is from the standard version. When I’ve been down to Valencia before it’s been difficult to speak Catalan (or Valencian, if you prefer) with local people, even for my wife, who’s a native speaker. Even locals who we’ve just heard using the language seem incredibly reluctant to speak it with outsiders. Until this summer, when we were passing through the region on the way back from a holiday in southern Spain. Twice in restaurants in small Valencian towns we were approached by young waiters who naturally started speaking to us in Catalan and who continued to do so even when they must have realised we were outsiders. It seems that young people are, for some reason, beginning to feel more comfortable and determined about speaking their own language.

Why should this be? I can only think of one possible reason. Could it be that, precisely because the language is not officially supported a great deal and is not the predominant language in schools, Valencian is, at least in some circles, cool. Whereas in Catalonia, having its government conducted in Catalan, immersion in it in schools, and television and radio stations taking it on to the airwaves is all very well and good, but it perhaps also makes it anything but cool. It would surely be bitterly ironic if this was the factor that managed to succeed where all the brute force of Franco’s dictatorship failed and destroyed Catalan as a living language altogether. Que això no passi mai!

You might also be interested to read about my love affair with the Catalan language here.


  1. Basak Balkan

    How very interesting! I think Jane Davis wa ssaying something similar about Manx, how the younger citizens of the island liked to speak in that nearly-extinct language because they thought it was cool.
    And way to go, parents! I can’t stand it whenparents are too lazy to teach their child their native language – sadly, I have encountered this a lot. If I were their child, I’d be FURIOUS at them for having deprived me of such riches.

    • Simon Berrill

      Thanks, Başak. I hadn’t heard that about Manx, but it sounds logical. For me, the language you speak to your child isn’t something you think about or plan. When you pick up your baby, it’s your own language that comes out, whether it’s spoken around the world, or in one tiny corner of it. I know there are parents who decide to speak to a child in a completely different language because they want them to learn it, but I find that artificial and rather sad. It’s the relationship that’s the important thing and relationships are different depending on the language you speak, so I think you need to use the one that allows you to express yourself best.


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