Bilingualism is good for you — but not for me, thank you.

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While travelling in Spain last week, I found myself waiting in the car for a long enough period of time that I decided to see what might be on the radio. By some cosmic coincidence, the first station I tuned to happened to feature a discussion of language.

[ The astute reader will note a certain vagueness in my recollection of various details below. This is because I was only half paying attention to the radio program. My 20-month-old daughter was in the car with me, and though she was pretty sleepy, she still demanded the other half of my attention. ]

The program's guest (or so I surmised, since it was the person talking over the phone) was citing some recent finding by the Real Academia Española that some number (or percentage?) of the websites (or webpages?) hosted in Spain is not available in (Castillian) Spanish, instead only being available in one or more of the other languages of various Spanish regions (Catalan, Basque, Galician, etc.) — and presumably a smattering of other languages, including English.

The implication, of course, is that the existence of this number/percentage of non-Spanish webpages/sites is to some degree an undesirable or even unacceptable state of affairs. The program's host and guest are in complete agreement about this, and enter into a discussion of some other study that they'd heard about — apparently conducted at some university in Spain, but mirrored by many studies elsewhere — demonstrating that bilingualism has positive effects on attention and memory. What they appear to be implying, of course, is that it's a particular shame that some-such number/percentage of webpages/sites are not available in Spanish because this fails to promote bilingualism, and bilingualism is good for you. Don't these Catalunians / Basques / Galicians / etc. want to do what's good for them?

Almost as if he'd noticed that he'd basically imposed a requirement on Catalunians / Basques / Galicians / etc. that he wasn't requiring of Castillians like himself, the program's host further noted that he'd made a new year's resolution to learn English. And he explained later that he understood that learning another language is difficult, that it requires "poniendo los codos en la mesa" — putting one's elbows on the table, a prototypical image of a student deep in his studies. I know this is a saying, but at this point I did have to wonder how literally the host meant it. If he honestly thinks that the best way to learn another language is to hit the books, he's not likely to learn much English. And if he and his guest honestly think that making more webpages/sites available in Spanish is going to promote bilingualism in Spain, they're simply delusional. Making webpages/sites available in more than one language is not a service to (prospective) bilinguals; it's a service to different groups of people, each of which may only speak one of those languages. People navigate to the page/site in the language they know best — do the program's host and guest really think that any significant number of people want to read content in a language that they understand less, or to read content in multiple languages just for the mind-enhancing fun of it? [Please note the boldface, linguophilic would-be commenters!] Please.

Besides, if promoting bilingualism is really a concern, then is the number/percentage of webpages/sites not in Spanish really the issue? I imagine (though of course I may be wrong) that the vast majority of webpages/sites hosted in Spain are Spanish-only, and I doubt the program's host and guest would find this fact undesirable (much less unacceptable).


  1. Filius Lunae said,

    January 21, 2011 @ 2:07 am

    We have to keep in mind that monolingual acts, such as the websites you mention, by the linguistic minority in Spain come from the independistas and nacionalistas. These are the Spaniards who, if they had their way, would have everything in their regional language (Catalan/Valencian, Basque, Galician). They often see themselves as an oppressed nation under Castilian rule who should've gained indepence long ago.
    I talked to several Spaniards after the measure that made the Spanish Senate multilingual, and, many, like myself, see it as nothing more than a political move on the part of these nacionalista parties.

  2. Harold said,

    January 21, 2011 @ 2:26 am

    My understanding is that there are misconceptions about what it means to be bilingual. If they are truly bilingual, they shouldn't need translations, no?

    In order to be truly bilingual (as I read long ago when I studied a bit of linguistics) a person has learn from those who totally avoid slipping into another (or *the* other, if they are in a minority vs. majority language situation) language.

    Truly bilingual people, as opposed to those (like myself, for instance) who have some knowledge of a second or third language, are rather rare.

  3. Harold said,

    January 21, 2011 @ 2:29 am

    When two languages are available the natural tendency is to completely tune out the language one knows less well.

  4. David said,

    January 21, 2011 @ 2:59 am

    @ Filius Lunae: A political move by political parties in a political institution? Anatema!! Luckily, god bless, we have the PP who never does such foolish things and would never waste such an astronomical amount of money in useless things such as promoting the cultural richness of your country in a political arena which is upposed to represent the different Spanish territories.

    Because, of course, we all know that spanish nationalism is "good" and the other ones are "evil".

  5. Maria said,

    January 21, 2011 @ 3:14 am

    Filius Lunae, being bilingual is a gift, not a national problem.
    Despite you might not like to see it that way.

  6. Labeeb said,

    January 21, 2011 @ 3:32 am

    A podcast on a related topic, just published today in fact:

    "Lingua mundi and the perils of monolingualism" — Professor Joe Lo Bianco examines the implications of English as "the world's language", and why it behooves native speakers of English to learn other languages. With host Jennifer Cook.

  7. Colin Reid said,

    January 21, 2011 @ 3:38 am

    Wait… how many Spaniards are there who aren't fluent in Spanish? I'd have thought this would be a much smaller group than those who simply prefer to use a regional language.

  8. Quintesse said,

    January 21, 2011 @ 3:45 am

    I have lived in Spain for over 5 years now and it never ceases to amaze me how heated discussions will become when talking about the regional languages. The bigotry dispalyed by both sides is incredible.

    (Like one of the country's political leaders just a couple of days ago commenting on regional leaders speaking their own language in congress thereby making it necessary for others to use translators, saying that this would never happen in a "normal country". I assume Belgium and Switzerland aren't normal countries either)

    @Filius Lunae: you have to take into account history here. Of course there is a lot of politics involved, but there are real people behind those politics who can still remeber clearly the time of Franco where they were forbidden to speak their language in public and to teach it to their children. Everything was tried to stamp out regional identity.

  9. Barrie England said,

    January 21, 2011 @ 4:11 am

    Whether or not learning another language depends on ‘poniendo los codos en la mesa’ surely depends on the reason why anyone might be learning it.

  10. Filius Lunae said,

    January 21, 2011 @ 4:11 am

    Yes, Quintesse, I agree. I'd actually be happy for the nacionalistas if tomorrow each of these regions declared itself an independent nation, with their regional languages as the official, national one.

    As for the Spanish websites, I don't know if media pages are included as part of the topic, but I know that, for instance, all websites relating to regional newspapers, TV networks, schools, and, sometimes government-related ones, are most often available only in the regional language (still part of the .es domain). For example, this page from Galician department of education, or this one from the Galician Radio/TV.

  11. Jesús Sanchis said,

    January 21, 2011 @ 4:13 am

    I like this post, as it reflects the impressions of a foreigner about the linguistic situation in Spain, and a variety of prespectives is always welcome in the debate.

    One of the things that should be taken into account here is the source of the information. Spanish media, including radio stations, are clearly polarized in terms of ideology. Depending on the radio statio you listen to you might get very different approaches to the problem. Some stations are famous for having a radical discourse, with continuous criticism of any law initiative that might benefit regional languages. This happens in what we call 'tertulias', a type of talk show where the 'tertulianos', many of them politically biased, offer their views on all kinds of topics.

