Clinging to Life
by Valerie Collins

Did you know that of the more than 6500 languages currently spoken on our planet, fewer than half are likely to survive this century? Native American, African, Australian languages, stuff like that, no? Actually, it’s a bit closer to home. UNESCO’s Red Book on Endangered Languages (updated 1999) has no less than 94 entries for Europe. And, with the exception of Catalan, all the minority languages spoken in Spain are on that list.

Language death has natural causes: populations scatter, isolated communities break up, global telecommunications and the mass media encroach, and children are taught in the ‘official’ language of their country, which they must then use for social and economic advancement. Languages that are uncodified or have no written literature are particularly vulnerable - and they can never be revived. Who knows if there are still a few elderly folk left who speak Leonese, which, the Red Book tells us, is almost extinct (a chilling word). (A variant, Mirandese, does survive in a corner of Portugal, with approximately 10,000 speakers.)

But it’s not numerical strength alone that determines a language’s fate. The biggest cause of language death is, well, linguicide: national government policies designed to eradicate minority languages in public and in private, to ensure that they are not passed from parent to child. This is what happened to most of the Native American languages, for example. And to the languages of Spain under Franco.

But a people’s right to use the language of its choice is now recognised as a universal human right. While Frisians, Ladins and Occitans, to name but a few European communities, struggle to regain some measure of identity, Basques, Catalans, Galicians and Valencians are truly fortunate in that the Spanish Constitution recognizes the right of the Autonomous Communities to use their own languages: Euskera, Gallego, Català and Valencià (as the Valencians call their variety of Catalan). In the early eighties, each of the communities passed a ‘ley de normalización lingüística’ which sought to make (or reinstate) the community language as a normal working language. In order to flourish, a language has to be used in business and official dealings, in the courts and in the media, and, of course, in schools. It has to be remade into a tool that can express every aspect of modern life - from particle physics to punk. Otherwise, it will decay into a domestic patois, languish and die.

This is precisely what’s happening to Aragonese or fabla aragonesa, spoken in a few Pyrenean valleys by an estimated 30,000 people. The Constitution also says that the wealth of language varieties in Spain is a cultural heritage which shall be given special respect and protection. But according to the aragonesista website, fabla may be the most endangered language in Europe, because the Aragonese government itself is doing so little to promote it. Aranese is slightly better off. This variety of Gascon is spoken by about 6000 people in the Pyrenean Val d’Aran, that is 64.85% of the inhabitants (1996 census) and understood by 90%. It is coofficial with Castilian and Catalan, is used by the Conselh Generau of the Val d’Aran and taught at primary level. Bable, aka Asturian, spoken throughout the Principality of Asturias and part of León by about half a million people, seems to be faring a bit better, with an Academia de la Llingua Asturiana and a government agency to promote it, radio programmes and a weekly newspaper. Ironically, despite the expansion of English via the Internet, this is a fanstastic tool for reviving and promoting dying languages: the Diariu Electronicu Asturianu can be read by anyone in the world.

Certain sectors would have us believe that normalización is going too far, especially in Catalunya. Castilian speakers, they say, are discriminated against in education and on the job market. In Tarragona, a university lecturer is suspended by a Catalan university for giving out exams in Castilian - as the law requires. There’s a big furore. Then she is reinstated. In Lleida, a man receives a reminder in Castilian to renew his driving license and files against the Dirección General de Tráfico for alleged violation of linguistic rights. These are isolated incidents and not representative: in any complex society, some people will break the law or be extremist, intolerant, muddled, pig-headed, bloody-minded, aggressive - or just plain stupid. Catalans feel that such episodes are seized upon by Madrid to stir up anti-regional feeling, to justify repressive policies once again.

While Gallego, Catalan, Aranese and Bable, being Romance languages (that is, derived from the Latin spoken in the Iberian peninsular in Roman times) are closely related to Castilian and easy enough to pick up, a big problem with Basque is that it seems so unfamiliar and difficult to learn, partly because it’s what is called an isolate, that is, it’s apparently unrelated to any other language group at all. In Catalunya, Castilian still holds sway in mixed groups, although Catalan speakers will speak Catalan between themselves, switching effortlessly back and forth. This scenario is repeated in classrooms, shops and offices throughout Catalunya, and on TV chat shows. Most people who have been here for a while, whatever their native language, understand Catalan. They are not forced to speak it.

The school where my elder son is doing the Bachillerato (or should I say Batxillerat) proudly proclaims itself to be catalana, integradora and plural. Most subjects are taught in Catalan, apart from Castilian Language, which is imparted with passion by a Catalan authority on the subject (he’s written lots of books). The economics teacher is from Extremadura, the text book is in Catalan, and in class the teacher ‘translates into Castilian from the book.’

"Uhuh. And what language do you do the exercises from the book in?"

"Catalan or Castilian - whichever we want."

Which is what the law lays down.

Just recently it was reported that Catalan linguistic policy was a barrier to economic development: computer and electronics companies operating in Catalunya are finding that the 16,000 professionals they need to ‘import’ cannot be tempted: they ‘do not want their children to have problems due to linguistic immersion’. More flexibility in the education system vis à vis transferees was called for, which is fair enough. The accusation was then refuted by Spain’s Science and Technology minister Anna Birulés. Of course there are problems, but they won’t be solved by adopting extremist positions.

Is it fair that to teach Russian, French, English or whatever at Barcelona’s Escola Oficial d’Idiomes, you have to take an exam in Catalan? ‘Of course,’ says Mireia Bosch, the Escola’s head of English. ‘These are government jobs. If you want to be a public servant of the Catalan government, you have to have a knowledge of the language. You’d have to learn German if you went to Germany, no?’ This last argument is heard time after time. Is it fair that people posted here - or their children - should have to learn a language they feel is ‘useless’?

‘Yes - if they want to live and work here. We have to promote it,’ says my husband.. ‘Catalan was subjected to persecution, to deliberate genocide. We can’t let it happen again.’

Sadly, there are many languages we can’t save. But consider this. Over half the world’s population - and this is a conservative estimate - is bi- or multilingual. More than 40 million European Union citizens speak an autochthonous language other than the official language of the State in which they live: many of them also speak other ‘majority’ languages. It’s no big deal. It’s only a big deal for those of us who are monolingual in a world language with an imperialistic tradition like English or Castilian - and assume that that’s the norm. But there’s evidence that knowledge of two or more languages sharpens the wits and broadens one’s outlook. Some linguists are now arguing that monolingualism may one day be seen as an educational handicap on a par with illiteracy, and suggest developing alternative bilingualisms among new generations in English-speaking countries, wherever possible from primary level onwards; options would include not only foreign languages but also each country's own ‘minority’ languages. This is obviously applicable to Spanish-speaking countries too.

Every language is as much a part of our world heritage as the rain forest, the Taj Mahal or Tarragona’s Roman remains. Languages are the most complex products of the human mind, and to explore other peoples’ frameworks for experiencing and expressing the world can only enrich us. In 1868 a US federal commission on Indian affairs concluded that the ‘trouble’ with the Native Americans was due to their ‘barbarous dialect,’ which should be ‘blotted out’ and replaced with English, because ‘through sameness of language is produced sameness of sentiment and thought.’ Like the creeping uniformity of McDonalds, is this what we really want for ourselves and our children?

Originally published in The Reporter (Málaga)

© 2000 Valerie Collins

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