Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Language At A Price: Promoting Catalan

If you thought that the forthcoming elections might just all be about the economy and might avoid the fractious topic of language, then think again. The two issues, the economy and cutbacks in public spending and language, specifically the promotion of Catalan, are coinciding.

Sorry, I need to be a bit clearer. When I say cutbacks, they don't apply to the promotion of language. While there have been cuts in many areas of public provision and support, Catalan has not been one of them. Throw this little fact in front of the Partido Popular, and wait for the language to turn blue, appropriately enough for a party that is like the British Conservative Party.

The regional government has agreed to hand over 470,000 euros in the form of new support for what is the "social use" of Catalan. The money is distributed to town halls as well as to the likes of unions and even cinemas. It is all designed as part of a process of Catalan "awareness" and is driven by the ministry of education and culture, which is run by the PSOE socialist party, and which has under its umbrella the department for language policy, controlled by the nationalists of the Mallorcan socialists (PSM).

Though the full budget for this department was trimmed by 15% in 2010, it was nonetheless 45% higher than had been the case in 2007, the year of the last local elections. The existence of the language policy department is mirrored by there being responsibilities for language, by which is meant Catalan, at town-hall level.

Is it appropriate that Catalan should be enjoying governmental financial support at a time of austerity? Given reductions in public funding for other social purposes, then the answer is possibly no. The promotion of Catalan, however, is a political issue that can defy the rational, as was the case with the similar level of funding for promoting the use of Catalan in local restaurants.

There are, though, more fundamental questions. One is whether it should be any business of governments to involve themselves in what languages are spoken. The other is why is Catalan promotion needed in islands, the Balearics, where an overwhelming majority already speak it (or a variant thereof).

The answer to the second question is wrapped up, of course, in history, culture and politics. Despite the fact that Catalan has become the de facto official language, neglecting its dual status with Castilian, despite the fact that one has instances such as the secondary school in Porreres being criticised for conducting only 1% of its teaching in Castilian, the impulse to keep promoting the language remains strong. It isn't perhaps necessary, but politics make it so.

Governments involve themselves in language, and none more so than the current Balearics regional government. The insistence on proficiency in Catalan as a necessity for working in the public sector has been a clear indication of this, an insistence that the Partido Popular would do away with. The politics of language policy are one largely of left and right, though not exclusively, as evidenced by pro-Catalanism within the PP itself.

Governments elsewhere involve themselves with language. The Welsh Assembly Government, for instance, states that it "has a statutory duty to support Welsh and promote its use". In Ireland, Irish is the first official language, and public money for education is dependent upon Irish being taught, even if Irish is not treated as a first language in the educational curriculum.

At the very heart of the Spanish Government, the national parliament, you now have a situation in which languages other than Castilian can be used. In January, a Catalonian politician became the first to address the parliament in Catalan. This development has been criticised, and not just for its cost alone, but Spain is a signatory to agreements which obliges it to not just tolerate specific languages but also to promote them. And through the government's regional wings, this is precisely what happens.

To answer the question as to whether governments should involve themselves with languages that are spoken: if not governments, so long as this involvement is tolerance or promotion and not repression, then who? It may cost nearly half a million euros for social use of Catalan, in addition to the six million plus that was spent on language policy in general in 2010, but it is a cost that comes with a moral and political obligation attached. The PP might do well to remember this.

Any comments to andrew@thealcudiaguide.com please.

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