A Spanish saying goes, saber otro idioma es como poseer una segunda alma (knowing another language is like possessing a second soul). What’s in a language? Nothing much. Identity and culture, that’s all.

Prior to moving to Barcelona, I had no idea that a group of people called Catalans existed in the world. Most of my non-European friends knew nothing about Catalonia before visiting Barcelona, and when they do, they quickly noticed that signs and menus are written in a language that sort of looks like Spanish, but consists of letters and sounds absent from the Spanish language. They then realize that although all Catalans in Barcelona are capable of speaking Spanish, they converse with one another in a speech that sounds like the love child between French and Spanish. Catalan is not only the official language of the provinces of Barcelona, Girona, Tarragona and Lleida, but the subject of contention in education and politics, and the symbol of cultural identity embraced by millions of Catalans.

The Catalan language is not only deeply entrenched in the four Spanish provinces, it is the official state language of Andorra. If one includes parts of Southeastern France, Alghero in Italy, the Balearic Islands and Valencia of Spain (where a large proportion of the populations understand their respective local variations of the Catalan language), the number of users exceeds 10 million. Despite claims that Catalan is a dialect of Spanish, it shares 87% lexical similarity with Italian, and 85% with Portuguese and Spanish. Pronunciations and vocabularies share commonality with French and Occitan. This romance language, in the case of Catalonia in Spain, has experienced its rise and fall throughout history–subject to the political convenience of whoever is sitting in the governing palaces.

"Speak French, Be Clean", written on the wall of the Ayguatébia-Talau school, to discourage speaking Catalan.

“Speak French, Be Clean”, written on the wall of a school in France, to enforce the idea that regional languages are less civilized.

Systematic oppression of regional languages has known to take place throughout history all around the world. In Europe, France has long abided by an assimilation model that strongly discourages linguistic multiplicity, which, from the French government’s perspective, is essential in maintaining a strong French identity. Due to the diversity attributed to French territorial expansion and high levels of immigration, cultural homogeneity has been a priority. France is characterized by a significant number of people who speak languages such as German, Breton, Basque, Catalan, Flemish, Occitan, and Corsican, and all of which at some point or another, suffered linguistic persecution by the French government. Corsican, for example, has gone from having been widely spoken under Italian rule, to its current endangered status under French rule. The longstanding hard-line French language policies left the French Catalans with little Catalan identity compared to their neighboring Spanish Catalans, who enjoyed a Catalan literary revival in the 19th century during a period of linguistic tolerance before the dictatorship of Francisco Franco, and a robust linguistic restoration after the death of Franco in 1975.

During the Spanish dictatorship under Francisco Franco from 1936 to 1975, however, Spanish nationalistic sentiments ran high, and the use of Castilian as “standard Spanish” was heavily enforced. As a result, the use of regional languages such as Galician, Basque and Catalan were strictly prohibited in public, as well as in literature, radio, schools, theater, baptism, cultural events, and public signs. These languages were limited to private conversations at home, indoors.

What’s in it for the Franco regime to heavily oppress the Catalan language? With the intention to build a centralized national identity, nothing proves more threatening than splintering identities, marked by linguistic diversity. It was not only important but essential for Franco to deracinate the Catalan language from common use, for language serves as the beating pulse of an identity. For a person to truly embrace Spanish nationalism, they must think in Spanish, dream in Spanish, and talk to their dogs in Spanish. The final stage of such assimilation ends with the death of one’s mother tongue. What is the need for genocide when one can simply commit linguicide? A ruler cannot change a people’s looks or race, but he can easily convert their religion, exterminate their culture, and erase their memory through the removal of their language.

Luckily for the Catalans, the most zealous period of language oppression was during the beginning of Franco’s regime. The intensity of the prohibition relaxed post World War II, and due to the support of the Vatican for Catalan priests to use the Catalan language in sermons soon following Franco’s death in 1975, the former lingua franca gradually recovered its status. Finally in 1979, Catalan was declared the statutory provincial language of Catalonia under the Catalan autonomous government. Today, all public signs and official communications are required to be in Catalan, although Spanish remain to be widely used especially in a city heavily populated by immigrants such as Barcelona. All children educated in Catalonia experience Catalan immersion in school, with the exception of a few hours of Spanish instruction per week, although this is a current subject of dispute between Spanish-leaning and Catalan-leaning political parties.

Again, language oppression is not a unique phenomenon in any one place, and it serves all to keep in mind the purpose of such means of control. Language is the umbilical cord that ties our inner workings to our identity, and serves as our antenna to the external world. Every colonizer understands the danger of allowing their subject to maintain their former linguistic allegiance. In a history all too similar to the people of Catalonia, the people of Taiwan lived through multiple periods of linguistic oppression under their colonizers. Despite the fact that Taiwanese (Hokkien or Holo), Hakka, and aboriginal languages have been widely spoken on the island for hundreds of years, Japanese became the “national language” in the late 1800s lasting until the 1945, followed by Mandarin as its successor from then to the present day. During the period of Japanese colonization, incorporation of the Japanese language in schools and public spheres led to the majority of the Taiwanese capable of effectively communicating in Japanese by 1944. Upon the arrival of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) on the island, the Taiwanese were again forced to abandon the Japanese and Taiwanese languages to adopt Mandarin.

Nowadays, it is not uncommon to see a family in Taiwan characterized by three generations each speaking to others of the same generation in their respective language: the grandparents in Japanese, the parents in Taiwanese, and the children in Mandarin. Many Taiwanese children cannot communicate with their grandparents, although no one migrated. Many think of Taiwanese as a low class vernacular language, and speaking it as a sign of being poorly educated–because Mandarin is the language taught in school, and anyone with any schooling speaks Mandarin as their first language. Pretty teeny boppers on TV speak Mandarin; the bad guys in movies speak Taiwanese. Politicians speak Mandarin (except around election time); street vendors speak Taiwanese. When a language has been marginalized to the degree of carrying embedded prejudice, language policies have succeeded.

National Taiwan University history professor in Chou Wan-yao (周婉窈) lamented, “Your children are taught in school a history completely disconnected from the island. They don’t want to speak your “vulgar” mother-tongue. Every day they go to school, they grow a step more distant from their homeland, a step farther from this island, until they are completely alienated from you. This makes perfect sense to your children.”

Saber nuestro idioma es como poseer nuestra alma. Knowing our  language is like possessing our soul. What’s in a language?

(Feature photo is a mural in Vilassar de Mar, on Wikicommons, by CC BY-SA 3.0)


Chiya Elle

Chiya grew up in New Jersey, but lived in Massachusetts, California and Washington, DC. While she should be dedicating more time as a researcher in social science and demography, she is perpetually distracted by animal rights, nutrition, traveling, learning new instruments and studying foreign languages. She is currently based in Barcelona, Spain.

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