Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Catalan language in schools: When judges want to be legislators

On 31 January, the Tribunal Superior de Justícia, the highest court of the Spanish government in Catalonia, dealt a body blow to the Catalan educational system by making five rulings based on the appeals of five families, whose aim is to change the whole basis of Catalan linguistic education.
Catalonia, as is recognized by the Spanish Constitution, is a community with two official languages: Catalan and Spanish. After the first steps towards democracy and self-government that came out of the long darkness of the Franco dictatorship, Catalans chose to have an educational system that used Catalan as its teaching medium. It was to be based on the "linguistic immersion" model that was already being used in primary education: In the 1984-1985 school year, 408 primary schools opted for linguistic immersion in which teaching was in Catalan, with Spanish introduced gradually.  By the 1995-1996 school year over 1280 schools had adopted this successful model. Subsequent Catalan legislation made this model universal, in order to bring the linguistic immersion model to over 2800  public primary schools . Secondary, professional, and higher educational  centres choose their linguistic model based on the concrete needs and uses of each centre and its faculty, and this can be done because students finishing primary school are fully bilingual.
The linguistic immersion model that was created in 1965 in Quebec with its well-known bilingual situation has been the backbone of the Catalan educational system, and is based on some fundamental premises: It supports educational innovation, promotes social cohesion, avoids self-segregation for linguistic reasons, and consolidates the educational system. Finally, the law normalises the Catalan language, which was not only weakened by the Franco dictatorship that prohibited the public use of Catalan and never authorised the use of Catalan in schools, but is also in a weaker overall position compared with Spanish that has very many more speakers worldwide and is  the only official language for the entire Spanish state.
The positive results of the Catalan immersion system have been recognized by the European Council and they have not been challenged by any academic authority at home or abroad. Because of the gradual introduction of Spanish, Catalan students finish primary school with full competence in both Catalan and Spanish. A good example of this accomplishment is that in every one of the latest tests administered by PISA (the Programme for International Student Assessment run by the OECD), Catalan students have performed better than the average Spanish student in their competence in Spanish.
The opposition to linguistic immersion is thus a simple matter of politics. If we take a look at the Parlament de Catalunya, the main legislative body of Catalonia, 72.3% of MPs voted in favour of keeping the current model, while only 22.3% of the MPs who voted were against the model; in other words, 107 MPs voted in favour and 28 against. The social and political majority in support of this model is quite clear. But part of the political problem lies in the fact that among those who oppose the current model is the Partido Popular, which is the fourth largest political party in Catalonia, but has an absolute majority in the Spanish government. They favour a model that is used in other parts of the Spanish state that also have Catalan and its variants as anofficial language together with Spanish.  In Valencia and the Balearic Islands, the educational system has two different tracks: one for those who choose Catalan and another for those who choose Spanish. Not all students, then, who finish primary school have competence in both languages, and neither do they show any greater mastery of Spanish. Instead, in Valencia, the governing Partido Popular offers far fewer opportunities for students to learn in their own language than those asked for by pupils and parents. In the Balearic Islands, governed by the same party, a new linguistic educational model has been introduced that effectively eliminates the Catalan-language track, which was the one chosen by the great majority of families there.
Opposition to immersion in Catalan is thus political, ideological, and consistent with the wish to keep the Catalan language as the weaker public and social language: it is a reactionary and post-Francoist wish to eliminate whatever signifies plurality and diversity in a conception of a Spain with one color, one idea, and one language. Because of this, the five judgments passed by the Tribunal Superior de Justícia in Barcelona are an assault against the Catalan educational system and the social cohesion it guarantees. The judges of the Tribunal rule that, even if only one student in a classroom were to ask for it, the entire lingustic immersion model would have to be abandoned, and in its place 25% of the courses offered would need to switch to Spanish .The Principal of each school would have to obey the ruling.
These are ideological rulings that have no basis in juridical principles. The Spanish Constitution states that the authority for education is the government of Catalonia. The current law in effect makes linguistic immersion a  component of primary education.  Principals of public and private schools using public funding must meet the curricular and pedagogical objectives that are laid out by the competent educational authorities in Catalonia. A judge cannot modify a law, rather he must ensure its enforcement, regardless of personal opinion. A judge does not have the competence to assign percentages to languages or curricula. Furthermore, a judge certainly has no competence whatsoever to force a goverment worker or a principal of a school funded by the public to disobey the directives of their Ministry of Education.
In Europe this isn’t what is supposed to happen. It’s clear that, in the Spanish state, judicial power never transitioned from the Francoist era to the constitutional monarchy it is intended to serve and remained on the sidelines. Even today there are countless examples of sentences passed by judges that reflect this reality, among the first of which are the rulings disallowing investigations into the crimes perpetrated during the Franco regime and disallowing reparations to the victims of that regime.
But in Catalonia we take our language seriously.  It can’t be something imposed by a minority. A successful model isn’t going to change just because the families of 5 (or even 10, 15, or 20) out of over 800,000 primary students want to change it. Nor because a few judges want it to . And we mean this, with every ounce of respect and resolve we’ve got.

Josep Bargalló Valls
First Minister and Minister of the Presidency of Catalonia 2004-2006
Minister of Education of Catalonia 2003-2004
Councillor in Torredembarra Town Council (1995-2003)
President of the Ramon Llull Institute (2006-2010)
From 2010 he is Professor of the University Rovira i Virgili

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