    Also the task of remembering the past is connected with our own political agenda or personal perspective. Much of what is discussed in the Spanish politics of today has to do with how recent history, in particular Franco's time, is recalled.

    In any case, I think the debate on linguistic policies in Spain is in itself endless, as no 'perfect' solution will ever be found to content everyone.The positive thing is that, one way or another, regional languages like mine (Valencian/Catalan) are still alive and treated as an official language, which is good news.

  12. J. Goard said,

    January 21, 2011 @ 5:13 am

    Nice timing on this post. I was explaining more or less the same point to a perplexed coworker regarding my dating history. He couldn't seem to understand my account of a decision that things weren't going to work with a particular woman, partly for the reason that she spoke English too naturally and switched/translated to it too immediately. "But she is still Korean, so if she speaks English she can teach you Korean even better!" he said (in Korean).

  13. Harry said,

    January 21, 2011 @ 5:31 am


  14. Cali said,

    January 21, 2011 @ 5:43 am

    I agree with Jesús Sanchís. There are some radios in Spain that are no better than Fox News and some of their pundits are only there to twist any piece of news to their political views.

  15. the other Mark P said,

    January 21, 2011 @ 5:44 am

    I assume Belgium and Switzerland aren't normal countries either

    Neither Belguim nor Switzerland are remotely normal.

    Belgium is totally divided into francophone and flemish-speaking. There's a very real chance it will divide, like Czechoslovakia did.

    Switzerland gets away with multiple languages because federal matters are trivial. Most important things are done on a canton level. A couple of the cantons are multilingual however.

  16. Leo said,

    January 21, 2011 @ 6:13 am

    Harry: "Catalunians" does seem to be entering English. A recent letter to The Guardian noted that "Here in Catalunia, the person who at least attempts to speak Catalan will always get a friendly smile…"

    A few days later came the riposte "…is he referring to hosts in Catalonia (English) or Catalunya (Catalan), rather than the "Catalunia" he coins?"

    Mind you, The Guardian itself had an article yesterday concerning "the Basque language of Euskara". You see, it's non-Indo-European – unlike the Deutsch language of Germany, or the Cymraeg language of Wales.

  17. Leo said,

    January 21, 2011 @ 6:15 am

    Sorry, that should have been "the German language of Deutsch", etc..

  18. Yao Ziyuan said,

    January 21, 2011 @ 6:43 am

    "If he honestly thinks that the best way to learn another language is to hit the books, he's not likely to learn much English."

    Then what do you think is the best way to learn a foreign language?

  19. Hamish said,

    January 21, 2011 @ 7:03 am

    Well, everybody knows that the human brain only has room for one language, so trying to impose two or more results in impeded cognitive function…

    I've found it's very hard for monolinguals to understand bilingualism because many seem to see it as a zero-sum game, or that all languages are just carbon copies of each other (just with different words).

  20. parse said,

    January 21, 2011 @ 8:00 am

    If the radio guest really believes websites in a variety of languages can help promote bilingualism, he should be happy for the Catalan, Basque, and Galician site, which provide an opportunity for monolingual speakers of Castillian the opportunity to become bilingual?

  21. Licia - Terminologia etc. said,

    January 21, 2011 @ 8:40 am

    I am Italian but I also speak Spanish. I was in Barcelona recently and once again I was surprised by considerable amount of information (e.g. signs in the underground system) that was provided either in Catalan or in English, but not in Castillian. Even if I was in Spain, I ended up reading notices or instructions in English (some friends from the South of Spain admitted doing the same – actually, written Catalan is easier to understand for Italians than for Castillian-only speakers).

    Idescat, “official statistics website of Catalonia”, provides data on language usage which make for some interesting reading. In 2008, the percentage of people who identified Catalan as their mother tongue was only 31.6% (vs. 55,0% for Castillian); the percentage of Catalan as usual language was 35.6%  (vs. 45,9% for Castillian).

    As a foreigner, this type of data makes me find the local language policy even more puzzling.

  22. Harry said,

    January 21, 2011 @ 9:18 am

    Leo: Ah, the dear old Grauniad. I wish they would stop printing any old made-up word, by which I don't mean advisedly coined nonce-words, but nonsense stemming from the fatal mixture of the writer's desire to show off his cosmopolitan credentials on one hand, and good old-fashioned ignorance on the other. "A little learning…" might as well be their motto.

    Still, at least someone picked them up on it. The nonsense word "Andalucian", which is neither English nor Spanish nor good red meat, is now well established.

    Surely the equivalent of "the Basque language of Euskara" would be "the German language of Deutsch", or "the Welsh language of Cymraeg". They meant "the Basque language, Euskara". It's certainly clumsy and odd, but not exactly wrong.

  23. Yao Ziyuan said,

    January 21, 2011 @ 9:22 am

    When talking about "bilingual" texts, there are actually two cases. The usual case is a text that is available in two language versions, such as a bilingual Bible. The other case is a text where some parts are written in one language while the rest in another. This is called diglot-weave, or code-switching. Code-switching is a great approach to learn a foreign language. See "Automatic Code-Switching" on my homepage (click my username).

  24. Dan Lufkin said,

    January 21, 2011 @ 9:41 am

    Around Easter of 1956 I went into a small book shop in Mataró, a town just up the coast from Barcelona, and asked the proprietor quietly if he had a Catalan grammar. (That was during the Franco regime, when you could easily end up in jail for "nationalist" activities.) The proprietor quickly established that I was an American and that my interest in Catalan was purely academic. He sold me the grammar, made a couple of phone calls and we repaired to a tavern down the street, where we were joined by a high-school teacher and a couple of other locals. Elbows aloft, rather than on the table, I was treated to a hour's total immersion course in Catalan, including singing the Catalonian national anthem.

    I'm looking at Gramatica Catalana by Pompeu Fabra on my desk right now and fondly remembering my introduction to Iberian regionalism.

  25. chris said,

    January 21, 2011 @ 9:54 am

    Why is the category "languages of Spain" and not "languages of Iberia"? Solely because the Portuguese nationalists have already achieved independence from Castile and the other regions have not?

    Or is Portuguese more different from the other Iberian languages than they are from each other? (That seems hard to believe if the latter includes Basque.)

  26. Marc said,

    January 21, 2011 @ 9:56 am

    My guess is that for the people on the radio show "bilingualism" was a political metaphor for cultural integration into the Spanish state, and the host's announced intention to learn English a not-so-subtle prodding to these crazy minority groups to get with the program and focus on learning useful languages (Spanish, English) instead of trying to resuscitate the twitching corpses of their regional languages. "If only Franco had succeeded in totally stamping out regional identities, Spain would be a stronger country today" is a sentiment I've heard Spanish nationalists express.

  27. Bloix said,

    January 21, 2011 @ 11:04 am

    As Marc implies, you can't assume that the radio folks were acting in good faith. The most logical explanation for what they were doing was that they were expressing the view that language minorities should learn Spanish in a way that is sufficiently socially acceptable that you can say it on the radio.

