The future of language
Misc 23/01/2021

"If it's seen as feminism or environmentalism is, young people will join the language cause"

Linguists demand an update on language policies and call for Catalan to be used in audiovisual content and in informal settings

8 min
A group of young university students talk on the day of the sel-lectivitat

BarcelonaFar from the apocalyptic discourse, but also from the relativist discourse, linguists observe with caution the evolution of the social use of Catalan (and its regression among the young people of Barcelona). They argue that the normalisation 1980s policies, which are already faltering, need to be updated. There are ways to increase the number of Catalan speakers without them being indicated. What is lacking is a clear, scientific and consensual political strategy. The ARA has discussed the reason for this backward step and how a leap forward can be made with three experts: Narcís Iglesias, lecturer in language and communication at the University of Girona; Mercè Lorente, lecturer in linguistics and terminology at the Pompeu Fabra University and member of the Philological Section of the IEC; and Marina Massaguer, researcher in sociolinguistics at the CUSC-UB and the UOC.

The Weight of Economics and Demography

Why do 80% of Barcelona's young people not use Catalan on a regular basis?

Marina Massaguer These aren't good figures, but this has partly to do with the city's demographic dynamics: young foreigners come to study or work and young people born in Barcelona are expelled, among other things, because of the price of housing. This is why the figures are improving in the metropolitan area. It's not that young people are abandoning Catalan, it's that there is a substitution of population as a consequence of a city model that expels its population. If we look at the place of birth, the data favours Catalan both in terms of knowledge and use.

Narcís Iglesias It's not a positive data but neither can we say that all is lost. The decline in the use of Catalan is due to a period of 10-15 years and does not only affect young people.

M.M. Among young people there are the same problems as in the other groups: the convergence with the Spanish language, the dependence that Catalan has on initial speakers, the little cultural and audiovisual consumption in Catalan... Young people limit themselves to circulating in sociolinguistic dynamics that adults have created.

Catalonia and the Catalan language do not have any coercive tools, but can one say that states have less and less weight?

Mercè Look at the case of Andorra. It has Catalan as its official language but Portuguese is probably the most widely spoken tongue. It's clear that one state doesn't guarantee everything. But let's not hide behind globalisation: if it depended on this we would be speaking Chinese. What globalisation has imposed is the widespread use of English as a lingua franca, but beyond this markets function with state languages. This is why we are interested in Alexa speaking Catalan: if the dynamics of the states are not broken, it will be difficult for minority languages.

N.I The question is how globalisation is concretized at a local level. The importance of the state cannot be overlooked: it regulates a thousand and one aspects, from labelling to the selection of personnel. And this remains the same, we don't have the tools to choose anything: how you run the economy also affects language.

M.M Global political-economic dynamics have sociolinguistic consequences, but the local economic model is very important: a model based on services and low-cost tourism is unsustainable from many points of view, also sociolinguistically. Because if the jobs you generate are seasonal and low-skilled, and they generate social dynamics that tend to segregate and create unequal access to resources, also linguistic, perhaps not everything is the fault of Madrid and globalisation.

A cause that young people can join

Not speaking Catalan may be a conscious political decision, but at certain ages it can be due to unconsciousness, inequality, ignorance, or lack of references. Carme Junyent says that 70% of the population is indifferent to the language. How can we encourage its use among this population?

M.L. Young people join causes because they are very sensitive to the violation of rights. I am convinced that they will join the cause of language if it is seen as feminism or the ecological struggle is. I think it has to go this way so that it is not a connoted issue, but one of social rights. We have already seen that there are social struggles through which young people emerge from indifference.

M.M. Consciences can change. That's why I think we should promote internationalism. The linguistic inequalities between dominant and minority languages must be unmasked, and minority communities must have more strategies and discourses in common. So that everyone is aware that their linguistic choices have tangible consequences on sociolinguistic dynamics.

Lack of supply on networks and television

N.I I agree with the fact that young people are creators of new possibilities for language. But it is not only a question of what they can do for language but what language offers to them, to all of us. In the end, it is a question of supply and demand: what we do as citizens is choose according to what is offered to us. There are many areas, especially in youth cultures, where they are offered nothing or very little, and consequently the use of Catalan is low or non-existent. What resources do we have to offer things? If the budget devoted to children and young people today is a third of what it was 10 years ago, it is clear that the offer cannot have the same force of attraction in a much more complex context. In this sense, the audiovisual and network world has a specific weight.

M.M. Catalan on networks is in a minorization circle, there is little content it is not diversified, and with a certain negative connotation. Few references emerge and, therefore, there is little consumption and this can lead the public and creators to think that Catalan is not apt to do certain things, although this is false. Now we have the Malaia Channel, the youtuber Pol Gise, but a structure such as that of the Club Super3 is missing, which had an investment and a project. The youth channel would have to be recovered and directed to the networks. The 3XL was born 21 years ago, but they stopped investing in it and now we see the consequences: no new collective imagination is generated for young people, as it had previously happened with Bola de Drac and Plats Bruts.

M.L Catalan has an important presence on the internet because of the number of speakers we are, but what we have to provide is content.

