“Spain”, a normal country?
A childish controversy erupted a few weeks ago regarding the use of minority languages in the Spanish “Senate.” For the first time since the restoration of democracy (a mere 35 years ago...) a senator from the Catalan group Entesa [a left-wing “Catalanist” coalition], Ramon Aleu, used Catalan in a plenary session. This event brought out a nasty response (which was forseeable) from the two highest representatives of the People's Party, who came out with banal and insulting comments such as suggesting that this was not something that happened in any “normal country” and that this was an unnecessary expense because everyone already understood Spanish. Languages, they claimed, in a snide attempt to sound like students of linguistics, should be “for communicating and not for creating problems.” We can blame the way things are today on these professional “agitators”, on the irreversible xenophobia of the majority of Spaniards, but also on the way the Transition itself was negotiated. We were caught flat-footed. Successive coup d’etats, both strong and weak, have been eroding the pluralist fervor that was alive in Spain during the final years of the dictatorship, when young people from Granada would sing Lluís Llach [a Catalan song-writer] as if he were one of their own, half understanding the lyrics of his songs.
Many years ago two illustrious Catalan members of the Spanish Real Academia, Martí de Riquer and Pere Gimferrer, proposed that all middle school students should have some knowledge of the other common languages in Spain. They also encouraged that the television stations that were not Spanish (TV3, ETB, Canal 9, etc.) could be seen outside of their respective territories. All in vain. The response was silence, rejection and oblivion, public contempt for diversity in the name of unquestionable Francoist principles of the “one, great and free land.” Very few Spanish universities still teach Catalan philology today. The situation improves slightly once outside of the Spanish State, where many foreign language philology departments are keeping the study of Catalan alive. This is happening with considerable success in Germany and Hungary, and with increasing interest in Great Britain and the United States. Now that there is so much talk of budget cuts, what a “normal country” would do would be to capitalize on its available resources. Several directors of the Instituto Cervantes, an institution that is funded by all Spanish taxpayers, have dared to think in terms of a Spain that is “not provincial or Castilian”, but plural, one told me. But this doesn’t happen as often as it should. Unfortunately, the Cervantes Institutes of New York, New Delhi, Berlin and very few others are exceptions. You don’t need to be a 1968 revolutionary (“Imagination takes power!”) to think about promoting Catalan culture through Hispanic Studies centers or Spanish cultural institutions. Would that be something an abnormal country would do?
When I drive through British Colombia, 5000 km from Montreal, all the highway signs are bilingual and if a traffic cop stops me and I address him in French, he answers me in the same language. But of course, as is well known, Canada is an abnormal country.
by Enric Bou
Professor and Chair of Hispanic Studies at Brown University (USA). Member of the Editorial Board of In-Transit.