  28. boynamedsue said,

    January 21, 2011 @ 11:09 am

    "the Basque language of Euskera"

    This calque from Spanish actually reflects usage in Spain. Officially speaking "Euskera" is the name given to the Basque languange in government documents. This is matched by the decision of the central government to only use the "official", regional-language, names for Catalan places. It seems a little silly to me, when the regional authorities insist on using local names for places outside of their region.
    (so Lerida is always "Lleida" in Madrid, but Huesca (in Aragon) is always "Osca" in Catalonia)

    The bilingualism issue is not actually that minor in Catalonia, there is a legal requirement for companies to give information in Catalan, but no corresponding requirement to provide it in Spanish. A Spanish monolingual living in Catalonia might often have problems identifying what fish he was buying in the supermarket, or require assistance to understand a sign at the bank (I have personally observed both these situations).

    But it pales into insignificance next to the fact that Catalan government refuses to allow even bilingual education, never mind monolingual Spanish education for Spanish speaking children. And remember, Spanish mother tongue speakers are still (just about) the majority. I'm pretty sure that contradicts the UN declaration of Human Rights, but what the hell…

  29. Marc said,

    January 21, 2011 @ 12:33 pm

    boynamedsue, it would be a beautiful world if there were no such thing as "payback," but there is. I don't think a lot of people would have much sympathy for the beleaguered Spanish-only resident of Catalonia in light of the history of what has happened, even if it's in violation of any laws. And especially in light of the fact that one or two week-long intensive courses in Catalan would be more than sufficient to bring a Spanish-speaker up to speed. It's not Basque, after all.

  30. boynamedsue said,

    January 21, 2011 @ 1:14 pm

    Well, Marc, I'm sure you're right. The working class Andalusian and Murcian Spanish speakers of Barcelona, Badalona and Hospitalet deserve having their linguistic rights removed due to the actions of the upper-class Galician, Franco, and his many, many, Catalan-speaking supporters.

    Catalonia's diglossia is very interesting. By about 1995, Catalan had definitively taken over from Spanish as H, with Spanish reduced to L, completely reversing the situation that had existed prior to 1980. Catalan is now the language of access to power, and the majority language, Spanish, that of the poor and excluded. We are now seeing a considerable shift to Catalan by hispanophones. This is complicated by the continuing prestige of Spanish outside Catalonia, and the fact that immigrants tend to learn Spanish first, as it is more portable, and more widely understood in Catalonia itself.

  31. Coby Lubliner said,

    January 21, 2011 @ 1:17 pm

    boynamedsue: A Spanish monolingual living in Catalonia might often have problems identifying what fish he was buying in the supermarket

    Spanish-speaking Barcelonans usually refer to mackerel (caballa in Castilian) as barat (from the Catalan verat), and tuna (atún) is often called toñina (tonyina). So, having signs in the local Spanish might not be much help.

    This is true throughout the Hispanic world; one always has to learn the local names of foods. Green beans, for example, may be judías verdes, judías tiernas, ejotes, habichuelas, porotos and so on.

  32. boynamedsue said,

    January 21, 2011 @ 1:25 pm

    Who eats mackerell anyway? :)

    But I'd agree that most people know atun is tonyina, and quite a few of the fish names are so similar it makes no odds. But I remember seeing an old couple, her from Albacete-way, and him an Andaluz, rowing about what a particular fish was in the Condis near Besós metro. They eventually called the Peruvian shop assistant over, who was no help either. Only in Catalonia could you have a shop where neither the customers nor the employees knew what the merchandise was!

  33. spanish243 said,

    January 21, 2011 @ 1:40 pm

    Although I am enjoying reading the politics, I find that there is another side to this that has not been addressed: that of lost languages. I understand that for convenience, making Castillian the official language was necessary, I also feel it would be a shame if all of the "local" languages were lost because they were "stamped out." I am lucky enough to be bilingual in English and Castillian, and can say that knowing both has enriched each of them for me. I really think that bilingual people have an advantage over others, and that it should be encouraged no matter what the two languages are.

  34. Peter Taylor said,

    January 21, 2011 @ 1:43 pm

    I presume from the fact that no-one's posted it that no-one else was able to find any details on the RAE's study. It's a shame, because I'd be interested to know what they actually found. As it is, it's not entirely clear whether they were looking at location of server (which would probably include quite a few .cat sites) or at sites in the .es TLD, and whether they were classifying the sites into languages by analysing the text or relying on metadata.

  35. boynamedsue said,

    January 21, 2011 @ 2:03 pm

    I've not found the original research, but I've found reference to it in La Voz de Barcelona. It states that only 26% of local government authorities "Ayuntamientos", have their websites in Spanish. Seems pretty damning to me.

  36. boynamedsue said,

    January 21, 2011 @ 2:04 pm

    Sorry, different survey, but pertinent.

  37. Jesús Sanchis said,

    January 21, 2011 @ 2:29 pm

    Some commenters have talked about "Spanish-only residents in Catalonia". This is of course one of the classic arguments in the debate. The counter-argument, also typical, is as follows: Why is it that someone decides to live in Catalonia without realizing that in Catalonia there is actually another language? And why should the Catalan authorities care much about the fact that this person does not speak Catalan? It is his/her problem. The funny thing is that the Catalan authorities actually spend a lot of money making it easier for these people to speak Catalan, which sounds quite reasonable.

    If I lived in another country, I would feel the need to learn the local language. Fortunately, there is an increasing number of people who are aware of the situation and understand the need to learn Catalan as a natural or logical thing. And if you don't like the idea of having to cope with Catalan, there's an easy solution: go somewhere else. If you just have a more flexible mentality, you'll surely feel fine in this most welcoming of lands, Catalonia.

  38. boynamedsue said,

    January 21, 2011 @ 2:39 pm

    Jesus, hello again. That's fair enough as a viewpoint, but Spanish has been spoken in Barcelona for at least 150 years, and is still the majority language. As you know, there are many fourth generation Spanish speakers in that area, do you really believe they should have no recognition for the language of their community?

    If you believe Spanish should be wiped out as a language of general communication in that part of Spain, you are welcome to your view. But please don't mince words, state that you are in favour of monolinguism.

  39. Peter Taylor said,

    January 21, 2011 @ 3:00 pm

    @Boynamedsue, thanks. It may be a different report, but it's still interesting. Worth noting that the 74% of municipalities without a castellano site is 76% of ajuntaments in Cataluña – over the bilingual communities as a whole it's only about 40%. More or less confirms what you'd expect – the worst offender by a long way is Cataluña, followed by Galicia.

    They do also say that it's based on volunteers and may be wrong. I picked a couple of the municipalities from my community (Valencia), and had a look. Albalat dels Tarongers is quite amusing: their front page lets you choose valencià or castellano, but whichever you click it takes you to a page in valencià. The second one I picked, Torrent, actually appears to be bilingual for the most part. There are a few links which haven't been translated, but I've seen worse. (E.g. Ryanair's translation system usually gives me a mix of Spanish and Italian).

