Is Spanish in trouble inside Spain?
In Spain, some people believe Spanish is now spoken by fewer people than in the past. It's simply not true.
1. Don’t panic!
In the previous issue, I recommended Gaston Dorren's new book, which sets out to teach the Dutch how to read in seven languages. One of the languages is Frisian, a minority language in the Netherlands. I don't have much knowledge of Dutch linguistic attitudes, but I don't think the inclusion of Frisian will seem strange to most readers (maybe I’m wrong).
Today, I’ll discuss linguistic ideas about minority languages in one of the countries I find most fascinating, linguistically and otherwise: Spain.
There, minority languages are seen by some as a threat to Spanish (called “español” or “castellano”). We can find people claiming Spanish is now spoken by fewer people than in the past.
Last year, I wrote a Twitter thread in English about this false idea. Here it is (with some changes):
Some Spanish speakers sincerely believe their language is in real trouble inside Spain. They seem to live in an alternate reality where, in some regions, Basque, Catalan and Galician are replacing Spanish as the language spoken on the street.
In fact, the opposite is happening: Spanish in now spoken by more people as their street language than ever before.
Those panicky comments usually appear when Spanish monolingual speakers are confronted with children learning the language of their region (while also learning Spanish).
They seem to believe that a person either speaks one language or another and that learning Galician (for example) will imply a reduced capacity to learn Spanish.
What happened to the fine human capacity to speak many languages?
Well, Basques, Catalans and Galicians use that capacity every day: most of them speak two languages — and when they speak only one it is almost always Spanish.
In reality, Spanish is steamrolling other languages throughout Spain. By teaching Basque, Catalan and Galician to children, speakers of these languages are simply trying to save them, while also using (and teaching) Spanish.
So, we have monolingual speakers worried about bilingual speakers because those bilinguals insist on having their children learning two native languages instead of one. What a problem that is!
And if you ask those worried monolingual Spanish speakers if they would ever consider having their children learn Catalan (or Basque, or Galician), just as Catalan children learn Spanish, they would look at you as if you were proposing teaching Estonian to their children.
In fact, I think they would prefer to teach Estonian to their children. Anything but one of the other languages of Spain.
2. Linguistic nationalism
Why does this idea that Spanish is in danger arise so easily? Why are the speakers of the most prestigious language in the country, the one everyone is learning, so afraid of other languages?
A part of the explanation is linguistic nationalism: many Spaniards intimately believe Spain should have a single language because it is a nation and each nation should have one language — that’s how the world is supposed to work. They can tolerate other languages, but only if they are clearly marked as inferior in one way or another.
Linguistic nationalism implies a national standard with internal uniformity, a clear demarcation of borders with other languages and as much exclusivity as possible in the institutional and symbolic use of the chosen standard. Any deviation from this model is seen as a threat.
This is a model especially inadequate to a country where many million people speak other languages. However, the Spanish state defended and spread this monolingual and nationalistic model for a long time.
Things are better now, but linguistic nationalism is still ingrained in many minds — and, in some cases, getting worse as a reaction to increased visibility of the other languages in public spaces and their use in schools.
The official recognition of the other languages and their use in schools, on television and in the law is seen by some as a setback for the Spanish language and, in this nationalistic frame of mind, for the Spanish nation.
To understand better this situation, I recommend a book — in Spanish. It is by Professor Juan Carlos Moreno Cabrera and it helps to understand the ideology behind my-language-first-and-above-all attitudes in Spain and beyond: El nacionalismo lingüístico.
3. A nice gesture
Spain is, linguistically, a much richer country than panicked monolinguals want it to be — but it is becoming poorer.
Today, Spanish is learnt and spoken by virtually everyone in Spain, which was not the case 100 years ago. That’s not a bad thing, of course. What is not good is this: most minority languages are in retreat, apart from their increased public use. If you are Spanish and you consider having a monolingual country a good thing, you’re in luck: Spain is nearer that goal than ever before.
Spanish needs as much protection in Spain as English in the US — where you’ll find some English speakers convinced Spanish is gaining too much strength, mirroring the arguments of panicked monolinguals in Spain.
Spanish is not in danger. If only the linguistic panic of many monolingual Spanish speakers were to calm down, they might even come to the conclusion that it would be useful (or at least enriching) for more people to learn a bit of the other languages of Spain.
They don’t have to speak them actively: it would be a first step to learn to read them, to a greater or lesser extent, as Dutch readers of Gaston Dorren are learning Frisian. It’s not that difficult: speakers of the other Spanish languages all learn Spanish (and English, and French…).
For any Spanish speaker, Catalan is not difficult to read and Galician is also not that hard (and you’ll learn a lot of Portuguese without noticing, by the way). Basque is a challenge, but a challenge can be a good thing (you can think of it as going on holidays to a country and learning a few phrases here and there).
A desire to learn how to read and say some sentences in the languages of one's fellow citizens is personally enriching and a great way to defuse tensions — apart from being a really nice gesture.
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