Opinion: Spain's failure to recognise the multilingual reality of the country has contributed to the current political and constitutional crisis in Catalonia

Given Spanish policies and the worsening political situation, many Catalan nationalists believe that independence is essential if Catalan is to be protected, in Catalonia at least.

In the weeks before the Catalan parliament’s declaration of independence, the online anti-Catalan abuse by keyboard warriors reached stratospheric proportions, particularly so when El País or other Spanish media live-streamed press conferences or rallies where Catalan was spoken. 

I try not to pay too much attention to the trolls in such circumstances but the persistent link between the Catalan language and anti-Catalan feeling was grimly fascinating. There were plenty of hostile dismissals of Catalan as "just a dialect of Spanish", "bad Spanish" or "a vulgar peasant dialect from Provence" (the region in the south of France where a variety similar to Catalan is spoken). Other fervent unionists asked why the Catalans could not just speak Spanish, "the one language of Spain", and there were predictable comments of the "we-all-speak-Spanish-anyway" type, so often heard by speakers of minority languages. 

Language and identity are at the heart of the ongoing Catalan political crisis. The widespread ignorance of the Catalan language, both in Spain itself and the wider world, is one of the issues thrown into focus by the ongoing political crisis. 

A multilingual voting slip in use on October 1

To claim that Catalan is merely a dialect of Spanish is to ignore its centuries of history as a separate language that developed from the form of Latin spoken in the northeast of the Iberian peninsula. The use of Catalan was banned by Franco, but to mock it as a primitive peasant dialect is to ignore 40 years of institutionalisation since the Spanish transition to democracy and its widespread use across almost all domains of Catalan society. 

Since the early 1980s, a policy known as linguistic normalisation has guaranteed that Catalan is the medium of education in all schools, leading to a situation where well over 90 percent of under-20s speak Catalan fluently. Although the position of Spanish has been strengthened considerably in recent years by large-scale immigration from the south of Spain and other Latin American countries, the education system has played a key role in creating large numbers of "new speakers" of Catalan, who now number about 40 percent of all speakers. The Catalan Refugee Programme ensures that all such incomers have an opportunity to learn Catalan, regardless of their linguistic background. 

Language and identity are at the heart of the ongoing Catalan political crisis

With over 10 million speakers, Catalan is as least as widely spoken as several national languages enjoying full official EU status such as Czech, Swedish, Bulgarian and Finnish and has a much larger speaker base than Slovene, Estonian, Lithuanian, Latvian, Maltese and Irish. As well as Catalonia itself, it is also spoken in Valencia, the Balearic Islands, Aragó (Aragon), the south of France, Andorra, and the Sardinian city of L’Alguer (Alghero). While Catalan is denied official status in Europe, Spain could request the EU that it gets a more limited protection such as the UK government has done for Welsh and Scottish Gaelic. 

However, Catalan enjoys no official status in most of Spain, let alone in the EU. Although a co-official language of Catalonia along with Spanish, Catalans wishing to communicate with the central government, or who need to use the Spanish justice system, have no option but to use Spanish. The recent court cases involving Catalan government ministers and parliamentarians in Madrid were held in Spanish only. 

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Even in Catalonia itself, Spanish is overwhelmingly dominant in court cases. According to the civil society language organisation Plataforma per la Llengua (Platform for the Language), Catalan was used in only 8.4 percent of court rulings or sentences in 2015 and the figures have plummeted in the last ten years. This is a reflection of the persistent weakening since 2006 of the Catalan Statute of Autonomy by the Spanish courts, a decision encouraged by the ruling Partido Popular and which has contributed significantly to the current political crisis. 

The application of Article 155 of the Spanish constitution, which has heralded direct rule in Catalonia, also has linguistic implications. Since the transition to democracy, Catalan has been the only working language of the Catalan government, although services are provided in Spanish when requested. As officials from Madrid take over the running of Catalan government departments, officials have been asked to produce documentation in Spanish. There is concern that civil servants will been asked to communicate internally in Spanish, a clear violation of their linguistic rights under the Catalan language law of 1998. The Association of Catalan Public Servants has said it will reject any such attempt to impose the use of Spanish as a language of communication. 

To claim that Catalan is merely a dialect of Spanish is to ignore its centuries of history as a separate language

There have also been over 100 reports of discrimination against Catalan speakers since 2007. Most notable among these was the case of a man who was harassed by two members of the Guardia Civil (Spanish police) in 2017 at Barcelona Airport after he spoke to them in Catalan. He was later charged with "disobedience" and "obstructing the police" and fined €600. Guardia Civil police officers based in Catalonia (and there are many at the moment) are supposed to be able to communicate in Catalan but the reality is often very different. 

Recently Plataforma per la Llengua published a lengthy report outlining over 100 pages of imbalances between the treatment of Catalan and Spanish in the institutional practices and legal recognition of the Spanish state. Further tensions were inflamed last month when it was reported that staff members of the low-cost Spanish airline Vueling asked two passengers to leave a plane due to fly from Barcelona to Menorca, another Catalan-speaking area, for speaking Catalan to an air hostess.

Spain’s failure to recognise and valorise the multilingual reality of the state has contributed to the current political and constitutional crisis. Given Spanish policies and the worsening political situation, many Catalan nationalists believe that independence is essential if Catalan is to be protected, in Catalonia at least. 


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