Lorne Walker Nolan – Barcelona, October 21 – 2021
Lorne Walker Nolan is an academic, writer and translator of Catalan and Spanish into English based in Barcelona.
September 26 was European Language Day and the kids in my Barcelona neighbourhood resolutely speak to each other in Spanish, or more correctly, Castilian, despite over forty years of Catalan linguistic immersion. They don’t learn much of it in school, zero hours in kindergarten and just 2 to 3 hours a week after that, yet it is the lingua franca of most of the streets and playgrounds of the Catalan capital. So do the Mossos d’Esquadra, the Catalan police, at my local café. Yet recently Irish artist Sean Scully, formerly of Barcelona, was told he should be speaking Catalan instead of Spanish to his child while in the playground. I believe it is rare in Dublin that locals berate foreigners for speaking to their kids in English, or any other language for that matter, or even in meetings as Scully also complained of, rather than the indigenous language. But not in Catalonia.
There is a movement to have Catalan as the only official language. That is, to eliminate Spanish from official use. Its advocates ignore however, that far from being a minority language, the majority of Catalans still use Spanish as their first language. But the official demonisation of Madrid and Spain and the consequent linguistic dominance (therefore dominating, right?) I argue is folly. Proponents of Catalan monolingualism say that only Catalan for Catalonia is the future. Catalan language debates even now mention the long dead Generalissimo Franco, whose dry and dusty corpse often gets a metaphorical airing and beating, like a cross between a mummified monk and a piñata, as if Castilian were somehow an inherently fascistic tongue rather than a linguistic preference with a much greater utility. To associate Spanish solely with Franco would be to associate German with Hitler, English with Cromwell and the metric system to Napoleon. Ironically, Franco was accused of banning the use of Catalan in school, yet paradoxically, the Catalan government effectively bans the use of Castilian in Catalan government funded schools. Unlike Quebec or Wales, there is no option for parents to obtain a bilingual education for their children unless they go private.
It is important to bear in mind that not all Spanish speakers in Catalonia are necessarily anti-Catalan independence. Pro-independence ERC politician Gabriel Rufián prefers to speak in Spanish more than Catalan. He is wisely an advocate of bilingualism. Nor should it be a surprise that former Catalan president Carles Puigdemont’s first interview to the BBC after going into self-imposed exile was in Spanish – not Catalan. Why so? To be more widely understood, of course. Like Puigdemont, it is well known that most other Catalan pro-independence leaders send their kids to bi-lingual if not multilingual schools. They personally recognise the restrictive future their children, if monolingual in Catalan only, face. Few however, propose multilingualism in their political manifestos for ruling over their fellow citizens.
Not only is this folly but it is dangerous. Already now hospital reports will be in Catalan only. Bad luck if you are Basque who has an accident or illness while on holiday in the Costa Brava. The Catalan branch of the Red Cross plans to stop using Spanish, under pressure from the Catalan only lobby. The Catalan Health Department failed to provide AIDS/HIV information in Spanish. The Red Cross also says its agreement with the Language Platform means it will communicate with refugees only in Catalan – refugees from where? Valencia? Mallorca? Astoundingly, the Barcelona Chamber of Commerce has decided to no longer use Spanish in its official communications. Its president only answers questions asked in Catalan. An odd call for a city that touts itself as global.
Should Catalonia, independent or not, become a monolingual Catalan speaking entity the problems would be manifold. Public universities, hospitals and government bodies already insist employees have a C1 level of Catalan. Consequently, they are able to attract the best and brightest global professionals – only if they are fluent in Catalan. Wherever from? Your guess is as good as mine. Conversely, Catalan professionals will be locked into a narrow Catalan centric field if they have not mastered any other more widespread languages. Just as professionals who only speak Hungarian, Czech or Sinhalese, are locked into their respective linguistic spheres.
But rules are made to be broken and in Catalonia you can get away with it – depending on who you are. Ex- Barcelona Football Club demigod, Argentinian Lionel Messi, despite having lived in Barcelona for twenty years since the age of thirteen, rarely, if ever, spoke in Catalan publicly. Perhaps he could not. His leaked communication to the club when he tried to leave in 2020, was of course in Spanish. Current Barça coach Ronald Koeman (and most likely all the previous ones) barks his instructions to his players from the side lines in Spanish too. I suppose one rule for some – another rule for others. And while it is easy, though not particularly brave, to condemn a 76-year-old foreigner alone in a park for not speaking to his child in Catalan, it would be foolhardy for Barça president to chastise a coach or player for failing to communicate in Catalan. Let’s call it the FC Barça Rule.
Common sense can and has prevailed, however. After Independence in 1957, the government of Malaysia established Bahasa Melayu as official language, to be used in all government functions and as the medium of instruction at all levels. In 2002, the government announced a reversal of policy, calling for a switch to English as a medium of instruction at all levels. Same as in ex British and French colonies such as Kenya and Senegal where the oppressors have left, but their language officially remains, for utility above else.
No doubt the dominance of European languages globally is a result of colonisation and conquest, but so too are the Latin-based languages, Catalan and Castilian included, in their heartlands. Even the mongrel tongue of English was forged from Viking, Saxon and Norman intrusions, occupations and invasions. But its continuation after colonial independence is recognition that the English no longer “own” their language any more than Americans, Singaporeans or Nigerians own it. Even the French and other continental Europeans have long realised that studying English is not about studying England, but acceptance that the language’s utility, despite Brexit and not just within the EU, remains. Spanish is so much more than merely the language of the ancient regime of Castile. It is one of the world’s most utilised and studied languages. It is the language of much of the Caribbean and Central and South America and widely understood to their north. Spanish is global and in Catalonia there for the taking. If every language is a jewel, bilingualism is a treasure chest, and multilingualism can be a gold mine – and not just metaphorically. To eschew any language purely out of historical spite, is a masterclass of provincialism, nostalgia, sentimentalism and narcissism. Castilian, along with its sibling Catalan, ought to be encouraged, rather than supressed, wherever Catalonia’s future lies.