Photo by Ravali Yan on Unsplash

Originally published in Spanish: “Los socialistas y la escuela catalana”. Joaquim Coll. El País.

28th February 2018

In view of Catalan Socialists’ closed defence of the so-called immersion policy, which they reaffirm whenever there’s some sort of controversy, one might conclude that nationalism’s greatest success has been getting them to believe that it was they who invented monolingual schools. It’s common to hear PSC leaders bragging about such a thing and nationalists claiming that the model was the result of a great consensus. But this is a misrepresentation resulting from poor memory and lack of rigour. The current immersion model isn’t the one designed in the eighties. Instead of Jordi Pujol’s initial proposal of institutionalising a segregated school system, with Catalan and Spanish separate from each other, the PSC and PSUC came to a consensus with other groups in the Parliament to promote a unified model. The first law of linguistic normalization (1983) established that students wouldn’t be separated by language—that is, a coordinated system was adopted with both languages as learning tools (bilingualism), including children’s right to receive primary instruction in their mother tongue and the administration’s duty to make the right effective. Nothing to do with the current landscape. One can’t invoke que name of Socialist pedagogue Marta Mata, who played a key role in the making of that law, in support of Catalan-only schooling throughout the entirety of mandatory education.

Immersion arrived through other roads. Its origin lies in an early pilot experiment conducted in the mid-eighties in Santa Coloma de Gramenet, which was justified because the environment was overwhelmingly Spanish-speaking in a period in which Catalan’s social use remained frail. The model started spreading bit by bit throughout the following decade, through so-called “immersion decrees” published by the Catalan regional government. It wasn’t until 1998 that a second law of linguistic normalization was passed which first introduced the concept of Catalan as the “vehicular” language, though the right to receive instruction in one’s mother tongue and the guarantee of an adequate presence of both languages in the curriculum remained in place.

It was in 2009, with the first law of Catalan education, promoted by Socialist regional minister Ernest Maragall (who later joined the secessionist ranks) and passed with the votes of ERC and CiU, that such guarantees for Spanish disappeared. The law was the result of the nationalist high caused by the 2006 Statute of Catalonia, which in its educational aspects was later amended by the Constitutional Court (2010) to establish that Spanish could not be excluded as a vehicular language. The makers of the law of education knew that they were pushing constitutional limits and opted to establish that Catalan would be the vehicular language “normally”, rather than “exclusively” (as originally intended). It mattered little, as they knew that Spanish would be relegated to the subject of Spanish Language, thanks to firm support for monolingualism in public and semi-private schools’ teaching plans. Nationalists were already cunning before the secessionist process.

That things happened this way does not preclude Socialist leaders from granting baseless claims, such as the regional government’s assertion that Catalan students’ level of Spanish is the same as or higher than in the rest of Spain and that this is backed by objective tests. Actually, there’s only been one coordinated assessment, held in 2010 by the Ministry of Education using a sample of 50 schools per region for the 4th year of obligatory secondary education (ESO) and the 2nd year of post-obligatory secondary education (Bachillerato). According to that study, young Catalans would be like the average Spanish student in terms of linguistic competence. However, the sample is small and rather old. The results of the PISA report are not useful either, as it is only conducted in Catalan and used by nationalist politicians as an argument in support of immersion.

Admittedly, the opposite cannot be claimed either, for we simply have no reliable data (university-entrance exams are different in each region). However, there is evidence that young people living in monolingual settings in Catalan-speaking families outside metropolitan areas fail to express themselves well in Spanish, showing poor control of grammatical structures and of the educated register. Maragall himself, in his period at the helm of the regional government’s education policy, used to refer to the “kid from Olot” as the prototype of the Catalan-speaking child who would benefit from more hours of instruction in Spanish. To believe that, in a few hours of Spanish Language and with no other subjects taught in Spanish, all Catalan youth speak the language perfectly is delusional.

Aside from the debate surrounding students’ level of Spanish, criticism of immersion insists above all on the anomaly that it implies to have a monolingual school system in a society with two official languages, and questions the purported irremovability of the formula, as if the sociolinguistic reality were uniform throughout all of Catalonia and as if nothing had changed after four decades normalizing Catalan. To this, one can add the hypocrisy of political elites who send their kids to trilingual schools while preaching a different thing entirely.  

Criticism of immersion casts doubt on the powerful noun phrase coined by the nationalist education world, the “Catalan school”—Catalan in language (only Catalan) and in contents (designed to reinforce national identity), as something untouchable and held up as a shining example of virtues for the whole community (success, cohesion, coexistence), ignoring its high rates of failure and early school leaving. The sociopolitical events of the final stages of the secessionist process have made it obvious that there is additionally a problem with secessionists’ instrumentalization of schools, with the cooperation of a significant proportion of teachers.  

It is surprising that PSC leaders, who privately acknowledge many of these points, do not dare break the spell of immersion and choose to forget that monolingual schooling was never the model of left-wing Catalanists, but rather the result of a nationalist hegemony that has lasted to this day. It may have been useful years back in some metropolitan areas, but it is highly questionable from the standpoint of the linguistic rights of half the population, and it dismisses the affection that Catalan schools should also show for Catalans’ other language. Further, it is illegal, as seen in the court orders mandating at least 25% of hours in Spanish. Finally, it will be impossible for the Socialists to articulate a federalist identity capable of combating emotional secessionism in the long run, unless they put forward a coherent case for bilingualism in Catalonia together with a greater recognition of the plurilingual reality of Spain as a whole.