  40. Jesús Sanchis said,

    January 21, 2011 @ 3:18 pm

    Boynamedsue, you may have misunderstood my words. Spanish and Catalan are both the official languages of Catalonia, and I think it's fine. My point is that it is logical that, if someone goes to Catalonia to live there, this person is expected to understand Catalan. Why not? And this person is also expected to speak Catalan if they want to have any kind of job in education or in the administration. Obvious, isn't it? The facts are very simple, and the truth is that in general there's no special social problem in Catalonia about the issue. But of course, there's a few who have been exaggerating things for decades, and creating a peculiar political discourse with a liking for catastrophic or 'unfair' situations. What can I say? Linguistic policy is debatable, but if you want to live in Catalonia it is required that you are sensitive about the linguistic situation, unless you want to go there with some kind of imperialist attitude.

    On the other hand, please remember that Barcelona is not Catalonia. What is true for the Barcelona metropolis is not necessarily true for the rest of the region. And please remember one more thing: when you talk about 'majorities', you should realize that in political terms it is the nationalist parties that are most popular.

  41. boynamedsue said,

    January 21, 2011 @ 4:20 pm

    Jesus, I don't say people shouldn't learn Catalan, but I do believe they shouldn't have to. Catalonia is a bilingual region, so all services should be provided in both languages, especially education. There are lots of people who would prefer their children to go to a Spanish school (myself included, that being the main reason I left Catalonia), I can't for the life of me see how it is possible to receive a Spanish language education in Los Angeles but not in Barcelona.

  42. Jesús Sanchis said,

    January 21, 2011 @ 4:28 pm

    All students who go to primary and secondary schools in Catalonia end up being perfectly fluent in both Spanish and Catalan. Bilingualism is some kind of a mystery even for a bilingual like me. It just works. The lack of Spanish in the education system is amply compensated by the massive presence of Spanish in the media and in many other areas. There's some kind of balance, and iIt works. The people of Catalonia have got used to it. Will it be different one day? Probably. Education models change constantly. But let's remember once more: Catalan is alive, it is spoken by millions of people, and there are also millions ready to take measures to protect their language. And obviously, these measures will never be popular with everybody.

  43. boynamedsue said,

    January 21, 2011 @ 4:46 pm

    "Catalan is alive, it is spoken by millions of people, and there are also millions ready to take measures to protect their language. And obviously, these measures will never be popular with everybody."

    If the measures involve denying people an education in their own language, then they are immoral, and contrary to the UN declaration of Human Rights.

    And while you are correct in saying that most young Catalans are bilingual, there are many who are not perfectly bilingual. I know many Catalan native speakers who do not speak and write Spanish at native speaker level, and many Spanish native speakers who don't dominate higher registers of Catalan. I have no problem with that, it is part of a bilingual society, but I do object to the fact that only total fluency in Catalan is valued by the generalitat.

  44. boynamedsue said,

    January 21, 2011 @ 5:01 pm

    Peter:Albalat dels Tarongers is quite amusing: their front page lets you choose valencià or castellano, but whichever you click it takes you to a page in valencià.

    That's quite similar to the PSC (the non-nationalist Socialists) page in Catalonia. You go straight to a Catalan page, but it offers you the choice to put it into Castilian. All the tabs and buttons change into Spanish, but the news articles are all still in Catalan.

  45. J. W. Brewer said,

    January 21, 2011 @ 5:02 pm

    The practical advantages of bilingualism are much greater for those whose first language is a) spoken by a smaller speech community; and/or b) not spoken as a second language by any significant number of people elsewhere. It would be much more difficult to function in life (unless you never travel any distance at all and never need to deal with persons from outside your own community) as a Catalan-only speaker than as a Castillian-only speaker. I tend to think the benefits of bilingualism-in-the-abstract are overwhelmed by the comparative benefits or lack thereof that depend on where you're starting from. Catalan truculence toward Castillian means, in practice, that Catalans will be incentivized to get better at functioning in English in order to deal with non-Catalans on a level playing field, just as, e.g., Flemings and Tamils may prefer to use English as their second language rather than the language of their immediate ethnolinguistic antagonists. (Indeed, perhaps it would be less embarrassing for Catalan nationalists and Basque nationalists to talk to each other about subjects of mutual interest in English than in Castillian?) So their local nationalism is doing its part to promote the juggernaut of Anglophone world domination. Note also that because Spain has multiple minority languages, the Canadian solution, whereby ambitious children from the linguistic majority may be compelled by social/cultural/political factors to exhibit some degree of competence in the minority language in order to pursue certain sorts of careers, isn't really practical.

  46. Jesús Sanchis said,

    January 21, 2011 @ 5:09 pm

    I've just read the UN declaration of human rights, and there's nothing about the language of education.

    You talk about immoral things. Well, the politics of today is, in some respects, the consequence of the past. For many generations Catalan/Valencian speakers, including my parents and grandparents, were denied their right to be taught in their language or to use it for official affairs, etc., and this memory plays a role in the political choices of today, including education. There isn't a single policy that will satisfy everybody, but it seems that the Catalan education system is accepted by the majority of the population. And policies can change, of course. It's up to the people to decide.

  47. Marc said,

    January 21, 2011 @ 5:17 pm


    I didn't say they deserve it, and indeed I don't think they do. I'm just pointing out that there are a lot of people who do think they deserve it.

  48. Jesús Sanchis said,

    January 21, 2011 @ 5:20 pm

    Peter uses some examples from Valencia. OK. I live in Valencia. When I go to any official administration office, the scene is always the same: I ask in Valencia, the civil servants answer in Spanish. That's a rule with few exceptions. Those people get a salary that's paid for by taxpayers, including me. I think it's outrageous that they don't care about answering in Valencian. They shouldn't have got those jobs.

    As you can see, there are many examples and counter-examples for everything. Radio talk shows are full of people complaining about all sorts of possible cases of discrimination and injustice. People from outside Catalonia have a full list of cliches against Catalan and the Catalans. There are also some Catalans who complain. But most of them are in fact quite happy with what they have.

  49. Marc said,

    January 21, 2011 @ 5:24 pm

    Jesús, I take it your last sentence ("It's up to the people to decide") is a wry comment on the current constitutional issues Madrid and Barcelona are tussling over.

  50. boynamedsue said,

    January 21, 2011 @ 5:31 pm

    Jesus: The Declaration of Human rights decrees that parents should have a choice in how their children are educated, in the UN declaration of Linguistic Rights it states that the right to be taught int one's own language also exists.

  51. Jesús Sanchis said,

    January 21, 2011 @ 6:02 pm

    Not exactly. Article 29 of the UN declaration of language rights says the following:

    "1. Everyone is entitled to receive an education in the language specific to the territory where s/he resides.
    2. This right does not exclude the right to acquire oral and written knowledge of any language which may be of use to him/her as an instrument of communication with other language communities."

