Talking to Spaniards About Languages – The Catalonia Crisis

Let’s get controversial, shall we?

A Bounty of Languages

As an American raised in a single-language household, I’m used to traversing the world using one language for the most part – English. I can get a job practically anywhere in the United States without ever having to speak a word of Spanish or Arabic, I can shop at any mall without trying to understand numbers in French or Portuguese, and I can order takeout from any restaurant without knowing any Chinese or Luo. As a baby advocate for a diverse world of many languages (yes, I see the irony of an English teacher arguing for greater linguistic diversity), the Spanish situation is super fascinating.

In Spain, there are five official languages: Spanish (Castillan), Basque, Galician, Aranese, and Catalan.

Illustration by Theresa Grieben

If you’ve been keeping up with the news, you might recognize Catalan as the language spoken in Catalonia, the community that hosts one of the most powerful cities in Spain, Barcelona. More on that later.

The fact that a single country is host to many official languages that coexist in relative harmony is a typical fact of life for many European countries, some South American Countries, many African countries, and definitely many Asian countries. In a place like the United States, this reality would give many Americans a heart attack.

The idea of going somewhere in your daily life and not being understood is frustrating. The concept of going to school and hearing multiple languages as part of the curriculum is controversial. The reality that knowledge of a second language is not just an advantage, but a requirement in some jobs is worthy of lawsuits. But that’s a reality in many parts of Spain.

Living in the capital of Spain, and thus the capital of Spanish, shields me from this reality often, but that hasn’t stopped me from having conversations about how politics interact with language and culture here.

A Little Background

If you aren’t familiar, the community of Catalonia in Spain held an independence referendum last November. Catalonia is a ‘state’ in Spain near France that has its own distinct language and culture compared to the Spain that you’re probably aware of. They also have the largest economy in Spain, with Barcelona contributing 1/5 of Spain’s economy as a whole, the equivalent of the entire country of Portugal. That’s incredible for a country with 17 communities! Many pro-independence advocates have argued that because of Catalonia’s economic power, not only do they deserve better institutions in their community for the taxes that they pay to the federal government, but considering the hostility between Catalonia and Madrid (shorthand for the federal government), Catalonia would be better off as an independent nation.

Not to get bogged down in the details, but wayyyyy back when (1700s) the great-great-great-great-great-whatever grandfather of the current king of Spain (whose name is Felipe VI), Felipe V (they waited a while before coming back to the Felipe name), ascended to the Spanish throne. Not everyone was in agreement with this of course, the specifics of his claim to the throne were disputed (have you ever looked at the family tree of the royal families of Europe? My God…) and so when war broke out, the kingdom of Catalonia supported another challenger to the throne. After Felipe V won the throne, he punished the region of Catalonia with political and cultural repression and making Castillan Spanish the official language of the kingdom. It’s essentially been that way ever since, Spanish is the official language of Spain, and the other languages are ‘co-official.’

Fast forward a bit, and you’ve got the dictatorship of Francisco Franco (1930s-1970s). Like many dictators, Franco wanted to unify Spain under a singular cultural image, and thus the Spanish nationalism as we know it today was perfected. Separatists groups and ethnic minorities were persecuted – jailed, killed, or exiled. After nearly a generation of rule, 39 years, Franco died, leaving behind a shattered Spain to reinvent itself once more. They did what they could in creating a new constitution that emphasized unity above all else. Of course, policies like equal taxes or giving states the right to dictate their cultural direction without context don’t always work well.

As a Black American, I’m well aware of what happens when policies are created not to rectify historical misdeeds, but to pretend like things are well now that the deeds are done: They never work.

So fast forward again to last year. It’s the latest of a few independence votes by Catalonians in the past decade for independence after years of failed negotiations with the national government. Madrid, shorthand for the federal government, didn’t want to allow the vote and sent the civil guard, the equivalent of a militarized police force, to suppress the vote.