N.I. We have never had so much information available in Catalan... but the world of YouTube is gigantic. However, here too the effect of change can be felt. For example, online video games are no longer played in Catalan. However, at some point someone will break the diglossia, because the digital realm has no barrier; it has happened with memes, youtubers, and tiktokers, and it will happen with gamers. But which has been the supply of young entertainment for the last 30 years? Not intergenerational, like Plats bruts, but of youth programs. There has been very little.

The three linguists that the ARA has met with

What does Catalan offer to young people?

M.L. Let's go back to the question Narcís asked: what does Catalan offer to young people? For my generation, both going to university and working could be elements of incorporation of new speakers of Catalan. There were expectations, especially in the public administration and in parallel institutions, and this encouraged parents to opt for linguistic immersion. At this time, with an almost perennial economic crisis, the element of social promotion is missing. On the contrary, institutions that were opened during the Transition have collapsed. Television is paradigmatic: there are neither old nor young people. This also cuts off the possibility that there is an offer that people like, that is varied, that is not only of a certain ideology or orientation.

M.M. Among Spanish-speaking immigrants there was more or less a conscious strategy to bring their children closer to Catalan because it was perceived as a language with prestige, as a middle-class brand. Now what we lack is a new project for the Catalan language, to renew discourses, to find new sources of legitimacy, as the concept of our own language was at the time. How do we understand it in the 21st century? We have to make micropolicies, strategies at different levels and in different areas.

The tools for standardisation were schools, administrations, and media. Where should we go from here?

M.M. We have these tools. They have to be dusted off. For example, in schools we need to place more emphasis on orality, because if the educational model has changed and now group work is much more important, this encourages the imposition of Spanish, because it has been demonstrated that Catalan speakers have to be many more in number for Catalan to be imposed as an unmarked language. Secondly, attention must be paid to professional and occupational training: that Catalan really does allow you to find work or a better job if you are dedicated to caring for people, services or commerce. Thirdly, we need to encourage the creation of benchmarks. If we want Catalan to be attractive, we have to generate products that are attractive in Catalan, because if you see that there are no cool products, you may think that Catalan is not cool. Fourthly, to generate spaces that facilitate the use of the language. There have to be many places where you can come into contact with Catalan. There is a lot of potential here in the field of extracurricular and leisure activities. If you have little contact with Catalan in your environment, you will know it little, use it less, identify with it little, and may end up thinking that Catalan is not for you. This has to be changed.

N.I The aim is to promote the colloquialisation of the language. The school guarantees that you can read the ARA in Catalan, but to speak it you need to have environments in which it is spoken, and the more undiscriminating, the better.

M.L. Schools can do even more. We would have to get people not only to understand Catalan, and know how to read and write it, but what we want is to live in Catalan. We must be able to explain jokes, sing, and create in Catalan.

What can parents do?

M.M. As the saying goes, "What do children do? What they see their elders doing". It's as simple as speaking Catalan whenever you can and everywhere. Consume entertainment in Catalan. Do not change language in WhatsApp's parent groups.

M.L. Parents and young people have to see that joining the language is favourable for them, that it is not detrimental to them, that it is not connoted and that it is natural, that it allows them to join spaces of socialisation and work.

From the 80s until today: a new slogan for the Catalan language

Has the consensus on language been lost?

M.L. During the Transition, any demonstration of languages that had been banned was a sign of freedom. At the moment when everything is stabilized with a system of autonomy, we have to see how far we want to go. The State wanted to open up some possibilities for the minority languages without covering up Spanish and the policies of linguistic normalisation of the different communities wanted to make the population master both languages. Therefore, at that time we were not thinking about the future of Catalan. Now the time has come to do so. Without entering into debates that are neither catastrophic, nor apocalyptic, nor anything else. Our expectations are different. It may not be a question of this generation, but we must open a rational, scientific debate based on data and studies. Politicians too are conditioned by electoral pressures and strategies, and they always lag behind society. There are movements that people understand.

N.I. I believe that language is something that belongs to everyone, in all areas. There have to be more voices that open up new perspectives: economists, specialists in youth culture, town planners (because integration has to do with how cities are organised). There must be transdisciplinary contributions to update the pillars of the policies of the 80s, which are shaky.

M.M. Language policy has to be understood as a social policy of the country; it has to do with the economic and social model we want.

After "Catalan is everyone's business", "Catalan depends on you" or "Speak without shame, speak in Catalan", what slogan would you use for Catalan in the 1920s?

M.L. A slogan for the 21st century has to be made by someone young!

M.M. The slogan should be aimed at getting various profiles of speakers to use more Catalan, with more interlocutors and in more situations. We need to move towards much more personalised, inclusive and empathetic language policies.

N.I If I were 30 years old I would say "For a comfy language”. It is a term that has appeared to describe the clothes we wear for working from home: it gives you comfort, it gives you security, but at the same time it allows for external projection. Moreover, if you read it in Catalan, confi means: "Keep calm, just trust that it is an unmarked language and that you will be able to circulate without any stigma". But, as I am 50, I have to say: "For a safe, comfortable, and sustainable language".