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Spanish or Catalan? A controversy that is anything but academic

Education experts fear that students will suffer as long as sterile arguments over outdated "linguistic immersion" approach rumble through the courts

Héctor García could well symbolize the success of the Catalan education model: at age 26, he is the son of parents from a small village in León, and considers himself a happy bilingual speaker. After two decades living and working in Barcelona, neither one of his parents - who moved here when Héctor was three - is able to sustain a five-minute conversation in Catalan.

Their son, who speaks Spanish at home, with most of his friends and also with his partner, uses almost exclusively Catalan at work and speaks it very naturally. "At home we never questioned the linguistic issue when I was going to school, I always considered it my other language. If I did not speak fluent Catalan, I probably wouldn't have found this job and I wouldn't feel so at home here," he notes.

Marina, on the other hand, symbolizes the other side of the coin and embodies the controversy sparked decades ago over the issue of linguistic immersion. This mother of a gradeschooler who does not wish her real name to be used to avoid being called "españolista" (pro-Spain, rather than pro-Catalonia), turned to the regional government to demand more classes in Spanish for her daughter. "I am not against Catalan; I want her to learn it and speak it correctly," she says. "But I think it is totally exaggerated to leave out Spanish."

The Catalan government, as it usually does in these cases, responded with the law in its hand: Marina's daughter may choose the language she will be educated in during the first years of schooling, but from the age of eight the "vehicular language" of the region's education system is Catalan. "This is a clear inequality and they don't give you any alternatives. On top of that, some parents looked at me like I was a fascist." Marina ruled out taking her request to the courts to avoid making more of a fuss, and she is now resigned to have her bilingual child study in Catalan.

On Wednesday, Congress passed a motion backing the Catalan education model, and expressing support for linguistic immersion in Catalan and its use as the main language of communication in Catalonia's public schools.

The motion was approved by 192 votes to 148 by all parties save for the main opposition Popular Party (PP) and UPyD, and was an initiative of the small Catalan nationalist party ERC. Specifically, the text talks about "the right to receive an education in Catalan," "for Catalan to be used regularly as the vehicular and learning language" and backs "linguistic immersion as an educational tool."

The congressional move comes on the heels of a higher court's decision that the Catalan government must change this model to accommodate Spanish speakers who wish for their children to be educated in Spanish rather than in Catalan.

García, who was also educated in Catalan with Spanish as just another subject matter, represents successful integration, as happens in the majority of cases. Marina represents less than a dozen cases a year, according to regional government sources.

In both cases, students acquire similar notions of Spanish and Catalan, and their Spanish level is comparable to other students in Spain. But the bilingual model continues to be used as a political weapon, rather than be considered from a solely educational perspective. "Both positions are understandable and they should be respected without making such a political fuss over it. In some way, the Catalan system excludes Spanish as a language of teaching," says Albert Branchadell, a linguist and a professor at the Translation and Interpretation School in Barcelona's Autónoma University. "Learning the odd subject matter in Spanish should not be harmful to bilingualism. But politically, not everyone is ready to accept it, assume it and implement it."

"Over 25 years later, immersion could be described as a notable success, although the conditions that prompted it no longer exist in many schools, or else they're very different," explains Ignasi Vila, professor of evolutionary and education psychology at Girona University.

"But there is no way of debating how to upgrade the model. Politics dominate everything on an issue that is always sensitive, but especially on the eve of general elections," continues Vila, one of the founding fathers of the Catalan language immersion model. The approach stems from past fears that non-Catalan immigrants from other parts of Spain, particularly Andalusia, would be discriminated against if they did not learn the local language.

The new school year began with renewed turbulence over the legal battle initiated by a family who went to court in 2005 over the regional government's refusal to offer more school hours in Spanish, and who recently appealed to the Catalonia regional High Court. This institution ruled that the government has two months to increase Spanish-taught subjects in the region's public classrooms; the Catalan government has appealed this decision, and regional premier Artur Mas, of the CiU nationalist bloc, got dramatic with statements such as "our language is untouchable."

Meanwhile, the conservative Popular Party and Ciutadans, a non-nationalist party, told the regional government to "abide by the law" and decried "the persecution of Spanish in Catalonia." In both cases, voters of each ideology were inflamed, even as leftwing and rightwing parties carefully count how many votes they could win for themselves by appealing to the linguistic cause.

To top it all off, a new ruling by another section of the Catalonia High Court backs the current linguistic model, saying that Catalan is "the normal vehicle of expression" for internal and external school affairs, although this does not mean it should be used as "the only language," or that Spanish should be excluded or ignored. "It is legitimate for Catalan to be the center of gravity of that model of bilingualism," read the ruling.

"But whether in Catalan, Spanish or English, what educators worry about is how to improve educational levels," says Branchadell. Spain ranks third in Europe in dropout rates: 32 percent of students leave school without graduating from high school or vocational centers. Catalonia shows similar trends: nearly 31 percent of youngsters between 18 and 24 lack a high school diploma, when the EU average is 14.4 percent and Brussels has a target of under 10 percent by the year 2020. "And we're supposed to be arguing over a few hours more or a few hours less?" Branchadell says ironically. "It is not an educational controversy; it is a political or legal one that diverts attention away from the main issue."

The controversy revives old extracurricular disputes over a successful model: can Spain's legal system endorse a model that excludes Spanish as the main language of communication at school? Yes it can: for decades, Catalonia has been implementing a system that was backed by constitutional law, and the results have been positive on an educational level and for social integration.

On the other hand, can the Catalan linguistic model now be restructured to embrace new sociological realities that pose new challenges, such as incorporating a community of immigrants that do not speak Spanish but mostly Arabic, or educating students who must increasingly move away from the outdated bilingual model in favor of trilingualism, given the predominance of English? So far it has not been able to do that, at least from a purely educational perspective.

"Immersion, like all other educational models, has its limits and requires an upgrade, say every five or 10 years," says Joaquim Arnau, an expert in linguistic matters and a member of Institut d'Estudis Catalans, the region's academy of science and letters.

"Quality schooling should do a better job of configuring language learning, especially English but also Spanish." But how? "Hmm, that's more of a political than an educational issue. Everyone has turned Catalan into their banner, either for or against it," Arnau explains.

Paradoxically, this political utilization of language at school entrenches a model that needs to adapt to new realities. "It's not the same thing to promote linguistic immersion for a Spanish speaker than for a child who speaks Arabic or Mandarin Chinese," says Vila.

"Immersion was not conceived of for this type of immigration," adds Branchadell, in reference to the massive migration to Catalonia from other parts of Spain in the 1960s (including an estimated one million Andalusians). Experts say that the results will probably be felt in a region where immigrants make up nearly 15 percent of the student body.

But the need to improve the school system remains eclipsed by the language controversy, which distorts and conceals the other problems.

"In some cases, immersion in Catalan is not sustainable, simply because in many cases the teachers do not speak the children's language, while the children speak neither Spanish nor Catalan. In some schools you already have eight working languages," Branchadell continues.

"Let the system continue to be based on Catalan, but with the kind of flexibility that overcomes the Catalan-Spanish dichotomy while dropout rates continue to rise. That's the problem."