BARCELONA – Thousands of Catalans took to the streets of Barcelona on Saturday to protest against a court decision that mandates that 25% of all school subjects be taught in Spanish, reducing the still predominant use of the local Catalan language in classrooms.
Demonstrators say this would threaten their cherished educational system, which has helped bring Catalan back to common use after it had been suppressed during the 20th-century dictatorship of Gen. Francisco Franco.
“It is not proper of a democracy that a court invalidates an educational system that is supported by society and its parliament,” said Òscar Escuder, president of Platform for the Language, a grassroots group that promotes the use of Catalan who joined the march. “According to our polls, 82% of Catalans support” the current system.
The renewed defense of the Catalan language also promises to galvanize the region's separatist movement that has been struggling to maintain its unity. Several marchers carried pro-independence flags, and the movement's leaders were in attendance.
But families who want their children to receive more learning in Spanish say the current system is violating their rights to study in the nation’s common tongue.
The march comes less than a month since Spain’s Supreme Court upheld the 2020 decision by a lower court in Catalonia that ruled in favor on a suit brought by the Spain’s previous conservative government against Catalonia’s Department of Education.
The Supreme Court tossed out an appeal by the Catalan government against the previous ruling that the region's schools must guarantee at least 25% of academic subjects be taught in Spanish. That would translate into roughly doubling the hours Catalan student are taught in Spanish from one subject to two. Currently, most schools only use Spanish in Spanish language class, leaving everything else to be taught in Catalan.
The increase may seem slight, but for many Catalans it is sacrilege.
“I am here to defend the educational system in which I was schooled and my children were schooled,” said Mónica Muñoz, a 47-year-old translator and mother of three.
“(The court mandate) is the death of our language. Our language is the foundation of our society, and it has been shown that the educational system works … Spanish is not in danger.”
Now another institutional showdown looms between central authorities and the Catalan regional government, which is run by secessionists who are vowing not to abide by the requirement to increase Spanish in schools.
The Assembly for a Bilingual School in Catalonia, a grassroots group representing Catalans who want more Spanish in classrooms, says that while around 100 families have taken their demand for more Spanish to the courts, there are “many more” who support them.
The use of languages in Catalonia’s schools has become a heated national debate after a family denounced that they had been insulted and felt threatened following their request for their child’s public school in Canet de Mar just north of Barcelona to increase the hours of Spanish as mandated by the courts.
“We aren’t against Catalan. We love Catalan, and we appreciate the richness it gives us all as individuals and as a society," the family said in an open letter, written in Spanish and Catalan. "But we are bilingual, and we also love Spanish. Our goal is nothing more than for Spanish to form a part of our child’s education in a normal way just as it does in Catalan society.”
Catalan is a Romance language similar to Spanish. It is spoken in the Catalonia region of northeast Spain, in the tiny nation of Andorra and to a reduced extent in neighboring Spanish regions and in southern France.
The vast majority of Catalonia’s 7.7 million residents speak both Catalan and Spanish fluently. Conversations can easily flow from one language to the next, especially since the language have many words that are very similar.
The use of Catalan in schools was official prohibited during Franco’s rule from the end of the 1936-39 Spanish Civil War until his death in 1975. Since then, the promotion of the language has been a prized achievement of Catalonia, which enjoys a wide degree of self-rule since Spain’s return to democracy.
The Catalan education system is widely supported, even by many of the roughly 50% of citizens who are against the independence push. For many who came from other parts of Spain in large numbers last century, it meant their children could easily integrate.
In 2019, Spain’s Constitutional Court ruled against another suit brought by Spain’s conservative Popular Party and said that Catalonia’s system of “linguistic immersion” in Catalan was constitutional.
The Spanish Constitution states that Spanish is the language of the nation and should be learned and spoken by everyone. It also states that Catalan and other minority languages like Basque are co-official languages and part of Spain’s “cultural patrimony that should be subject to special respect and protection.”
Hernán Muñoz contributed to this report.