Once again, history tells you that this isn’t a good idea. Although the people who did vote in Catalonia -not a majority of the population by any measure – overwhelmingly voted for independence, Madrid refused to recognize the vote as any sort of referendum. Instead, they invoked the harshest penalty they could under the law on Catalonia’s majority independence politicians and assumed control of its government. Essentially Catalonia has become Washington DC – Taxation without representation. If you recall wayyyy at the start of this, I mentioned how Catalonians see their government as being taxed heavily while not reaping the benefits and supporting the rest of Spain. Well now the worst possible outcome has occurred, they currently have no say in the direction of their government now.

Getting Personal

Living in Madrid, during my first few months here working in a high school classroom, students would ask me about Trump, and I would challenge them about Catalonia. Being that they’re students in the capital, it’s no surprise that their parents have raised them with pro-Madrid and nationalist ideologies. While many independence movements all have the same concerns (what will the newly-independent nation do for money and international relations, what nations will recognize them as a legitimate country?), I try to get my students to recognize that what many Catalonians feel is real.

My roommate, a Madrileña through and through, said something interesting to me. While having a discussion about the upcoming vote of the national government to revoke Catalonia’s regional government, my roommate said,

This is what happens when you let them speak their own languages!

I was taken aback! But it’s a sentiment that I’ve heard shared by many Madrileños. They find it extremely unfair that people from other regions can come to Madrid and take their jobs, but they cannot go to Barcelona and work without having to know Catalan. Catalonia has the benefit of power and law, so their regional language maintains itself and can be insisted on within institutions like schools, industry, and politics – not other languages are as lucky.

I was reminded of the jealousy I sometimes feel when against people with different backgrounds than mine having an advantage over me because of their second (or third) language knowledge. This feeling, this pang of jealousy and worry, no matter how unfounded or misguided, is real.

It’s very easy to dismiss someone else’s feeling when you feel like it’s unfounded or irrational. Ever since the election of Trump, I’ve tried to constantly remind myself that the people that voted for him had real feelings. Demonizing them is a disservice to us all, because how they feel won’t go away, even if I think their feelings are based on racism, sexism, or fake news. When building a nation, you have to account for how everyone feels. When running for president you have to understand what makes people feel the way they feel and not dismiss their concerns as “clinging to guns or religion,” or calling them a “basket of deplorables” [I know, you might agree with both Barack and Hillary’s assessments, but if you’re a politician you’re not winning anybody over by demonizing them]. If you are a sitting president of a nation threatening to split, you have to think back in history about what brought people to the point where they protest against you in the street again and again and again.

I agree that it’s worth noting that when the King of Spain, Felipe VI, spoke to the nation regarding the decision Parliament made to revoke Catalonia’s government (and try many politicians for treason), he spoke in Spanish, not Catalan, even though he also knows the language. When asked about this, a representative said,  “It was not the right time for that, the message was not just aimed at Catalans, but at all Spaniards.”

It absolutely is political. When they speak their languages in public spaces, at Parliament, it is political.

What’s problematic about discussions about languages here in Spain is that they have become intensely personal. It’s barely about taxes and benefits anymore. Catalonians feel as if the repression of their language and culture is going to continue as long as they are under Madrid’s thumb. And who is to tell them that this feeling is invalid when it has happened again and again and again throughout history. They’ve got hundreds of years of proof! Not to mention, Madrid has already won, again and again. There’s a reason half of the Americas speak Spanish and not Catalan. There’s a reason Spanish is the official language of Spain and Catalan is co-official.

Madrileños feel as though Catalonians are spoiled, high on the hog, and trying to dictate the future of the country because of a chip on their shoulder. They got enough rights. They got what they wanted. They can speak their language and do their thing, and demanding more is selfish. The Basque Country is content with what it has, why does Catalonia want more?

When my students tell me things like this, I try to get them to put themselves in the shoes of their peers in Catalonia. Imagine someone telling you that your language is useless and you should just speak English. Imagine that I just ignored your questions and told you to be grateful for what you already knew? It would feel frustrating, it’d make for a really hostile class!

As time goes on, I hope to continue to speak to more Spaniards about this idea. It’s a concept that I have no experience with per se. Even now, I know my summary of this event is not completely thorough, so feel free to correct me or offer some input in the comments.

I’ve always wondered, “How do Europeans do it, living with all those languages?”

“Not easily.” I’ve found out.

Fins després o hasta luego!


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