Toni Strubell, Núria Bassa – Can “stateless” EU languages survive?

You cannot commodify a language, so in the eyes of the EU they are apparently of little value. Maybe the Catalan government could sell its language to BlackRock, then things would be different.

Toni Strubell  is a former MP in the Catalan Parliament, journalist, and author of What Catalans Want

Núria Bassa Camps is a Catalan writer and photographer

Article publicat en catalan aqui

Photo: Till F. Teenck  License Creative Commons ShareAlike 2.5 (CC-SA)

While “united in diversity” claims to be the motto of the European Union, recent developments in the language policy sphere remind us that “diversity” is not an automatic synonym for cultural inclusion across the board. As regards the divide between which languages are eligible for officialdom and promotion and which are not, it generally turns out that State-approved ones are, but “regional” ones not. Though references to the need to protect languages and multilingualism can be found among the EU’s principles, the fact is that it is the states themselves that decide which languages go and which do not. Now three issues provide us with fuel to take a fresh look at the prospects for minority languages in XXI Century Europe: the recent election of a Maltese-speaker -Roberta Metsola- to the presidency of the European Parliament; the full official status finally granted to Gaelic last January 1st; and the recent upheaval occurring in Catalonia over the language to be used in education. Now the question is, do “lesser spoken” languages have a place in the EU? Or is an opaque process of effective language cleansing taking place in front of our noses?

Predictably it has been the Council of Europe, rather than the EU itself, that has taken most interest in this language issue over the years. Indeed, the 1992 European Charter for Regional and Minority Languages expresses noble and ambitious intentions for the protection of the lesser spoken languages. But, like so many affairs associated with the Council, we may ask if it is in any way effective in practical terms. Although UNESCO estimates there are approximately 40 million speakers of regional or “non-State” languages in Europe (of which there are over thirty with varying statuses and degrees of protection), few if any seem to be really guaranteed a future in a world in which approximately half of the languages are thought to be threatened with extinction in the following century. Indeed, such is the worry over language homogenization issues that even powerful member states, with apparently thriving languages, have been known to take steps to protect their mainstream languages in particular areas, as did France in 1996 with its popular music with great success.

However, despite UNESCO and Council of Europe concern over the future of minority languages, we must remember that it is the individual states of the EU that are deciding the small print of language usage policies. The more openly centralist countries, such as France itself, did not even deign to sign the Charter, leaving the door wide open for constitutional court curtailing of regional language rights, as occurred in May 2021. However, more cynical than France’s is the position of Spain where it was probably little more than a pervading ill-conscience over the Francoist prohibitions of regional languages that made her sign (1992) and later ratify (2001) the Charter, thus putting on a show that meaningful steps would be taken to promote the regional languages. In many senses this seemed to echo the 1978 Constitution which spoke of the need to give special attention to the country’s “linguistic modalities” (what a wonderful expression to avoid using the word “languages”), the actual names of which were ominously omitted from the text. Indeed, once the rhetoric was swept aside and when it came to the crunch, events showed even in early days that this was little more than play to the gallery. Now a recent Superior Court ruling (21.1.2022) has confirmed that it is to do away with the status of Catalan as the cornerstone language of primary education pulverizing decades of parliamentary consensus over a policy that has generally been seen as an educational success story with scanty opposition.

Toppling a historic agreement

After Franco’s death, Spain’s momentary bout of ill-conscience regarding the persecution of the Catalan language led to legislation allowing a new official status for the language. It now held a special use in education in answer to the heart-felt historical demands of the Catalans. For Franco’s Spain (1939-1975) had ill-treated Catalan excluding the language from almost all walks of public life, paralysing cultural development in key fields such as literature, press, cinema, theatre and music. In seemed right to “allow” Catalan to become what is termed a “vehicular” or working language in early education, thus enabling some correction of the effects massive Spanish immigration and effective prohibition had had on the language. This led to the introduction of a special form of education (unwisely termed language “immersion”) that would at least enable non-Catalan students to become competent in the language in the understanding that all Catalan children master Spanish anyway. For today all serious surveys reveal that Catalan kids are as competent in Spanish as kids in Extremadura or Andalusia are. On the other hand, many kids end their school days without ever really mastering Catalan. The truth is that the new balance in bilingual competence amongst youngsters never came accompanied by a comparative increase in its social usage. And now a change in the law is sure to make things worse.