    I'm sure the people who have designed the Catalan education policy are well aware of these articles, and of the legal implications of their policies. The main point is what we define by "the language specific to the territory". Surprisingly, the word "language" is in singular, not plural. Not only in Article 29, but in the whole Section II, 'Education'. Point 2 talks about 'the right to acquire oral and written knowledge' of other languages, not about the need for alternative vehicular languages.

  52. boynamedsue said,

    January 21, 2011 @ 6:16 pm

    And Spanish wouldn't be specific to Spain? You can't possibly argue that the Spanish speaking communities of Barcelona and its surrounding are not entitled to education in their own language, they are settled linguistic communities and as such their language is specific to the territory where they live.

    To use a declaration of linguistic rights to attempt to justify limiting linguistic rights takes us into 1984 territory!

  53. J. W. Brewer said,

    January 21, 2011 @ 6:42 pm

    You guys realize, don't you, that this "declaration" is apparently not an actual treaty signed by actual countries or something adopted by the actual UN or otherwise something of actual legal significance, as opposed to an aspirational press release put out by a bunch of NGO's? Although since the conference that promulgated it was held in Barcelona, one rather suspects that the linguistic-nationalist factions of the Catalan government were happy to play host, so there may be some rhetorical value if it can be argued that the same government is violating the declaration's aspirational norms. The plight of a group (linguistic or otherwise) which is a national majority but a local minority (and subject to alleged mistreatment by the local majority which is itself a national minority) is often not dealt with particularly well in various legal contexts. For all I know, Castillian-speakers in Catalonia should support Catalan independence so that they could then become a minority group more clearly subject to various protections under EU or other international law.

  54. boynamedsue said,

    January 21, 2011 @ 6:49 pm

    JW, that's true enough. The insertion of "language specific to a territory" was clearly a result of Catalan pressure, in order to communicate the peculiarly Spanish idea of "llengua propia", the language one is supposed to speak in a given territory, whether one wants to or not.

  55. Jesús Sanchis said,

    January 21, 2011 @ 7:07 pm

    I didn't even know that this language declaration existed. I just searched for it on the Internet, trying to check boynamedsue's information. It seems it's not a 'UN' declaration in the way the Human Rights declaration is. And yes, it seems that the Catalan influence can be felt in it.

    I think Brewer is right when he mentions the contrast between 'national majority' and 'local minority'. Speaking-speaking immigrants in Valencia and Catalonia have been a rare case: the local population tended to shift to Spanish in order to adapt to the immigrants, because the language of those immigrants was actually the language of the 'nation'. The situation is bizarre, but it did happen. It's not surprising that some measures taken to protect the local language may seem strange if seen from outside. It's the consequence of years and years of continuous disregard for Catalan.

  56. Licia - Terminologia etc. said,

    January 21, 2011 @ 7:48 pm

    @ Jesús Sanchis – You said “All students who go to primary and secondary schools in Catalonia end up being perfectly fluent in both Spanish and Catalan”. Well, I was in Cantabria a couple of years ago, visiting some caves. I joined a Spanish-speaking group with an excellent guide who unsuccessfully tried to interact with two kids aged about 11 and 12. At the end of the tour, the mother apologized to the guide, explaining that they were from Catalonia and her children’s Spanish was simply not good enough for them to be able to engage in any conversation. In their own country! Catalan friends confirmed that this is often the case.

    As I mentioned in my previous comment, I was in Barcelona recently. I visited La Pedrera, where most attendants were young women in their 20s. I asked one of them a question in Spanish (which is reasonably good, but I could never pass for a native speaker) and she replied in Catalan, so I asked her again in English and I got the answer I needed – apparently, she’d rather speak English than Spanish!

    I am afraid that when one experiences something like this, it’s almost inevitable that, as you say, “people from outside Catalonia” develop “a full list of cliches against Catalan and the Catalans".

  57. Jack H said,

    January 21, 2011 @ 11:53 pm

    boynamedsue wrote:

    The insertion of "language specific to a territory" was clearly a result of Catalan pressure, in order to communicate the peculiarly Spanish idea of "llengua propia", the language one is supposed to speak in a given territory, whether one wants to or not.

    It may be tempting to categorize that as a peculiarly Spanish idea because of Franco's attempts to suppress Catalan and Basque, but local languages have also been suppressed in France (not only Catalan in the south, but other languages elsewhere), and of course the idea that the US is a territory where only English should be spoken is very popular with many politicians here.

  58. boynamedsue said,

    January 22, 2011 @ 2:26 am

    Jack, "language specific to a territory" is actually used to define regional languages that are considered to have special status. It's a translation of "lengua propia", which actually says a lot more than its English version. The adjective "propio" means belonging to and characteristic of, carrrying the connotation of being the correct and fitting thing.

    If I state "El català es llengua propia de Catalunya" I am not making a neutral comment, as I would be if I said "Catalan is a language, specific to Catalonia", I am making a political declaration, excluding Spanish.

    But you are right about France, Franco was never as repressive of minority languages as the Republique.

  59. Jesús Sanchis said,

    January 22, 2011 @ 3:10 am

    Licia, you're using an example of the 'I speak Spanish they answer in Catalan' argument, but as I said before I know many more examples of the opposite. You go to Barcelona, ask something in Spanish and get an answer in Catalan… So what? I think this is just love for one's own language.

    Children who are 12 or 13 years old are not people who have finished their obligatory education. I don't think there's someone at the age of 16 with similar difficulties speaking Spanish, or even if they're younger. The story you tell sounds unlikley and exaggerated, as usually happens in these discussions. In any case, I suppose those people you met in the Cantabrian cave came from an area in Catalonia where Catalan is spoken by the majority of the population. That means places where basically 100 % of the people speak that language, with the exception of some recent immigrants, and where people see Spanish and Spain as foreign elements. They're the opposite of what happens in Barcelona and other bigger cities. In places like Terres de l'Ebre, Girona or LLeida Catalan is not just a language, it is THE language. Spanish is taught at schools and is present in the media anyway, but it is a foreign language altogether. It's the same in some Valencian areas. My grandmother couldn't speak much Spanish, and she didn't care much. Why should she care?

  60. pep said,

    January 22, 2011 @ 6:44 am

    I´m a native valencian/Catalan speaker just as Jesús and couldn´t agree more with Eric: among many people the claim for bilinguism is far from being a sincere one.
    As for what Licia states: it´s true that Catalan is not the anymore the majoritarian language in Catalonia (nor in València or the Balearic Islands). I live in Barcelona and work in a town near the big city, every day of my life I pay attention to conversations around me (a sort of masochistic activity) and realize that Catalan language is on the verge of disappearence in what´s called Àrea metropolitana de Barcelona. But at the same time people who will never bother to speak Catalan vote for the parties that support the massive use of the language at an institutional level, so there´s not even the shadow of an antidemocratic or totalitarian situation here.
    What´s really really funny are the voices from outside and inside Catalonia claiming that the endangered language is Castillian, don´t they listen to people on the streets?

