August 24, 2021
Young people in one of the terraces of Paseo Sant Joan. / MANU MITRU (EPC)
There are no shortcuts to save Catalan
Catalan is in hard times. One of the bad news this summer has been the survey verification of what we already knew: its use is going backwards. In a more pronounced way among young people in Barcelona between 15 and 34 years old, where only 28% speak it regularly, according to the latest survey carried out by the City Council. Although these data should be taken with some caution, since non-registered young people living in Barcelona have been included for the first time, which implies a certain bias in the command of Catalan, it is still significant that only one in four uses it. Without drawing apocalyptic conclusions, the truth is that the use of Catalan continues to decline, particularly among young people.
This setback should concern everyone. Catalan speakers and those who are not. Supporters of independence and those who are not. The left and the right. To all. Saving Catalan should be a collective commitment for a reason that many can share: languages are not only a factor of identity. They are part of our ecosystem, like forests, glaciers or bees. With two languages spoken and recognized by law – Catalan and Spanish – and which coexist in a delicate and fascinating balance, Catalonia has a wealth that must be preserved. Breaking this balance to the benefit of one of the two would mean a cultural impairment, would introduce more stressors in Catalan society and would undermine social cohesion.
Sociolinguists mention immigration as one of the factors that explain this dynamic. Denying it would be idle, but attributing it all to immigrants is too easy. If this were the dominant cause, Catalan would have experienced a disaster in the 1970s, when hundreds of thousands of citizens from other parts of Spain arrived in Catalonia. Despite this, in the first years of the Transition period, about half of the Catalans used it, while now this percentage does not reach 36%. It’s not just demographics. Without taking into account other factors, it is not understood that the use of Catalan among friends who live in Catalonia has gone down, in fifteen years, from 40% to 29%.
Let’s go back to the young people. Why do they speak less and less in Catalan? An explanation (complementary to the demographic): they don’t need to. For many, Catalan has lost the ‘glamor’ it had in the Transition period, when speaking it helped them find work and contributed to social status. The deterioration in the job market has decimated this appreciation, especially for those who have little reason to dream of a better future. Another explanation: TV-3 no longer plays the same role in the promotion and prestige of Catalan. Today, young people consume little television. Club Super3 fans have become ‘tiktokers’, ‘youtubers’ and ‘instagramers’, and they surf the net in Spanish because it provides them with more ‘likes’ and followers. Last but not least: Catalan’s identification with the independence movement. It did not serve to increase its use during the ‘procés’, and it has marked it as a partisan language and not as the language of all.
How to avoid the decline of Catalan? Some argue that talking about coexistence with a language spoken by more than 400 million people is naive. A fatality that fuels the idea that Catalan can only be saved with an independent republic. Like in Ireland, where only 2% of the population speaks Gaelic, after a hundred years of independence? There are no shortcuts to saving a language. Independence or impositions are not worth it, and even less the strange idea that it is the only official language. Catalan will only survive as an attractive, useful language, capable of coexisting with Spanish without excluding it, as a heritage of all. Its use, of course, needs to be defended by institutions, from schools to courts. However, their fate will depend more on collective commitment than on administrative decrees. Naivety? The publishing world shows how much can be done. The commitment of large publishing groups to Catalan, together with the militant action of more modest labels and the selfless work of many booksellers, has allowed the Catalan narrative to withstand the COVID crisis, even among young people. When will we see similar initiatives, imaginative, public and private, in the audiovisual world and in digital communication?