For Gloria Lago, Spain’s government and parliament is putting the language of Cervantes and Lorca in peril.
As the head of Hablamos Español (We Speak Spanish), an organisation that calls for more Spanish-language education in regions of the country that speak Catalan, Basque and Gallego, Ms Lago views Congress’s narrow approval last week of an education bill with intense suspicion.
“This is an attempt to ensure that Spanish is not a language with a presence throughout the country,” she says of the Socialist-led government’s deletion of a reference to Spanish as the language of instruction — or lengua vehicular — of the nation’s schools. “It makes it very difficult to move from one part of the country to another, particularly if you want your children to be taught in Spanish.”
She says Spanish is being eliminated from Catalan schools and is on the retreat in other parts of the country, such as the Basque country and her home region of Galicia, where the native Gallego is close to Portuguese.
Others depict the controversy as concocted. “We should be very wary of language differences being used to foster tensions and hatred, when our cultural diversity — including minority mother tongues that deserve democratic support — is part of our strength,” says Luis García Montero, a poet who heads the Cervantes Institute, a public body set up in 1991 to promote Spanish language and culture. The government says the real priority is for students in bilingual regions to master both their territory’s languages.
But the debate has raged throughout the Spanish establishment. The Real Academia Española, the Spanish equivalent of the Académie Française, has expressed its concern, calling for the bill not to “put in question the use of Spanish in any territory of the state or to promote obstacles to citizens being educated in their mother tongue”.
The centre-right People’s party argues the legislation represents a “break with our systems of liberties and constitution”. On Sunday, demonstrations were mounted in dozens of cities against the measure, which still requires Senate approval.
The battle has exposed the tensions over education and language in Spanish society. It also highlights the gulf between the minority government — which owes its hold on power to Catalan and Basque nationalists — and the opposition, which views accommodation with such forces as wholly illegitimate and an insidious threat to the Spanish state.
The government says the allegations over language are a diversion from the main planks of the bill: an attempt to modernise rote-based teaching and to level the playing field between state institutions and privately run, frequently religious schools that receive public funding and educate a quarter of the nation’s pupils.
But when Spanish governments turn their minds to education, intense political conflict is rarely far away.
With eight education reforms over the past four decades, every switch of power between left and right since the country’s return to democracy has led to a change in legislation affecting millions of schoolchildren. The government notes that it was only when the last such change was carried out — under a centre-right government in 2013 — that the existing reference to Spanish as the language of instruction was introduced.
According to overlapping figures produced by the national statistics institute, some 90 per cent of the country’s population speaks Spanish as a mother tongue, 15 per cent Catalan and its dialect Valenciano, 5.5 per cent Gallego and 1.8 per cent the ancient, pre-Romance language of Basque.
But the ground zero of the conflict is Catalonia, where the Catalan language dominates school teaching.
Spanish language campaigners say the separatist-ruled region has flouted court orders to use Spanish for at least a quarter of subjects in Catalan schools. They add that the omission of the words “language of instruction” from the new education bill may complicate legal cases to force the Catalan authorities to meet that obligation.
“In Catalonia, children generally do an average of two hours a week in primary school, three hours a week in secondary,” says Ana Losada, head of a campaigning group called the Assembly for Bilingual Schools. “This is a very irregular situation that the new bill makes worse — the country’s official language, which is spoken by the [region’s] majority, is not the language of teaching in the schools.”
According to figures from the Catalan Statistical Institute, 47 per cent of Catalans identify themselves as Spanish speakers, compared with the 36 per cent who describe themselves at Catalan speakers and 7 per cent who are equally at home in both languages.
Ms Losada argues that the regional school system’s longstanding “immersion” policy of teaching in Catalan is unconstitutional, adding that those who, like her, ask for bilingual Catalan-Spanish education for their children are intimidated.
The country’s constitution says that all citizens have the “duty to know the [Spanish] language and the right to use it”, although it adds that other languages are also official within their respective regions.
Champions of Catalan language education contend that the region’s immersion system is merely trying to right the balance after the repression of Spain’s minority languages in past generations, particularly under the dictatorship of Francisco Franco, who died in 1975.
“Many kids come from other environments — friends, family and so on — where Spanish is much stronger than Catalan,” says Òscar Escuder, head of the Pro-Language Platform, a group that campaigns for greater use of Catalan. “Even today you are not going to find a pupil of 15 who does not speak Spanish but you are going to find many who don’t speak Catalan.”
Indeed, last year students from Catalonia performed better than the national average in pre-university exams on Spanish language and literature — although less well on some other metrics.
“Languages with fewer speakers need support to help them thrive in a world where there are three big languages,” said Mr García Montero of the Cervantes Institute. “By contrast, Spanish has 489m native speakers, the second most after Mandarin Chinese, so there is no way the language is in danger.”