Mounting political attacks on Catalan language rights

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   By a Newsnet reporter

As Catalonia moves towards its referendum on independence, Catalan language rights are coming under increasing attack from political parties opposed to Catalan self-determination.

On Thursday this week, the regional government of Aragon approved a new language law which strips Catalan of its official status in the Catalan speaking municipalities along the border with Catalonia, and classifies the Catalan of these areas as dialects of “Eastern Aragonese”.

As well as being the official language of Catalonia, Catalan is also the traditional language of over 3 million Spanish citizens who live outside of Catalonia, mainly in the regions of Valencia, the Balearic Islands, and a strip of territory in Aragon along the border with Catalonia.  Right-wing political parties in these areas have stepped up their attacks on the language rights of Catalan speakers, in an apparent attempt to weaken the language’s standing and increase the pace of language shift to Spanish.

The newly approved language law in Aragon removes official standing from the Catalan of the border districts, known as La Franja d’Aragó in Catalan, and from the Aragonese language spoken in the valleys of the central Pyrenees.  According to the new law, these languages are now “the linguistic modalities of Aragon”, a term which also covers the Spanish spoken by the large majority of the Aragonese population. 

Most controversially, the law classifies the Catalan of La Franja as “Lengua Aragonesa Propia del Área Oriental” or LAPAO (Aragonese Language Proper to the Eastern Area), and denies that it is Catalan at all.  Academic, linguistic, and educational bodies in Aragon united in their opposition to the new law, which has been introduced by the regional government without consultation with any linguistic or educational experts, but the regional government pressed ahead regardless. 

The new name was ridiculed in a tweet by Josep Antoni Duran Lleida, the spokesperson of the Catalan nationalist party the CiU in the Spanish Parliament.  Mr Duran Lleida is himself a native of La Franja.  He wrote:

“How ridiculous! Now I speak Lapao!  From last night to today all Catalans can now add a new language to their CVs, Lapao.”

The law has also been widely ridiculed amongst Catalan speakers, and even in the mainstream Spanish media, which is normally opposed to Catalan self-determination.  An apps development company based in Catalonia which specialises in Catalan language applications, Dau Apps, has now made available a “Lapao-Catalan” translator app for Android.  Launched with dripping sarcasm under the slogan Parlo sense vergonya, parlo lapao (I speak shamelessly, I speak Lapao), the app developers say they have made the application free because if it were not “the tight fisted Catalans wouldn’t download it,” a reference to the popular Spanish stereotype that Catalans are mean with money. Users of the app can enter Catalan text and the app will automatically give the “Lapao” translation, which is of course identical to the Catalan version. 

If the Aragonese law is fully implemented, schools in Catalan speaking towns and villages in La Franja will no longer be able to teach Catalan to their pupils.  Instead schools will only be permitted to provide classes in the individual local dialect, a near impossibility given that there are no textbooks or resources available, and will no longer be able to make use of Catalan language materials produced in neighbouring Catalonia.  The law specifies that pupils will be able to opt out of such classes, meaning that the children of Spanish speaking families who move into Catalan speaking areas will no longer be obliged to learn the language in school.

In an attempt to erase Catalan from the map of Aragon, Catalan place names and road signs will also be prohibited.  According to the new law, alongside Spanish, only the local dialect is to be permitted, not the standard written form of Catalan which has been in use until now.

The new law also removes the obligation on the regional government to respond to enquiries made in Catalan in the same language. 

María Dolores Serrat of the Partido Popular, and Education Minister in the Aragonese regional government, claimed that the law was necessary to prevent what she described as “the imposition” of Catalan.

The new language law in Aragon is the latest in a series of recent attacks on Catalan language rights from Partido Popular politicians. 

Within Catalonia itself, the education system has recently suffered setbacks in the courts, after Spanish speaking groups supported by the Partido Popular sought a ruling that Catalan medium education was a breach of their constitutional right to be educated in Spanish only. 

Meanwhile in the Balearic Islands, the Partido Popular controlled regional government has recently restricted Catalan immersion education, classes in Catalan for children who enter the school system without speaking the language.  Partido Popular controlled local authorities in the islands have also recently begun to substitute the title Catalan for local dialect names.

Unlike Scotland where language issues are marginal to the campaign for independence, the fate and status of the Catalan language is a major issue in Catalonia’s independence campaign.  However the increasing political attacks on the status of the language outside Catalonia may backfire on the Partido Popular, as Catalan speakers are left in doubt whether their language can have a secure future within the Spanish state.