Linguistic debate

No end in sight to Catalan classroom conflict

Catalonia vows to keep regional tongue as dominant teaching language Region's government dismisses court ruling that would shift balance in favor of Castilian

A girl writes in Catalan at a public school in Mataró.
A girl writes in Catalan at a public school in Mataró.JOAN SÁNCHEZ

The dispute over the Catalan education system's linguistic model is headed for a dead end: an increasingly tangled web between the regional government's steadfast defense — supported by the majority of the other political parties in Catalonia — of a system in which the majority of subjects are taught in Catalan and a series of judicial resolutions requiring the teaching of more Castilian Spanish for those pupils who want it.

Irene Rigau, the regional government's head of education, last week ruled out introducing any changes to the model despite a series of rulings handed down by the courts. The most recent of these came from the Catalan regional High Court (TSJC), and explained how to meet the demands of families who want more hours of teaching in Castilian: if one pupil requires it, the entire class must be taught, even if the other students and their parents want teaching just in Catalan.

The ruling allows the regional government to decide how to do this. Why doesn't the regional government of Catalonia look at the linguistic models already in place in other regions, such as the Balearic Islands, Valencia, or the Basque Country, which all have different options with Castilian or Basque as the main language and another bilingual? "We have chosen immersion," says Rigau. "We will defend a model of social cohesion that for 30 years has avoided any linguistic conflict in Catalonia - although sadly not outside Catalonia."

“My grievance is with education policy as a political tool”

I. VALLESPÍN / C. MORÁN

The majority of parents in Catalonia would seem to be happy with the education their children are being given; few have complained to the courts about the regional government's policy of teaching solely in Catalan. That said, there are many who would prefer a more equal balance between Castilian and Catalan. One high-school teacher (who has chosen not to be named) has been living in Catalonia for three years, and his 12-year-old son attends a state-subsidized privately run school in Barcelona, where he is doing well. "I would like some of his classes to be taught in Castilian and others in Catalan, like in bilingual schools. But language is a contentious issue, and here Castilian is regarded as a second language," he says. "You only have to look at the titles of his text books: Spanish Language, English Language; but Catalan is simply Catalan - this is what we speak. I think that children whose parents are also Catalan speakers are a little less bilingual than the others, but it doesn't really matter. The sad thing is that the education policy here has forced people to take sides: Castilian speakers versus Catalan speakers, who previously had no position on the matter."

José Moreno, who has been living in Catalonia for the last decade, also blames the politicians, saying that the region's education system should better reflect the wider reality of Catalan society. "People speak two languages here and there is never any conflict, but there is in our schools. Why? We want a bilingual system of teaching, not two different models, one in Castilian and the other in Catalan. We want children studying together in the same class, with a balanced share of language, divided up by days, if necessary. I don't care if Catalan is the main language, the problem is that Castilian is being treated as a second language. The standard of teaching in the schools is very high, and I have no complaints about my son's school. My grievance is with education policy as a political tool."

Cristina Campoy and David González, whose son attends a school in Barcelona, support their regional government's policy, and criticize the decision by the Catalan regional High Court (TSJC). "The sentence is absurd. It is illogical for the demands of a minority to be imposed on the majority. Seventeen requests for teaching in Castilian cannot mean that thousands of other children have to have the way they are taught changed," says Campoy.

Their son's school is one of around a dozen that has been affected by the TSJC's ruling, which states that if one child asks to be taught certain subjects in Castilian, then the entire lesson has to be delivered in Castilian. Until now, the regional government of Catalonia had responded to such requests by giving pupils individual tuition, but the courts say this is insufficient and constitutes discrimination.

Pablo Esteban, the school's director, is also critical of the ruling. "It will set Catalan back," he argues. He says that there is only one family with a child in the school that wants Castilian. "They have pursued the matter directly through the courts, without bothering to ask the school board first."

Julián Busca, an Argentinean who moved to Catalonia a decade ago and is now married with three children aged three, seven and nine, took his case to the courts after Esteban allegedly refused to talk to him in Castilian during a parent-teacher meeting. Esteban says he offered to meet with Busca to discuss the matter in Castilian, and that he is obliged by law to conduct meetings on school premises in Catalan.

"The reason we have brought the matter before the courts is because it's the only way to get a more equal representation of Castilian. The ideal situation would be a reflection of the reality of Catalan society, where everybody speaks both languages fluently. It should be 50-50 Catalan-Castilian in schools," says Busca, who speaks Catalan fluently, as do his three children. "I wasn't sure what to do about this issue. But I have been told that I had the right to be addressed in Castilian. I didn't start this because of a spat in a meeting, but because I believe that children can learn two languages at the same time without detriment to either."

Esteban says he will not be changing the teaching methods at his school until told to do so by the Catalan regional government's education department. He defends the current model of teaching entirely in Catalan, with Castilian taught as a foreign language, and is backed by the majority of parents whose children attend the school. "Some students only speak Castilian here," says one of a group of four mothers waiting to pick up their children from the school. They say that while they speak Castilian with their partners, they make a point of only speaking Catalan with their children. "We were taught in Castilian, and it made it harder for us to learn Catalan later on," says another.

