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

Barcelona / Bilbao -
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."

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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