CATENGESP


CATALAN: AN INTERNATIONAL LANGUAGE?

(29/03/2007)

Aquest article no està traduït al català; es mostra la seva versió en anglès

Part of a series of English language articles published, for foreign visitors, in the cultural supplement of El País in 2004, this article talks about the international spread of Catalan language teaching.

Back in 1978, Aina Moll, head of the Department of Linguistic Policy of the newly restored Generalitat (Catalan Autonomous Government), made her first attempt to redress the damage done to the Catalan language after nearly forty years of Franco's fiercely nationalistic dictatorship, which had done its level best to reduce Catalan – with its seven million speakers, its considerable literature, its widespread public use - to the status of a discredited domestic patois. Moll knew that there was no point in harking back to the pre-dictatorship days, when over 90% of the Catalan population spoke the language, given that – the state's discriminatory anti-Catalan decrees apart – a major linguistic shift had occurred with the arrival, in the 'Fifties and 'Sixties, of a million and a half native Castilian speakers from other parts of Spain. Moll realised that any attempt to get Catalan out of its post-Franco quagmire would of necessity have to get these Castilian speakers actively involved, hence the slogan of her first campaign: 'Catalan is Everybody's Business'. To brighten up this campaign, her PR people came up with a mascot: a manga-eyed little girl called Norma (named after the concept of linguistic normalisation). Norma was shown, in a variety of cartoons, encouraging people to either use Catalan or to correct their Catalan. (Needless to say, Norma soon became the butt of endless jokes, not least in the satirical magazine 'Culdesac', which ran a strip called Sub-Norma, in which Moll's linguistic heroine tried to cajole prostitutes and drug dealers into catalanising their sales talk). How effective was the Norma campaign? In the inimitable words of Bernat Puigtobella, in his article published here: 'Norma is a big girl by now but she still hasn't had her period'. Just so. Catalan may be in a better situation than it was in 1978, but the general feeling is that is hasn't yet matured into a fully normalised language. As a result, Catalonia - Puigtobella dixit - lives in a state of permanent 'linguistic hypochondria', fuelled by a seemingly limitless number of pundits who regularly produce a flurry of fretful articles, surveys and lectures on the language question, thus bringing on alternating fits of optimism or despondency (depending on the data released) among the Catalan-speaking population.

However, Puigtobella is quick to point out an interesting fact: internationally speaking, Catalan is on something of a roll, at least as far as the groves of academe are concerned, given that interested students can now learn Catalan at universities around the planet, from Australia to Argentina, from Israel to the Cameroon, from Morocco to Hungary. In Western Europe, Catalan is particularly well represented, with no less than 22 colleges teaching it in Germany, 20 in the UK, 10 in Italy and 9 in France. What, you might ask, could possibly induce foreign students to learn a relatively small stateless language that, just thirty years ago, could land you in jail if you spoke it within hearing of the wrong policeman? It turns out there are a variety of reasons: the attraction of the exotic; the possibility of building an academic career in a field virtually bereft of competition; the chance to work as a tour guide in the Catalan speaking areas; free trips to the Balearics (in some cases); or, simply, the tremendous charisma exercised by some professors of Catalan, such as Alan Yates in Sheffield, or Tilbert Stegmann in Frankfurt. Whatever the reasons, the figures speak for themselves and Catalan has never been so widely taught abroad as it is now. There is one drawback, though. Despite the fact that most linguists have for many years agreed that no language is intrinsically 'better' than any other, there remain some who persist in regarding languages like Catalan (that is, not officially 'national' languages in their respective states) as decidedly inferior. Which could be why in Spain (outside the Catalan-speaking areas) it is taught in a mere eight universities: that's 12 less than in the UK, and 14 less than in Germany. Clearly, Norma never made it to Madrid.


- Textos i contingut: Matthew Tree - Disseny i programació: Nac -