War of words

In December, Spain’s high court in Catalonia, the TSJC, ruled that 25% of classes in Catalan schools must be in Spanish, a decision many see as an attack on the Catalan language. Also in December, the Plataforma per la Llengua launched a campaign warning of the decline in the everyday use of the language, with Catalan government statistics saying habitual use has dropped to 32% of the inhabitants of all Catalan-speaking territories, a fall of almost 8% in 15 years. According to the Plataforma, the Catalan language is “seriously threatened”.

But is it? I’m not saying it isn’t, it may well be. I’m no linguistic expert and only have my own limited experience to go on. Let me make it clear that Catalan is my second language. I’ve been speaking it daily for over 20 years, my children are first and foremost Catalan speakers, and I even sometimes dream in the language. When I first came to Catalonia three decades ago, and before I could even distinguish between Catalan and Spanish, I remember being told that the language was imminently about to disappear. Since then, I’ve seen a parade of articles, programmes and debates either bigging up the language or doing it down, in an ongoing war of words that has political ideology and nationalist bias, on both sides, at its heart.

I bring up the issue because the last thing I want is for Catalan to disappear and these Domesday headlines are (and I guess that’s the point of them) extremely worrying. So, I decided to do a little personal experiment recently when I knew I had to spend the morning in Barcelona. I paid attention to all the interactions I had on that day to see how many were in Catalan. This is how it went.

Early morning I was getting my motorbike out of the garage and saw a neighbour leaving for his daily walk. Our short conversation was conducted in Catalan. For context, there are some 80 people in my village, and I’d say 95% of them speak Catalan as a first language. There are a couple of neighbours who speak to me in Spanish, but they were born here and I speak back to them in Catalan.

Once in Barcelona, I grabbed a coffee while I waited for the person I had to interview. The man in the café was serving someone in front of me in Spanish, but he readily changed to Catalan (I suspect it was his mother tongue) when it was my turn.

I then met the person I had to interview, and the whole process was conducted in Catalan. By chance, I was in a square where a friend of mine has a shop, so before leaving I popped over to say hello. As usual we spoke in Catalan. A customer joined in the conversation at one point, and spoke in Catalan.

I then made my way back to my motorbike, but first went into a shop to get some replacement earbuds. The interaction was in Catalan, which is interesting because, like me, the sales assistant was clearly foreign. It always tickles me when two foreigners converse in Catalan as a lingua franca.

As I was removing my motorbike, a young woman on a scooter stopped to ask, in Catalan, without knowing my preference in advance, whether I was leaving so she could have my parking space.

On the way home, I stopped for petrol and the person who served me spoke in Spanish, although I used Catalan and she seemed perfectly happy with the arrangement. I also stopped off to get a few things from a supermarket in a nearby town. The two people I spoke to in the shop both used Catalan.

I was putting my motorbike back in the garage when I saw a different neighbour and we chatted for a few moments, in Catalan.

Entering my house, I shouted to my wife and kids that I was back. I used English, although the replies I got were in Catalan. I sometimes think the language most at risk, in my house at least, is English. Getting the kids to talk to me in English can be like getting blood out of a stone.

So there we have it. Not scientific in any way, and no doubt someone else could detail a typical day that would be the exact opposite. However, the upshot is that it gave me hope that the headlines about Catalan being on its last legs are exaggerated. Mind you, just because it’s cold outside doesn’t mean global warming is not getting worse.

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