The irony over the ruling now introducing 25% more Spanish in primary education is that is comes when recent statistics reveal that the effective use of Catalan amongst young people has slumped dramatically in the last few years. Perhaps that can be explained by the fact that Spanish is certainly the “strong” language and the one habitually used by most Catalans to communicate with non-Catalan speakers. Another possible reason is that, over the years, the availability of key leisure materials for kids (videogames, comics, You-Tube, clubs, discos, influencers, musical events, young people’s radio stations etc.) has become increasingly monopolized by Spanish (or English). This certainly deepens the problem. One cannot deny that at the heart of this situation of effective discrimination lies the severe underfunding that the Catalan economy suffers. The fact that it is Madrid that allocates funds and disposes of almost all tax revenue means that the limitations for cultural production in Catalan are becoming increasingly chronic, bringing the once powerful productivity of Catalan television (TV3) to its knees, a factor than in its turn cripples the film industry. Thus, last year, a pitiful six full-length films were made in Catalan when not so long ago this figure was as much as six times larger.

Indeed, the same could be said about other languages in the state. But who could care the least about all this in Brussels? The fact that it is non-state languages that are floundering causes no grief in the EU. On the contrary, the EU authorities are all ears to groups such as Sociedad Civil Catalana when they unblushingly report the “discrimination” of Spanish in Catalonia at EU Parliament meetings. That they should do so when 93% of trials are held in Spanish, Spanish media overwhelmingly outweigh Catalan ones and almost all weighty business, banking and commerce is conducted in Spanish, would be comical if it were not so damaging.

So what is happening to other “minority” languages?

We have so far centred this article on a consideration of what is happening to Catalan. And, indeed, some may argue that Catalan is merely a “regional” language and that to make it official in Europe would cause further complication and expenditure for the EU. But the fact that the language may scathingly be dismissed as “regional” by some in no way makes it less important than other EU languages enjoying officialdom. Indeed, Catalan is reckoned to be the EU’s tenth most widely spoken language. It is Madrid’s recurrent refusal to call for its officialisation that keeps up the discrimination, not any form of inferiority or literary deficit. The injustice suffered with regard to languages with far fewer speakers, such as Maltese or Gaelic –not to mention Danish or Greek– is difficult to understand.

Now that Maltese-speaker Roberta Metsola has become president of the EU Parliament, we must remember that the language she speaks has enjoyed full EU recognition and the condition of working language since the very day Malta entered the EU in 2004. This means that official EU documents are now automatically translated into Maltese, a language used in official EU events taking place on the island. OK, this may not be a determinant factor for the languages future. But many see it as an important step in supplying new empowerment and prestige for a language that was –and still is– facing the threat of the superior pull of English. Hopefully the same may soon be said for Irish Gaelic, a language that last January 1st acquired belated officialdom in the EU. Again, this has been made possible by the virtue of the language’s “statehood” and the decision of the government of the state it belongs to and represents. But the fact is that these developments lead to a paradoxical situation in which languages spoken by little over 400.000 (Maltese) and 200.000 (Irish Gaelic) receive the full honours Catalan is denied. While Maltese and Gaelic are empowered by the EU, a language reckoned to be spoken by twenty-five or fifty times more speakers respectively, as is Catalan, enjoys no real EU officialdom nor receives any form of EU support when its status in education is challenged. Who can wonder that languages disappear? Occitan did so in a couple of generations. Will Catalan be the next to go before the huge indifference of Brussels?

Núria Bassa, Toni Strubell

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