Bilingualism Around The World

The Many Languages of Spain

Àngela Morales was born and grew up in Spain. But Spanish is not her first language. Like many people where she lives, in the town of Tarragona, she is a native Catalan speaker.

For Àngela, switching to Spanish if someone doesn’t understand is no problem, and although she feels slightly more comfortable expressing herself in Catalan, she sees herself as fully bilingual: “My mother is a Catalan teacher, and she taught me that every language is beautiful, interesting and worth protecting.”

“My mother is a Catalan teacher, and she taught me that every language is beautiful, interesting and worth protecting.”

In Catalonia – one of Spain’s wealthiest regions – all state education is now in Catalan, with students studying three hours of Castilian Spanish per week. There are even special integration classes for people moving to the region, in order to get them up to speed in the language. Nowadays, as any recent visitors to Barcelona can testify, it can almost be a challenge to find much Spanish on signs around town.

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One often under-appreciated fact about modern-day Spain is just how multilingual it is. In addition to Castilian Spanish, Spain is home to many different languages that enjoy co-official status in the regions where they are spoken.

Galician is spoken in the country’s north-west. Basque – the origins of which remain one of Europe’s greatest linguistic mysteries – in the Basque Country. And Valencian, arguably a dialect of Catalan, around the Valencia region. In each of these areas, you will find bilingual signage and education systems.

“We cannot forget that for a long time, speaking Basque was prohibited and people were made to feel ashamed for being Euskaldun (Basque speakers).”

Strikingly, there are many parallels with the situation in the UK. Just as English dominates globally, Spanish too is a world language spoken by many hundreds of millions of speakers. Yet both the UK and Spain have regions in which local languages continue to thrive, especially amongst young people.

Also, Castilian Spanish originated as a language in the region of Castile and was gradually adopted as the lingua franca of Spain through the conquest of the Iberian peninsula following the defeat of the Moors in the 15th Century. Equally, English was originally brought to Britain by Anglo-Saxon invaders, then heavily influenced by Norman invaders, and then spread across the country through much conquest and annexation.

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However, there are two key differences. Firstly, with the exception of Basque, all of Spain’s languages are largely mutually intelligible. This clearly helps with implementing a Catalan-only education system in Catalonia, the equivalent of which would be almost unthinkable in Wales.

Secondly, the legacy of Franco’s dictatorship, under which speaking languages other than Spanish was effectively banned, remains a dark memory for many. This complicates present-day debate, as discussions about regional languages are often conflated into polarising political movements towards regional separatism and resentment of central government in Madrid.

For Marta García, who grew up in Madrid and learned Basque when she moved to the Basque Country as a teenager, this is particularly important: “We cannot forget that for a long time, speaking Basque was prohibited and people were made to feel ashamed for being Euskaldun (Basque speakers).”

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That sense of shame, she believes, takes a long time to disappear: “As long as people in government buildings don’t speak your language to you – even though it’s official – and you might have to see a doctor who won’t respond to you in the language you’re speaking, all Euskaldunes (Basque speakers) are being discriminated against. Especially those that can’t express themselves well in Spanish.”

“In education, there has been something of a revolution. It’s made sure that the vast majority of people can now understand and express themselves in Valencian proficiently.”

But that view is not shared by everyone. At least, it might be less pronounced amongst speakers of languages that are more mutually intelligible with Spanish. Marta Villar Lema, who grew up speaking Galician, believes there is a “respect” amongst the Spanish majority for their country’s many languages, although she agrees that “there are always exceptions and stupid people everywhere”. For many, it is of great significance that multilingualism is enshrined in the Spanish constitution.

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Spain’s models of bilingualism seem to be going in the right direction, at least according to Valencian speaker Javier Muñoz: “In education, there has been something of a revolution. It’s made sure that the vast majority of people can now understand and express themselves in Valencian proficiently.”

However, there is still a way to go: “Whether that translates into everyday use, is passed down through the generations, or people continue to respect whoever chooses to do so, is another question entirely. Things are looking good for Valencian, but we still have a long way to go before we have any real bilingualism here.”

“I sometimes think people who say promoting regional languages risks excluding Castilian Spanish people probably live on an island in the middle of the sea.”

As with so many parts of the world where minority languages are spoken, a large obstacle to that remains the criticism – from some – that the promotion of regional languages comes at the expense of those who speak the majority language. But for Àngela, that argument holds no water at all.

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“I sometimes think people who say promoting regional languages risks excluding Castilian Spanish people probably live on an island in the middle of the sea. Almost every document you will receive will have a Spanish version, or be handed to you by a very nice person who will explain everything perfectly in Spanish. You can wake up, read your newspaper in Spanish, watch Spanish TV, go to the bank, buy clothes and live your life without using or understanding one word of Catalan if you decide to, because Spanish is an official language and we respect that.”

“Go to most bookshops. You will find more books written in English than in Valencian/Catalan. Around 90% of all the books will be in Spanish, which is shameful.”

Javier agrees: “All we want is equality for regional languages with Spanish. It’s impossible that Spanish, one of the most widely spoken and most culturally relevant languages in the world, would be marginalised by co-existing with these languages.”

Christian Llavero believes the day when Spanish is threatened by a language like Valencian is still a long way off: “Go to most bookshops. You will find more books written in English than in Valencian/Catalan. Around 90% of all the books will be in Spanish, which is shameful.”

But for those who are bilingual in Spain’s regional languages, there will always be some advantages. As Antonio Cubel first discovered when he left Spain.

“When I finished my studies and moved to Dublin to work in a B&B, I met many people from all over and the hostel was always full. There was often very little privacy to speak with my family on Skype, so I would always speak in Valencian.

“That way, I stopped people from understanding what I was talking about, and because I was using earphones my family could reply in Spanish with no problems.

“A friend of mine from Bilbao told me he did the same with his parents, but in Basque.”


bVdID8LUAlex is Memrise’s Language Learner in Residence. He spends his time working with the Language Research Team, making fun videos about languages, and contributing to the Memrise blog. He tweets @rawlangs_alex.

In his free time he enjoys cooking, watching films, and walking his dog. He also writes books, like this one.

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Discussion

4 responses to ‘The Many Languages of Spain

    • Hi Vicent, whether or not Catalan and Valencian are the same language is a highly contested issue. Having lived in Valencia myself, I met many native Valencian speakers who argued both ways. While it may be misleading to suggest that one is the dialect of another, what is clear is that Valencian, Catalan, Mallorquí, Eivissenc, and Menorquí speakers can speak to each other with no more problems than people from the north and south of England, even though there are regional variations. Thanks for commenting 🙂

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