Other languages have a state to defend them and their speakers don't have to contend with a state that acts against their tongue
The erosion of the Catalan language began long before 1939, when the dictator Francisco Franco banned the teaching of Catalan after the Spanish civil war. At the beginning of the 18th century, Philip V of Spain ordered the Spanish language to be introduced into Catalan society. This language imposition was designed to creep into all levels of the Catalan community. The king's rather cynical words were: "The mayor must take the utmost care in introducing the Spanish language, using the most discreet and temperate measures, so that only the effects are felt, and not the measures."
Ever since the restoration of democracy, the Catalan language-immersion used in the Catalan education system has been crucial to holding together a society that seemed to be at risk of unravelling towards the end of the 1970s. The linguistic immersion also helps second-generation immigrants to integrate into Catalonia. These are children whose parents have come here from all corners of the world.
The expediency of this system has been recognised at an international level. The "Catalan system" ? as some countries call it ? has been praised by the EU and various international educational bodies, who use it as a reference point for other countries facing similar situations.
When travelling around the world, Catalans will often find themselves in a bar or at a discussion over dinner, and they will be asked if it's really worth saving the Catalan language. The fascinating thing about this is that the people who ask this question are usually people who have never once questioned the systems their own governments have put in place to protect their languages. I'd never dream of asking why the Swedish protect their language, nor why the Germans protect theirs. With us, it's a similar situation.
What's the difference then? We're not aliens with fluorescent green skin and trumpets for ears and noses. We're earthlings ? Europeans, in fact ? and the preservation of our language is something we care deeply about. Every language is unique, and no two are the same. The Mexican anthropologist Miguel Le?n-Portilla wrote a poem about this. It starts with these lines:
When a language dies
The divine things
stars, sun and moon
the human things
thinking and feeling
are no longer reflected
in that mirror
The poem is a little twee, granted, but the message couldn't be truer. The Catalan language is, and will be in danger. For three centuries, every single Catalan speaker has lived in a state where there's another, more dominant language spoken (Spanish or French). On top of that, history has at times tried to prohibit or marginalise Catalan.
This has led to a common conclusion for victims of abusive situations: Catalan speakers end up believing that they are to blame for their own maltreatment and humiliation.
I'm a pessimist. Even when my football team, FC Barcelona, are 4-0 up with 15 minutes to go, I still think we'll end up losing. Maybe that's why it saddens me so much to say that with every passing generation, the original syntactical structure of a language diminishes further. I know you'll say to me: "Come on, this happens with every language ? with Spanish, French, and Italian." This is true, of course. But those other languages don't carry the burden of not having their own state to defend them, nor do they have to contend with a state that systematically acts against their language.
That is why my naturally pessimistic spirit was uplifted one day when I read some words written by the great Isaac Bashevis Singer. He was asked why he continued to write in Yiddish, a language that was dying. Singer said: "Yiddish may be a dying language but it is the only language I know well. Yiddish is my mother language and a mother is never really dead." I feel more or less the same. And the longer a dying language holds out, the better.
? This article was commissioned by La Vanguardia for the Guardian and translated by Lydia Smears
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