  61. pep said,

    January 22, 2011 @ 7:02 am

    As for people answering in Catalan when adressed in Castillian, I can tell an anecdote: a German friend of mine came to visit me and told me he had had trouble understanding a bartender adressing him in Catalan. I couldn´t believe it (I´m a very suspicious person ;-)) and checked it out: it turned out the bartender was speaking in Castillian with a strong Andalucian accent.
    I´m not saying this is what happened to Licia: I´am sure he/she can tell Catalan from Castillian. But it´s not a situation very likely to happen in Barcelona..

  62. ?! said,

    January 22, 2011 @ 7:04 am

    I tried to learn Basque- made my way to san sebastian, couldn't hear any Basque, found a frightening-looking place covered in Basque flags with photos of imprisoned Basque nationalists, sat down at the bar, and oredered a beer in Basque. The bartender answered in Spanish. That's when I decided the pain of learning Basque probably wasn't worth it.

  63. Ben Hemmens said,

    January 22, 2011 @ 7:23 am

    I love this stuff.

    Central nationalists versus regional nationalists.

    What's that got to do with language, except using it as a stick to beat each other with?

  64. pep said,

    January 22, 2011 @ 7:33 am

    well ?!, my experience about the Basque language in Donosti-SanSebastian is completely different. I´ve been there twice, the first time I hardly heard any basque language (4-5 conversations per day). The second time, 10 years later, most of the teenagers spoke the language among them. Nowadays ia ia gazte guztiak euskaraz hitzegiten dituk/n..
    (but then again, I guess having been there as a tourist twice in my life is not what you might call a scientific approach ;-))

  65. pep said,

    January 22, 2011 @ 7:38 am

    Ben, I understand what you mean, I myself am more interested in the Philologic approach to languages.

    But this was a post on sociolinguistics posted under the tags Language and the media, Language attitudes. You couldn´t be expecting a discussion on fricatives, could you? ;-)

  66. boynamedsue said,

    January 22, 2011 @ 11:41 am

    Ben Hemmens:"I love this stuff.

    Central nationalists versus regional nationalists.

    What's that got to do with language, except using it as a stick to beat each other with?"

    It's the other way round, I wouldn't actually mind an independent Catalonia if it gave Spanish speakers full linguistic rights. But given they are not allowed to educate their kids in their mother tongue under autonomy, I find it unlikely there would be any improvement after independence.

  67. ignoramus said,

    January 22, 2011 @ 3:17 pm

    Language, allows ideas to be transferred from one brain to another with a "big but", not every one should be in the loop, no matter how curious they want to know or believe that they should know, thus the need to know many languages, so you can keep some "nosey ones " [none tribe ] out of the loop. Humans are tribal they like to select there own tribe.

    Yes a common understood language promote harmony but……..

  68. peterm said,

    January 22, 2011 @ 6:09 pm

    When the first independent Irish national assembly (Dail Eireann) was convened in 1919, nobody wished to use the language of the colonisers, English. But not all the assembly members present spoke Gaelic. Hence, some members gave their speeches in French.

  69. Ben Hemmens said,

    January 22, 2011 @ 6:48 pm

    Hence, some members gave their speeches in French.

    I greatly doubt that more members of the 1st Dail understood French than Irish.

    Anyway, this guff about the "language of the colonisers" cropped up in lots of countries that had belonged to the empire, such as India and South Africa. It's still flourishing there today, and not because the people fell back in love with Britishness, but simply because it was there and it was handy to have.

  70. ella said,

    January 23, 2011 @ 1:00 am

    This discussion is fascinating to me, as it could just as easily be about Québec if you substituted 'English' for 'Castillian' and 'Québecois/French' for 'Catalán'

  71. michael farris said,

    January 23, 2011 @ 9:12 am

    "Anyway, this guff about the "language of the colonisers""

    It's not guff. In Ireland, English definitely, unambiguously was the language of colonizers who viewed the already existing language as an irritant to be gotten rid of.
    The same is true in former colonies. In India, for example, English was unarguably the language of colonizers who regarded local languages as deficient and inferior.

    You can argue that past attitudes are less important than other factors (and I'll often agree). But you can't pretend that English wasn't imposed in a lot of places through force and/or some very ugly attitudes. Of course the same goes for Spanish, Russian, Arabic and Chinese among other languages.

  72. Ben Hemmens said,

    January 23, 2011 @ 4:52 pm

    In Ireland in 1916, English was among other things simply the vernacular of the great majority of the population of Ireland. Its spread was certainly not a simple product of being imposed by colonizers. Everything the British are accused of doing in Ireland was also done, for example, in Italy – and probably with greater intensity – with the aim of imposing standard Italian. But Italy is still a patchwork of dialects and languages. Irish on the other hand went into steep decline in the late 19th century and I think it's fairly clear that there was a dynamic at work within the (previously) Irish-speaking communities which became independent of any government policy.

    Now it surely was the intention of the British rulers of various countries in the Empire to impose English. But they didn't succeed very well quantitatively. Many of the nationalists expected English to fade away after independence. In country after country it has done the opposite and has expanded comfortably alongside the many local languages as a lingua franca. The greatest growth in the number of English speakers in the world at present is happening in India, and you can be sure it has absolutely nothing to do with the Indians having had a change of heart and wanting to be British after all.

    I'm Irish and have always spoken English, I never achieved conversational competence in Irish. That, despite what is often insinuated, doesn't make me British. It didn't make Joyce or Shaw or Yeats or Beckett or any of the other great Irish writers in English British. Funny, it wasn't till I actually went to live in the UK that I realized how little affinity I had to Britishness. In the sense of identity, I don't really have a British bone in my body. Yet I make my living by writing in English.

    My aunt wanted to train as a school teacher of English around 1950. At the time, she couldn't go to college in Ireland because she failed the Leaving Cert in Irish. So she went to England and later ended up settling in Switzerland. I think she was glad enough to leave the whole messy identity conflict behind her (being a non-republican family in Dundalk had become distinctly uncomfortable; soon afterwards, her parents moved back to Dublin); and in the next generation (she is now in her mid 80s, I am in my mid 40s) I feel much the same about having settled in Austria.

    The phrase "language of the colonizers" my be all right if used for actual historical coercive measures in the genuinely colonial period(s) of Irish history. But it's usually used in a sweeping sense by the kind of people who think the coercive measures to reimpose Irish were a good thing. And that campaign may be less brutal than some things the British did, but it's every bit as stupid.

    Most of the people who use that phrase would include at least my 3 British great-grandparents in their definition of colonizer. Two of these were a Welsh butcher, who opened 2 or 3 shops in Dublin, and his wife. The other came as an English soldier, left the forces, switched confession to RC, married an Irish woman and later worked on the tramways and as a bakery driver. They were Unionists, for sure, and spoke only English. But colonizers? And that's why I use the word guff for a phrase whose usual purpose is to pretend that people like my recent ancestors didn't exist or weren't properly Irish.