One of the mothers, Nunzia, originally from Italy, says the current system should be maintained, although her husband wants a stronger Castilian presence. "If we are in Catalonia, I don't think that classes should be in Castilian. I live here, work here, and accept the way things are. If I don't like it, I can go somewhere else," she says. Her nine-year-old speaks Italian at home, Catalan at school, and Castilian with his friends when playing, she adds.

Irma España, a Catalan speaker, decided that she wanted her son to speak Castilian at home, fearful that he would finish school only able to speak Catalan. But now she regrets her decision: "I think it was a mistake, because there are things that he doesn't know how to say in Catalan."

Another mother waiting to pick up her child outside the school gates, originally from Venezuela, says she prefers her child to function in Catalan: "Not knowing the language and living here could cause big problems. And the only way to get kids to learn the language is by teaching everything in it, otherwise Catalan will disappear."

Asked their opinion as they headed out of the school gates, a small group of 12-year-olds said that they do not want any disruption to their education: "We want to be taught in Catalan."

The Catalan regional government says it is going to appeal against the TSJC, arguing that the Supreme Court will back it in rejecting the decision that one pupil can decide the language in which classes will be taught. It has always argued that the needs of individual students can be resolved by the teacher addressing them individually in Castilian if they prefer, while delivering the class in Catalan. The majority of the Catalan parties (CiU, ERC, PSC, ICV and CUP) all supported the regional government in the Catalan parliament on Thursday of last week, rejecting a motion by the Ciutadans party for a trilingual system based equally on Catalan, Castilian and a foreign language.

Education Minister José Ignacio Wert responded to the Catalan regional government's announcement that it would not obey the court ruling by saying: "The Constitution clearly states that all judicial sentences must be complied with. This is not something that one can decide to do or not to do." He reminded the regional government that the education reforms he is pushing through include a measure to comply with the Constitutional Court that, without questioning the immersion method, requires a balance between Castilian and Catalan. Wert's reforms state that if a student in Catalonia wants to be taught in Castilian, the regional government will have to offer this option, if necessary paying for him or her to attend a private school.

The debate over which language schools deliver their teaching in bilingual regions is not unique to Spain, and solutions rarely satisfy all parties. As Chinese expert Zhenzhou Zhao noted in EL PAÍS last week, in countries such as China, where there are some 300 different language and dialects, the situation is especially complex.

Arguments in favor of teaching solely in Catalan have always been based on defending a language that for decades was banned, and the use of which is essential for social cohesion, avoiding segregation on the grounds of language. The Basque Country's education department has long argued that teaching in different languages can end up creating ghettos. In Valencia, parents often complain that there is insufficient teaching in Valencian — in fact, as a result of a judicial decision the government has just been obliged to introduce more teaching in Valencian in schools.

In Galicia, the distribution of hours between Castilian and Galician (with the goal of introducing more English) has been criticized by many experts, as well as leaving parents who want more teaching in Castilian unhappy. Alberto Núñez Feijóo, the head of the Galician regional government, last week recommended that Catalonia adopt what he called the "friendly bilingualism" he has introduced, although the courts have already ruled against aspects of that.

Francisco Luna, a language expert and former director of the Basque Institute for Educational Research and Evaluation, says that in the Basque Country a three-language system was adopted to give families a choice, as well as supporting the use of Basque: "A single-language system was not viable; unless families can decide, the system will collapse, because along with the lack of resources, it would have been rejected by a lot of people." The principal stakeholders now agree on the need to move beyond the three-language system toward multilingualism. But the pilot project set up by the former Socialist Party administration in the Basque Country has ended up in limbo under the Basque Nationalist Party administration.

"UNESCO recommends that children are educated in their mother tongue until 10 or 11 years of age. From then on, bilingualism is fine," says Jesús Cardeñosa, a lecturer in Engineering and Linguistics at the Madrid Polytechnic, who defends a system that offers a variety of options, allowing, for example, a student who speaks Castilian at home to be taught in that language; and the same for Catalan speakers. He says that the TSJC's ruling is a poor solution to the question. Cardeñosa says that part of the problem is that decisions about education are not being made on the basis of educational criteria.

"This is a political issue. Those who see Catalan as a residual language want to stop using it as the main medium for teaching. And given that the two-language approach of Castilian and Catalan has been rejected in Catalonia, they will now try this new approach," said Catalan education head Rigau last week.

In the meantime, Wert argues that both his draft reforms and recent court rulings do not question the Catalan regional government's single-language system of teaching, but merely defend the right of a parent to have their children taught in Castilian, regardless of how few they are.

The simmering row over language in schools comes at a time when separatist sentiment is growing in Catalonia, where the regional premier, Artur Mas, has announced his intention to hold a referendum on independence.

A recent poll taken by the Center for Opinion Studies, an official institute of the Catalan government, shows that 74 percent of Catalans want to hold a referendum on independence. Some within the Popular Party administration of Mariano Rajoy in Madrid have responded by calling on the central government to assume greater control of the education system.

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