Is Catalan no longer the language of the young?

3 min
A Catalan dictionary through the screen of a mobile phone.

"All the just causes in the world have their defenders. However, Catalonia has only us". This Lluís Companys quote referring to the Catalan nation is perfectly applicable to the Catalan language. In Catalonia's recent history we have experienced great debates about the Catalan language, too often stirred up by Madrid parties and media groups that have sought to win votes in Spain by attacking language immersion in schools in order to fuel the discourse of hatred. In few places around the world would we find examples where there are people who prefer their children to learn only one language when they can learn two.

However, despite the national effervescence we have experienced in recent years, the Catalan language has been left out of the public debate and most of us would be hard pressed to recall governmental or social initiatives of great impact in this area. In the last ten years, the Government of Catalonia has had up to six ministers of Culture, with powers over language policy, but language has not been a priority, despite the fact that, with the data at hand, there are well-founded reasons for concern. Obviously, governmental action in the field of language does not have to be the responsibility of a specific department alone, but concerns all ministries.

Looking at the big figures, we might believe that Catalan enjoys good health because it is the thirteenth most widely spoken language in the whole of the European Union, despite the fact that it is not one of its 24 official languages. The reality, however, is that the social use of Catalan is declining; despite the fact that the majority of citizens understand it and a large part of them know how to speak it, in the Catalan-speaking territories as a whole only 32.5% use it regularly, according to official data. In the last fifteen years, for example, half a million speakers have been lost.

But where all the alarm bells go off is when we look at the number of young people who have Catalan as their habitual language. For example, in 2018 only 19.6% of Barcelonians aged between 15 and 29 said they used Catalan as a normal language, when five years earlier this percentage was 30%. In the words of the Plataforma per la Llengua, this data shows that we are facing a situation of linguistic emergency because when a language is spoken by less than 30% of the community, speakers find it increasingly difficult to find interlocutors who also use it.

Younger generations' media consumption has nothing to do with their parents', who are now only in their 40s and 50s. Video games, the way of accessing audiovisual content through infinite platforms and social networks or mobile applications have displaced traditional television channels at meteoric speed. In 2010 the implementation of digital terrestrial television was completed, which multiplied the offer of channels by five; but this has quickly been eclipsed by the emergence of the internet and digital platforms, with hundreds of channels and all kinds of content, always available. For today's children, a channel like Super3, which offers content in Catalan, is but a drop in an ocean full of content in Spanish and other languages.

In the era of digital content, Catalan has lost. There has been no decisive strategy to face this challenge, not due to lack of reflexes, but lack of means. Quality audiovisual content is worth money and there hasn't been any.

The new Government must place the promotion of the social use of Catalan among its priorities, especially among the youngest. Catalan is less and less present in the sphere of leisure and the digital environment, which is an objective future risk for the health of the language. This is why we must recover the political impetus in the field of language and we must turn the Catalan Corporation of Audiovisual Media into a great driving force for the generation of content in Catalan, in all formats and channels. The CCMA is being attacked from all sides, by political and business interests, but a language and a culture such as Catalan cannot do without or weaken such a fundamental tool, which is also a great driving force for the audiovisual industry and, therefore, for many sectors of culture.

To protect and promote the language without having the tools of a state and, often, with a state against us, we need to recover the linguistic awareness that has been fading in recent years collectively. Surely we are still in time to reverse the situation, but we cannot miss any more opportunities. We have so much at stake that we might be risking everything. And, as President Companys said, to defend this cause we only have ourselves. Have a great Sant Jordi!

Carles Mundó is a lawyer and former minister of Justice.