    In fact, I think guff is a very polite term for any form of linguistic nationalism, which could be more accurately described as an acid which corrodes away the consensus from the heart of natural communities. I think Irish is fine, and fair play to the people who speak it, whether out of tradition or by volition. It just isn't my language. And the insistence on Ireland being a country that should be ideally monolingual [we are monolingual in two languages: most of us speak one but somehow, mystically, the other is supposed to be the language of our soul, even though most of us can't string a sentence of it together] cuts out aspects of the country I'd rather not be without. The families who run the Italian fish & chip shops have been stably and peacefully bilingual for a few generations now, and for me they are an essential part of Dublin. It looks like we will be left with a steady Polish community even after the current economic storms pass; and they too deserve their place. Ireland has been a fairly diverse place for much of its history; the new wave of European immigrants of recent years is not as much without precedent as one might think. Vikings, Normans, Huguenots, shipwrecked Spaniards, the Dlugaczs and Youkstetters, more recently, Dutch and German organic smallholders: they are all part of the fabric of the real country.

    And the story is just about the same in nearly every European country, which brings me to my real point. Which is that the attempt to organize our continent as a system of somehow internally homogeneous nation states has been as futile as it was brutal, and could we start winding it down sometime soon please.

  73. Licia said,

    January 23, 2011 @ 8:52 pm

    I think it's interesting to see what's happening in Alto Adige / Südtirol, the German-speaking region in Northern Italy. It used to be difficult for "Italians" to communicate with the locals, and language usage had huge political undertones, but nowadays also older people try to reply in Italian if they are spoken to in Italian, however hard it might be for them, and the majority of signs and notices are bilingual (sometimes with unintentional comical effect, but I really appreciate the effort).

    @ pep – I am Italian so it's not difficult for me to tell the main romance languages apart; that young woman was definitely speaking Catalan. And so were two of her colleagues, in charge of directing tourists towards the lifts. The majority of people in the queue were Nordic or non-European looking, and expecting them to understand Catalan was a bit far-fetched, I believe, and indeed the two attendants got mainly blank stares. In a tourist attraction like that, where a fee is charged, it would make more sense to use Spanish and English, if anything out of practical reasons.

  74. Matthew Stuckwisch said,

    January 24, 2011 @ 12:08 am

    Just wanted to agree that many of the radio and TV stations are horribly biased politically in Spain, so take anything you hear with a grain of salt.

    My experiences in Barcelona are much of what people have said: very little, if anything, written in Castilian, with people responding to me in Catalonian if I asked a question in Castilian. In other bilingual areas, though, I have found speakers to be MUCH more accommodating. In Asturias, I would just use Castilian, and they Asturian, but if I had questions about words or anything, they'd switch to Castilian with no hesitation nor offense. In Galicia, they just swapped to Castilian as soon as they recognized my group from Madrid didn't speak Galician, although I generally can understand it without trouble, I've found native Spaniards have more difficulty (maybe it's just the differences are a little more transparent to me because of my Portuguese, I dunno). In the Balearic Islands, I encountered the same. Very accommodating, proud of their language, but never forced it on me or my friends. Barcelona, though, was a different story.

    Jesús: the issue is that in Catalonia, Valencia, and the Balearic Islands, BOTH Castilian and Catalonian/Valencia are official, and in other bilingual regions, parents have the option of how proportionally they want the two languages taught. In Catalonia (but not Valencia, from what my teacher friends have told me), no such option is given.

    If I move to Catalonia, given that Castilian has equal status as Catalonian, I should have all services provided to me in the language of my choice. Is it only teachers that are required to speak Catalonian and Castilian to pass their oposiciones? Seems to me that the functionary you mentioned should have been able to speak Catalonian. But remember, that, as enshrined in the Spanish Constitution of 1978, "El castellano es la lengua española oficial del Estado. Todos los españoles tienen el deber de conocerla y el derecho a usarla" (Castilian is the official Spanish language of the State. All Spaniards have the obligation to know it, and the right to use it"). Catalonian does not have a legally higher status (at best, equivalent: "Las demás lenguas españolas serán también oficiales en las respectivas Comunidades Autónomas de acuerdo con sus Estatutos" – The other Spanish languages shall also be official in the respective Autonomous Communities in accordance with their Statutes), and since you are required to know it, and she has a right to do it, she has done nothing wrong.

    As to your "when in Roman" argument, while it's fine to make an social expectation that they should learn Catalonian, there is no legal requirement, nor should there be (again, see Spanish Constitution). But, in any case, that doesn't change the fact that children in Catalonia are being severely shortchanged when it comes to their education in Castilian, the knowledge of which is an obligation from the central government.

  75. Jesús Sanchis said,

    January 24, 2011 @ 3:14 am

    Interesting comments, Matthew. Yes, the situation is different in Catalonia and Valencia. In Valencia there are two options, called 'líneas': parents can choose 'línea en castellano' or 'línea en valenciano' for their children. This choice does not exist in Catalonia. Why? Basically because Catalans have decided not to have it. There are also important sociolinguistic differences: Spanish is present in some areas of the Valencian Community as the traditional first language, something that does not happen in Catalonia.

    You say that the knowledge of Spanish is "an obligation from the central government". I repeat again that I don't know a single case of a Catalan teenager who does not speak Spanish fluently. Maybe some of them are not as good at as someone from Valladolid or Burgos, but in general they master Spanish at native speaker level. Otherwise, the education policy should be changed.

    All the Catalan politicians who have designed these policies are people who didn't have a chance to have educatiion in Catalan when they were at school or university. Many of them are nationalists with a dream of independence, and they see Spain and Spanish as something to be avoided. It's not surprising that, when it comes to education, they chose the 'Catalan only' option. There are doubts as whether it is in accordance with the constitution or not, and maybe the policy will change one day, but underneath it there's a clear message. And the majority of Catalan voters back this policy.

  76. Ben Hemmens said,

    January 24, 2011 @ 7:36 am

    Südtirol/Sudtirolo is I think a good example of an identity conflict becoming less heated, and I think it has a fairly simple explanation: the region seems to have done quite well economically in recent decades, so people I guess are just a bit more relaxed and confident generally.

    The fact of having no forced settlements or deportations for 6 or 70 years probably helps, too … these things are I suppose mercifully fading out of living memory.

    But the southern border of the alps, from Südtirol over into Slovenia, offers quite a few examples of the futility of trying to beat a language out of people or beat another one in.

    A funny example of fascist language policy is described by Eric Newby, who met his wife while an escaped POW on the run in Italy. Her family were Slovenes from the Karst region up behind Trieste (terra irredenta which was now being redenta'd with a vengeance). Her father was a schoolteacher and was forcibly moved to central Italy, being replaced by a real Italian, to make the Slovene kids learn Italian.

    Where he ended up the people probably had no idea what a Slovene was, so his nickname in the village became il tedesco. That's probably even more incongruous than going somewhere as an Irishman and being called an Anglo-Saxon (which happens; in German, angelsächsisch is just a synonym for "English-speaking").

