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The ‘Spanishization’ crusade of José Ignacio Wert

The Spanish government claims its education reform is based on human rights and raising academic standards. But other motives become apparent in a law that seeks to roll back the use of Catalan in the northern region’s schools. This is the first article in a two-part series.


'Keep calm and speak Catalan'

‘Keep calm and speak Catalan’: the slogan of those who defend the use of Catalan in schools.

If we take a quick look around Spain today we see a number of issues that are clearly in need of urgent action: the judicial system is facing the rebellion of judges who are sick of the political manipulation of justice; thousands of tax-dodgers enjoy the protection of the state while tax-haven whistleblower Hervé Falciani languishes in a Spanish prison; the police are exposed as criminally complicit in a number of cases of financial scandal and political dirty tricks, as well as grossly incompetent in investigating serious crimes; the wave of suicides caused by mortgage repossession continues unabated; and leading figures from all political parties and even the royal family are on trial as alleged fraudsters. Meanwhile, nobody has any solution to the most obvious problem: the unemployment rate which puts Spain at the bottom of the “developed” countries for actually doing productive work.

But strangely enough, we’re not talking about this. Instead we’re talking about the use of Catalan in schools.

So why is the top issue on the Spanish political agenda the use of a minority language in a single region of this vast, sleaze-plagued land? The most obvious reason is so that we don’t think about the other issues. The second reason is provided to us by the refreshing frankness of the Education Minister José Ignacio Wert: “The Conseller for Education Rigau said the other day that our aim is to ‘Spanishize’ (españolizar) the Catalan children. Well, yes, that is our aim.”

All the other talk about human rights, educational standards, and so on, is merely window dressing for this primordial goal: to convert incipient rebel Catalan kids into obedient Spanish adults.

Third reason: anti-Catalan actions and rhetoric have always helped ailing parties to garner support in Spain. Not pretty, but undeniably true: rabble-rousing in the Spanish heartland around the issue of “those pesky Catalans” has always been a vote-winner.

So we have the real trio of reasons for Wert’s education reform – sleaze smokescreen, social engineering towards a monolingual Spanish identity, and rabble-rousing – as opposed to the “false flag trio” of reasons given by Wert and his supporters as a justification for this initiative: human rights, educational standards and effective central control.

If Minister Wert were in fact serious about improving educational standards he might take some of the excellent advice recently offered by working teacher and Iberosphere journalist Olwen Mears: improve the status, pay and training of teachers, and reduce class hours while making the teaching methods more effective. But we know he’s not concerned about standards because he quite openly tells us that he’s motivated by cultural-political goals: the “Spanishization” of a sector of the population.

Educational benchmarking in the standardised PISA tests shows that Catalan kids have a higher-than-average level of Spanish language skills, much higher than in some monolingual systems such as Andalusia, the Balearic Islands and Valencia. Guess what? It appears that competence in this and other skills doesn’t depend on the language you’re taught in; rather it correlates with the quality of the system that teaches you.

As for human rights, the EU Commission 2007 special report praises the immersion system in Catalonia and other regions as a model for preserving a minority language with guarantees of rights for speakers of other languages, stating: “these methods should be disseminated throughout the Union.” And in my 22 years living in Catalonia I have never met a single person who resented having been trained in Catalan. Rather, those who have passed through the system – as opposed to those outside it looking in – appreciate the fact that they are able to operate in good Catalan and Spanish and are not condemned to a Spanish-only ghetto.

Nobody’s fooled by these false flag justifications unless they really want to be. The Economist’s resident linguist, “Johnson”, knows better, recognising that it’s really all about who exercises political power in a state: “A nation-state has the sovereign right to insist on the primacy of one language. Catalans constitute Europe’s biggest language group without a state.” In a more recent article he describes Wert’s initiative as an own goal: “Efforts to marginalise minority languages often make speaking them a point of pride… he must have known that it would appear as a provocation.” Indeed he must, because of course provocation is the whole point of the exercise.

So the bandwagon is hitched up and ready to roll, and the band is climbing on board. As they mount up, they discard their Spanish flags and pick up banners reading “human rights”, “constitutional law” and “educational standards”. The band starts playing some stirring zarzuela tunes, and the wagon sets off, raising a tremendous dust cloud. Just behind the cloud of dust, barely visible and impossible to hear behind the noise of the band, is a mass of dispossessed poor. Behind them, deep in the shadows, is a smart man in a smart suit, carrying a suitcase full of cash. Nobody takes any notice of him.

This is the first article of a two-part series. Click here to see the second article.

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Published: Dec 17 2012
Category: Iberoblog, Featured
Republication: Creative Commons, non-commercial
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8 Comments for “The ‘Spanishization’ crusade of José Ignacio Wert”

  1. I just saw this on the BBC website

    It’s a report on the study of dead and dying languages. According to the UNESCO categorization given below, Catalan would move from “Vulnerable” as it is today to “Definitely Endangered” if the Wert measures go ahead unchallenged.

    From “Definitely Endangered” to “Extinct” usually takes around two generations or about 40-50 years. So by the Wert Plan, Catalan could be definitely extinguished for all time by 2060. Too bad Mr Wert won’t be around to see his crusade come to full fruition when the last Catalan speaker breathes his or her last…

    UNESCO’s classification system to measure endangered languages:

    Vulnerable – most children speak the language but perhaps only in certain domains – like home
    Definitely endangered – children no longer learning language as ‘mother tongue’
    Severely endangered – spoken by older generations, while the parent generation may understand it, they do not speak it to children or among themselves
    Critically endangered – the youngest speakers are grandparents or older – and they speak it infrequently
    Extinct – there are no speakers left

  2. I was going to write a refutation to every single distortion and lie in your…article….here, but then I reached the point where you refer to Spain as this “vast, sleaze plagued land” and realized I could better employ my afternoon – and evening,( as well nigh everything was contentious!) – so it was best to leave you to stew in your own bile.
    Suffice it to say – for any who may be interested – that this, piece of writing, is :
    70% lie (outright)
    30% distortion (slanting to lie)
    100% fanatical manipulation.
    Thanks, Murphy. If you’d been halfway reasonable, I might have been tempted to waste my time in discourse with you.

  3. Great article Alan, and thanks for the nod.

    Basque-speaking school students are also reported to have a better level of Castellano compared to many other mostly monolingual Communities in Spain. In fact, it’s ridiculous to claim to that being bilingual is a hindrance to learning one language well. Several studies have shown that the intellectual advantages of speaking more than one language (particularly from a young age) and several-fold. Any claim otherwise is, as you point out, a crafty attempt at papering over the other more serious economic and social issues that affect a young person’s ability to learn.

    And in terms of unifying a country: I have never felt particularly identified with any of the independence movements in Spain (as a foreigner I claim my right to sit on the fence!). But I am now relieved to be living in a Community with the powers to (hopefully) resist Wert’s draconian reforms and feel a growing sympathy with the desire for independence.

  4. Excellent article. Only an appreciation of the matter: The Balearic Islands and Valencia are areas where historically speaking Catalan. In Valencia, only the government of the Popular Party claims that their language is called Valencian and not Catalan…

  5. Thanks for the comments everyone

    For convenience of having the discussion in one place, anyone wishing to debate this issue should go to comments on the opposing article, where we’ll continue the debate


  6. Seems the only “outright lies” come from AZ. Maybe you should be a bit more careful and check your resources before you try to be witty.

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