Story by Monica Vallejo
BARCELONA—New language requirements in Catalonian public schools have added tension in the political atmosphere of the country. The ever-growing friction between Spain and the autonomous community of Catalonia has exploded as the topic of language instruction resurfaces in the public discourse.
In a controversial decision made public on May 8, the Spanish Supreme Court ruled that 25 percent of courses in public schools in the autonomous region of Catalonia must be taught in Spanish. This only applies to classrooms in which parents specifically request that their children increase the number of hours they receive Spanish instruction.
In Catalonia, Spanish and Catalan are both considered official languages. The issue arose after a series of cases brought to court by a few families. The court ruling has become a tool to polarize the existing political issues between Catalonia and the rest of Spain.
“The language issue is being used very unfairly by politicians,” said Christopher Tulloch, a journalism professor at Universitat Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona. Tulloch explained that politicians portray the issue from perspectives that are most favorable for them politically.
The current model
As of today, public schools in the region must teach in Catalan for all subjects other than Spanish and foreign languages. Students are currently required to receive Spanish instruction two hours per week.
“By the time students finalize elementary school they are linguistically competent in both languages,” said Damia Perpinya, technical teaching advisor of foreign languages at the Department of Education in Catalonia.
Now, with the recent Supreme Court decision, public schools will have to offer at least one additional core subject in Spanish in the sections with children whose parents request the change.
One of the first schools to act on this new ruling is Escola Pía Santa Anna, located in the coastal town of Mataró in Barcelona, Catalonia. In late April, the school received orders from the Supreme Court Justice of Catalonia to set new measures to increase the use of Spanish in certain classrooms. The court set May 19 as the deadline.
To fulfill the 25 percent requirement, Escola Pia Santa Anna now offers mathematics in both Catalan and Spanish to students in third and fifth grades, currently the only affected classrooms. In a press release dated May 14, school officials explain that “[it] accepts and will fulfill the measure even though it is not in accordance with the ideology of the Escola Pia in Catalonia.”
The document posted on the school’s website says that the school has always defended the model of language immersion because it ensures the knowledge of both official languages by all students and ensures social cohesion.
“We’re not bothered by the increase in the use of Spanish, what bothers us is the way in which it is being imposed on us,” said Fabiola, a native Catalan-speaking mother whose son is in one of the affected classrooms at the school.
She asked that her last name not be used because she was commenting on her son.“I chose this school because I liked the program and now that another parent has said that he doesn’t like it, my kids have to do what another parent thinks is best for all,” said the mother.
Sigourney Molina, a 10th grade student at Escola Pia Santa Anna in Mataró is not pleased with the requirements either. “I truly think that it is unfair. Just because a few families want to have class in Spanish, I don’t understand why the rest of us have to do it too,” said Molina, who speaks a combination of Spanish and Catalan at home.
Members of the Rosa Sensat Teachers Association in Barcelona also voiced their support of the current educational model in place. “As an association, we are in favor of the system of language immersion, which has been in place since 1983,” said Francina Martí, secretary of the executive commission of the association in Barcelona. The teachers association’s objective is to work toward a better quality of education in Catalonia by providing programs supporting the development of teachers in the region.
Although it seems that the change hasn’t been welcomed by the majority, there are also a few who don’t see it as an issue. “I’m OK with the change and I also think that these parents have the liberty to do what’s their right under the law,” said Silvia Robles, a native Spanish-speaker whose son attends Escola Pia Santa Anna but has not been affected by the change. “These few families are being attacked for their choices and that doesn’t seem right to me either.”
Beyond an educational issue
This language immersion model was created only 30 years ago because, during Francisco Franco’s dictatorship, Catalan was forbidden in schools. After Franco, an educational reform was created to integrate a stronger Catalan presence because people feared that the language would be lost if it wasn’t taught in schools. This issue goes beyond language requirements.
“It’s a political-media complex,” said Mercè Vilarrubias, author of Sumar y No Restar: Razones para introducir una educación bilingüe en Cataluña, published in 2012. The title of the book translates to To Add and Not Subtract: Reasons to introduce a bilingual education in Catalonia.
Vilarrubias, who is also a free-lance journalist and specialist in bilingual education and language policies in European countries, believes in a more neutral position.
She supports the idea of creating a model offering two types of schools – one teaching Catalan and the other Spanish – with parents having the freedom to choose where their children go. “It’s very difficult to speak about bilingualism in the public discourse,” said Vilarrubias, who believes that both languages should be regarded with equal importance.“Whoever proposes it, is immediately portrayed as Fascist, pro-Franco and even as someone who wants to go back to dictatorship parameters.”
With the recent change, the contrasting ideologies among the Catalonian community are magnified and the repercussions are seen in all levels of society. Students are now caught in the middle of a political battle. “I don’t think parents understand how this can be detrimental to their children,” said Molina, the student at Escola Pia Santa Anna.
“The students whose parents voted for more Spanish classes are being marginalized by others because their parents were selfish and didn’t think about their children in that sense,” she said, explaining that there is a strong sense of Catalonian nationalism at the school.
Opinions on the issue vary along all sides of the spectrum, but it is clear that the court decision is causing tension among the Catalonian community. “To [members of the Rosa Sensat Teachers Association], it seems that what this legislation is going to do is fragment the country,” said Martí. “What this has created is a divided community.”