Catalonia has witnessed in the 21st century a massive wave of migration, coming from all continents.
According to Idescat (2016), in 2000 those residents in Catalonia who were born outside Spain represented 2.9% of the total population, while in 2015 this percentage increased to 13.7% (almost 1,3 million people). We might not think much about that, but all these people coming from other countries bring their cultures and languages with them, which implies that Catalan society has become much more linguistically and culturally diverse in a few years. So, what is the actual number of languages spoken in the Catalan territory? According to GELA (Grup d’Estudi de Llengües Amenaçades), in Catalonia there are speakers of about 280 different languages (Barrieras, 2013). Yes, as much as 280. It shouldn’t be a big surprise, monolingual societies are rather the exception: the same way that several languages are spoken in Spain (Catalan, Basque, Galician, Aragonese, Asturian, Aranese, etc.), so is the case of the rest of the countries. But this is a very extensive subject which needs to be discussed in another article.
Such a substantial arrival of people in a short period of time is obviously complicated to manage and it raises difficulties regarding social cohesion, among others. Therefore, the situation of Catalan is somewhat delicate since Spanish is the dominant language and thus the first language that newcomers tend to learn.
For this reason, it is important to find an approach that facilitates the acquisition of Catalan by newcomers. However, bearing in mind that approximately 10% of the Catalan population has other languages than Catalan or Spanish as first language, it can no longer be said that Catalonia is a bilingual region: Catalonia is nowadays multilingual. Linguistic diversity needs to be taken into account for an inclusive integration approach, in which migrant languages can no longer be neglected. Linguistic and cultural assimilation is not the path to be taken since it has proven to lead to ghettoization and marginalization, the riots in Parisian suburbs being an example of this as an unsuccessful integrative strategy (Barrieras 2013).
Thus, the policies applied will determine what kind of society Catalonia will end up becoming. A successful approach to create a diverse cohesive society cannot be about a one-way integrative process in which only one part of the population makes an effort to understand the other part.
Notwithstanding, how can linguistic diversity be promoted without threatening Catalan, the region’s native minoritized language? There is extensive literature on how to bring Catalan closer to newcomers, but those migrant languages which are now also part of Catalonia’s cultural landscape have not received so much attention. Education and civil initiatives can play a key role in helping Catalonia become a richer and more inclusive society. Although it is obviously not feasible to ask teachers and cultural mediators in Catalonia to speak all migrant languages, there are other gestures to acknowledge linguistic diversity that would make a difference by valuing migrants’ identities.
Providing tools to educators and cultural mediators to spread awareness about the existence and importance of linguistic diversity would contribute to creating a more socially cohesive society if the process of becoming integrated did not imply that newcomers renounce their cultural and linguistic heritage (Barrieras 2013). There have been some good initiatives such as Lluïsa Gràcia’s book collection “Llengua, immigració i ensenyament del català” (“Language, immigration and teaching of Catalan”). As Gràcia and Contreras (2002) point out, just showing newcomers that their languages are not unknown, or saying “good morning” or “thanks” in their native language are simple gestures that would certainly be appreciated by newcomers since they would feel valued.
Therefore, it is obviously necessary for the survival of Catalan that newcomers learn it and identify with it so that it becomes also their language, but this cannot be to the detriment of their native language or their parents’. Assimilation consists of losing one’s original identity by adopting a new one, which implies an impoverishment for both newcomers’ and locals’ culture. Integration and diversity should never be synonyms for threat or impoverishment, but rather, if well-managed, for enrichment and cohesion. Furthermore, integration cannot be understood as a one-way process, it should imply an effort not only for newcomers but also for Catalan people, who should try to unlearn their Western-centric concepts and understand newcomers’ background. When people understand that everyone can contribute to society somehow and that all cultures and languages have developed in contact with others, that is the day that society will have gained in cohesion and richness.
Main picture: Languages connect the world. Source: UNESCO
- Barrieras, M. (2013, juliol). La cruïlla del multilingüisme: les llengües dels catalans al segle XXI. Diversia, 3
- Gràcia, Ll. & Contreras, J. (2002). El soninké i el mandinga. Estudi comparatiu entre les gramàtiques del soninké i el mandinga i la del català. Barcelona : Generalitat de Catalunya, Departament de Benestar i Família
- IDESCAT (2016). Evolució de la població total i estrangera. 2000-2015. Extret de http://www.idescat.cat/poblacioestrangera/?b=0