“Spain”, a normal country?

Enric Bou's picture
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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.

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Mr Bou states that a “childish” controversy erupted a few weeks ago in the Spanish Senate. He is right. Ramon Aleu used Catalonian to address the president of the senate and the other members present. Were his comments intended only for those few who understood it or for everyone there? 

Was the message of any importance or was it simply an excuse to use Catalonian? If Mr Aleu wanted to make a point or bring a motion that Catalonian should be an official language in the Senate, he could have done so. To speak to the Senate body in a language hardly anyone understands is not only childish but rude! He should have been censured for his un-parliamentary behaviour.

His critics from the PP were correct. Language is for communication. Period. 

Mr Bou also says that, in Spain, “democracy was restored 35 years ago.” To state that the Second Republic under Manuel Azaña was a democracy is a crude joke and an insult to all truly democratic peoples in “normal” countries. It is said that democracy is a form of government with strict rules and uncertain outcomes. During the Second Republic the outcomes of elections were anything but respected and the rules of democracy: freedom of speech, - of religion, - of assembly were trodden upon. Not to mention the murders of opposition leaders with not so much as a shrug of the shoulders by the Azaña government. A democracy??  Spain wasn’t ready for the rigors of democratic rule in 1930, as was clearly demonstrated. And some Spaniards are still not ready! Spaniards like Mr Bou and Mr Aleu. 

The Spanish Transition has been seen by the international community as a model for all countries transitioning from dictatorship to democracy. Compare with what happened after Tito died in Yugoslavia. 

Mr Bou and Mr Aleu simply want to portray themselves as victims: Keep the villain alive so they have an excuse for their nationalism and 19th century mind set. In a democracy, the people will voluntarily learn another language if they see any benefit to it. They won’t learn Catalonian simply because some backward politician tells them to. 

Canada is officially a bi-lingual country. French is spoken in Quebec outside of the Anglophone areas of Montreal and in some small pockets in other provinces. Everyone else speaks English and perhaps the language of their ancestors. Anglo Canadians outside Montreal haven’t seen the need to learn French in any great numbers because they are seldom confronted by it. Canada is a democracy where no one is telling anyone they have to speak or learn French just because a minority somewhere speaks it. Canada is a normal country. Spain isn’t yet, but I have hopes it will be some day. 

And the traffic cop in Mr Bou’s story? If true, he/she was an anomaly. You’d be hard pressed to find a traffic cop in BC who speaks French. An RCMP, maybe, but even that’s unlikely. More likely Mr. Bou just made it up. But that would be just like him…  


Mr Bou compares Spain to Canada. Let’s see how these two countries really compare:

Canada is officially a bilingual country: English and French.

In Canada, no-one forces anyone else to speak a language they don’t want or need to learn. In Anglophone Canada the language is English. In Francophone Canada the language is French. Few Anglophones in Canada outside Montreal speak French. Most Francophones in Quebec speak some English. It’s a system of live and let live and of mutual respect, not a climate where citizens are forced to do anything they don’t want to do. It’s a mature, functioning English style democracy. No one language group feels superior to any other. There is a mild feeling of patriotism, something you can expect from the citizens of a country like Canada. Certainly nothing like the flag-waving Americans. There is a minority in Quebec with nationalist tendencies, a minority that has shrunk significantly since the referendum on independence in 1995. In fact, in the aftermath of that referendum the traditional party of power in Quebec, the nationalist Parti Québécois, lost power to the federalist Liberal Party of Quebec and has been relegated to the opposition ever since. 

Let’s take Spain. Spain is officially a monolingual country with Spanish the official language. There are autonomous communities within Spain with one or more official languages in addition to Spanish. There are elements in some autonomous communities that wish to force the local language on others. Fortunately, these people are in the minority, albeit a vocal and activist minority. Pragmatic nationalist newspaper La Vanguardia  in Barcelona publishes only in Spanish because they know they’d lose over half their readership if they published only in Catalonian. The official language of FC Barcelona is Spanish because all the players speak it. They don’t try to force Catalonian on players who don’t speak it. Johan Cruyff, a Dutch import and hero of the club, was recently made coach of the Catalonian national football team even though he speaks no Catalonian. And he’s lived in Catalonia since the ‘70s. But these are the pragmatists. The language zealots, like Mr Bou and Mr Aleu don’t consider the content of the message to be as important as its form. They ignore a buen día because it’s not a bon dia. They justify their behaviour by claiming that Catalonia is not Spain. 

They don’t want to be a part of Spain. Begs the question: Why not? Why would one group of people not want to be associated with another group of people? Is it history? Maybe, because a lot of these types continue to live in the past and wish to be seen as victims of past wrongs in order to justify their current behaviour and feelings of hatred.

But it’s more a feeling of superiority. Catalonians are fond of saying they are more industrious than Spaniards (i.o.w. less lazy). They fail to recognize that Catalonia attracts industry simply because of its geographic advantages (as does Basque Country) and that that says nothing about the industriousness of Catalonians versus Andalusians. In fact, claiming superiority of one group over another group is making the same mistake the Nazis made. Following this path leads not to the Third Republic but to the Third Reich. 

Finally, I wasn’t harsh enough with Mr Bou when I said he makes things up. He can’t really have been in British Columbia and seen bilingual road signs because they don’t exist. The only bilingual road signs in Canada outside of Ottawa are on federal land like  military bases. But why would Mr Bou think he can get away with telling an outright lie like that? Because Catalonia is a collectivist society where the vocal minority sets the tone. Challenging a nationalist zealot can be seen as not being a good Catalonian. Well, Mr Bou, you are hereby challenged!

When I drive through Catalonia, where many traffic signs are bilingual, many others are only in Catalan, and I address a policman in Catalan, he usually answers in Catalan.

He could also speak Spanish, but would he have to speak Galician and Basque too? Would all traffic signs have to be in all four languages that are official in some parts of Spain? And what about the languages that are not officially recognised?

Would the Canadian cop speak Cree and Inuktitut, aside from English and French? So, he and the traffic signs are *only* bilingual?

When does normality kick in? With a bilingual Canadian cop, but not with a monolingual US cop? With all local language TV stations being received all over the country, which is the case neither in Canada nor in Spain?

Now let's see what the PP leaders' attitude was: it was not that "this was not something that happened in any 'normal country' and that this was an unnecessary expense", they found it not normal because of the expenses. Still, I do not agree with them. The Senate, as the chamber of parliament that represents the Autonomous Communities, should allow and accept the use of all regional official languages. Out of respect, which has no price tag. And every schoolchild in Spain should be taught at least the basics of all those languages.

But respect for the other has never been much valued in any part of Spain. Instead, ideologies abound. And the language debate is burdened by ideology on all sides. That is what it really makes difficult to digest.

There is not one party to that debate that has it right, and language is consistently used as a weapon. By all sides. The issue of regional language TV stations shows it: most, if not all, of those who propose that the regional channels should be seen not only in their respective Autonomous Community are centering their arguments on language. I want to see all of those channels because, as a citizen and never mind my mother tongue, I have the right to be informed. Now that should be normality.

The language is Catalan, not "Catalonian".

The official language of F.C. Barcelona is Catalan, not Spanish. But these are minor issues. What's important is highlighting that definition of language immersion in Catalan education as "forcing a language on others". Nobody is forcing anything, it's just a way of saving a language which would otherwise disappear. The percentage of catalan native speakers is constantly decreasing, due to the strong immigration (which is mainly from Latin America and other parts of Spain). Catalan has to survive, and the language immersion system is the only way to do so.