Often, when people find out I’m American, they say “Wow, I’d love to learn how to speak English, I’ve been taking classes for years but I still can’t get by.” They look at me and my kids with envy since we learned English naturally, without classes. I always give the same answer: to learn a language, you have go where it’s spoken so that you NEED to speak it. There’s nothing like having someone right in front of you hanging on your every word. It’s the only way. Time and necessity. And it’s not just me who says so, it’s sociolinguists too.
The opposite is also true. Without need and exposure, languages fade. How much French do you remember from high school? And what’s more: sociolinguists know that when two languages occupy the same register, that is, when they are used in the same way by the same segment of a community, the most common outcome is for one of the languages to disappear.
To save a language, then, it must be necessary. Necessary. Catalan is already not necessary for watching TV (85% is in Spanish), for going to the movies (97% in Spanish), for reading books (for every book published in Catalan, there are eight published in Spanish in the Spanish State), and for communicating (99.8% of the population of Cataloia understands Spanish), and so on. Don’t misunderstand me. That you can live in Spanish doesn’t mean you want to, but that’s a topic for another article.
In fact, the only place where Catalan is necessary for everyone is school. If children cannot get by in Catalan, they cannot move on to the next grade. They must understand, use, write, and read Catalan. And they do. Quite successfully and without a lot of stress. Thanks to Catalan immersion schools, 94.3% of the population can understand Catalan, 80% can speak it, 82% can read it and 60% can write it.
But I have to let you in on a secret. Kids don’t learn Catalan in Catalan class. If that were the case, they’d also learn English in English class, and we know how much English they learn: not a lot (31% according to Idescat). It’s the AMOUNT OF HOURS that kids spend in front of someone speaking or listening Catalan that is the key, no matter whether they’re talking about history or mathematics (or movies or music). And it is NECESSITY that makes those hours count.
Faced with the immense pressure of Spanish in our country, without this space in school dedicated to Catalan, many children would never have a need to speak the language, and would never learn it. How do we know they wouldn’t just find alternatives methods on their own? You just have to look south to Valencia where Catalan immersion classes have been systematically reduced year after year by a hostile government. According to a University of Valencia study, with the current linguistic policies, there will be fewer than 10% of Catalan speakers in Valencia by the year 2050. That’s just 35 years from now.
So what do kids learn in Catalan class? The same thing people around the world learn in their respective native language classes: grammar, syntax, and how to diagram a sentence (how teachers do love to teach that worldwide!) But not to speak and not to read. At Hartford Public High School, my secondary school alma mater, I took English three hours a week. Exactly the same as students take Catalan and Spanish here. You don’t need any more. And that’s why Catalan kids come out with the same level or better of Spanish as their counterparts in Spain outside of Catalonia. The only difference is that Catalan kids also learn Catalan. A free bonus.
Education Minister Wert and company want to eliminate the need for Catalan—and since the only place where it’s still necessary is school, they want to eliminate it from school, little by little, but inexorably. Why? Because they don’t want kids to learn Catalan. He said himself in Parliament that he wants to “Hispanicize Catalan schoolchildren”. The excuse is that they need more hours of Spanish to learn it properly, but we know that’s a lie. No kid born in Spain learns Spanish at school. What they need is time and necessity. And while 85% of TV, 97% of movies, 90% of books, and 99% of the people speak Spanish, they have both in spades.