  77. Eneri Rose said,

    January 24, 2011 @ 9:07 am

    I've been looking for a post on which to make this comment and this one seems as good as any. I believe it would be good if children were taught linguistics in school from the very beginning. And I'm puzzled why, to my knowledge, linguists haven't proposed this.

    Learning about all aspects of language would not only be fun, but would also prepare a child to learn at least a little of many other languages. I also think it would help minimize bias about different languages. How fun it would be for a child to learn all the different sounds of human language at a time when he might actually be able to master them! I think children would enjoy making click sounds, learning tonality and seeing characters from different scripts.

    I often wonder why we try to promote the mastering of one second language. Why not promote an aquantence with many different languages from different language families? With this base of knowledge, a child could choose which language, if any, he would like to delve into deeper.

    Ellicott City, Maryland USA

  78. Marion Crane said,

    January 24, 2011 @ 4:24 pm

    "If he honestly thinks that the best way to learn another language is to hit the books, he's not likely to learn much English."

    Anecdotal, but this reminds me of a holiday in Spain where my husband and I met a couple locals who, despite having been taught English in school (one of them was in fact an English major at the local university) and having an extensive vocabulary, had no idea how English is pronounced. Either British or US or any other variety.
    They just took the words and pronounced them as though they were Spanish. It was… very difficult for me to follow, and they could not understand a word of my British English either. My husband was able to mimic their accents, and they got on swimmingly.
    They themselves credited it to being taught by non-natives and rarely being exposed to actual English on TV and films because everything is dubbed.

  79. army1987 said,

    January 25, 2011 @ 10:29 am

    People navigate to the page/site in the language they know best
    Not necessarily, if the page in the language they know best is a crappy translation and they are reasonably fluent in the language the page was originally written in.

  80. Peregrin said,

    May 17, 2012 @ 3:33 am

    A very interesting string of comments. Passions will invariably be stirred when it comes to discussions of language and the territoriality so central to such a conversation.

    I've got to say, though, that I can see where Jesús Sanchis is coming from. I'm a British-Swedish individual with Iraqi-Iranian-Kurdish ancestry. I was raised with a number of languages/dialects spoken around me. Many family members were more educated in Arabic or Persian than Kurdish, but they always chose to speak to their children in Kurdish. This, to be sure, wasn't any sort of political decision on their part. It was simply how they had been raised. Speaking the language for them was natural, but education in their mother-tongue was a whole different matter.

    During the time of the Shah in Iran – both Reza Pahlavi and his son Mohammad Reza Pahlavi – there was an initiative by the central government to spread Persian (Farsi) to all the non-Persian provinces. It wasn't merely a matter of language, but culture too. Signs were put up in places like Azerbaijan and Kurdistan forbidding the use of "local" languages in schools and public places. Traditional garments were banned and fines were put in place for violating similar edicts issued from the centre.

    An anecdote, illustrative of this period (1925-79), was recounted to me by my uncle: He was a speaker of Kurdish, Arabic and Persian, and was a lawyer in Baghdad for many years. His next door neighbours had been Iranian embassy officials for a number of years and they'd enjoyed good neighbourly relations. Their preferred means of communication, of course, was Persian. After the Islamic revolution, however, the neighbours confessed that they were in fact Kurds, speaking in Kurdish, and had hidden this for many years outside of their own home, for fear of being labelled un-Iranian (read: un-Persian).

    Unfortunately, however, even though the Iranian constitution post-Islamic revolution does allow for "local languages" to be taught in their respective areas, this has not been put into practice. The policy is in many ways the same and in some ways even worse. In many areas of Kurdistan, Azerbaijan, Khuzestan (Arabistan), Baluchistan, people are encouraged to speak to their children in Persian in order for them to succeed at school. This has sped up assimilation and the loss of language competency in these communities. Even where there are many competent speakers within a given area there is usually a culture of inferiority associated with anything non-Persian.

    On a similar note: In Iraqi Kurdistan, which now enjoys a form of official autonomy post-2003 as the KRG (Kurdistan Regional Government), there has been a flourishing of Kurdish since the no-fly-zone was enforced post-1991 Gulf War. People often refuse to speak in Arabic with tourists from central and southern Iraq. This, however, only happens among those who were educated in areas of Iraq where Arabic was spoken. The issue in Iraq is/was different from Iran because in Iraq people are educated in Fusha, or Modern Standard Arabic, whereas the people on the street speak Iraqi Arabic and its associated sub-dialects. I only noticed this when a relative, who was a professor of Arabic language renowned for his mastery of classical Arabic, had trouble speaking with a man from Baghdad. Many Iraqi Arabs think that the lack of Arabic speakers in Kurdistan is due to the refusal of the local population. Little do they realise that though MSA/Classical Arabic is taught, and has been since the introduction of Islam in the region, the only places where Iraqi Arabic is spoken fluently are near the border areas between Kurdistan and Arab Iraq.

    Complaints are often heard on both sides. A while back there was a governmental meeting where the Kurdish participants began in English. When the Arab politicians complained and said they should use the official language they refused. This was even more puzzling to them because the Kurds were all lawyers who had studied in Arabic and were in all likelihood just as well versed in Arabic as their Arab counterparts. I would put this down to an emotive opposition to the language based on historical experience.

    Another individual, also Kurdish and from the ethnically-mixed city of Kirkuk, complained that when he was growing up in a mixed Kurdish-Turkmen-Arab neighbourhood, the Kurds and Turkmen would master all three languages but the Arabs saw it beneath themselves to consider learning Turkmen or Arabic. He then referred to Egyptian civil servants brought in during the Iran-Iraq War in the 80s who went on to acquire native-like proficiency in Kurdish—this I actually observed for myself during my last visit back to Iraq.

    Although, it does seem equally ridiculous that a person in Iraqi Kurdistan below the age of 30-40 cannot communicate with someone from Arab Iraq. The Kurdish government has actively discouraged the use of Arabic in education, while heavily promoting Kurdish and English (as a second language). Now, although Arabic language competency—here I refer to speaking and to Iraqi Arabic— was still very low pre-1991, due to issues of diglossia etc., there was still a greater possibility of two individuals, one from the north and one from central or southern Iraq, being able to communicate at a basic to intermediate level. Clearly the current situation needs to be rethought by the KRG. There needs to be greater acceptance on the part of both communities to respect each other's languages.

    It seems that for some in these communities/regions Arabic and Persian are the languages of subjugation and force. Whereas they were used freely before the advent of nationalism as vehicles of science and education, their mandatory and involuntary spread was at the expense of other regional languages. The people, I think, are also aware that the matter of language was not solely a matter of education; it was a matter of assimilating the populations by targeting apparent differences—in this case language—in places where religion/cultures were very similar. The current reality demonstrates the futility of such approaches, they only served to further strengthen identities as a means of defence, and to further radicalise certain camps within each group.

    Of course, such issues will always remain controversial, not least for those who area emotionally invested.

  81. Peregrin said,

    May 17, 2012 @ 4:36 am

    I spotted another mistake. Apologies:

    I meant: Arabs saw it beneath themselves to consider learning Turkmen or KURDISH.

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