Nationalist fury at ruling against Catalan language policy in schools

‘Total immersion’ model has been in place in region’s schools for four decades


A dispute over the use of the Spanish language in schools has put the government of Catalonia at loggerheads with the judiciary and drawn calls for direct rule to be introduced in the northeastern region.

This week, Spain’s supreme court confirmed a previous ruling that at least a quarter of all classes in Catalan schools should be in the Spanish language. This contrasts with the existing “total immersion” system whereby all classes in the region’s schools are in Catalan except for those in which foreign languages and the Spanish language itself are taught.

The nationalist Catalan government had appealed against the original ruling and the region’s president, Pere Aragonès, described the supreme court’s decision as “a very serious attack”.

“Catalan in schools must be left alone,” he said. “The model of linguistic immersion that we have is a guarantee of social cohesion and equality of opportunities.”

Campaigners for more Spanish in Catalan schools celebrated the court’s decision. “We’ve won!” wrote Ana Losada, president of the Assembly for Bilingual Schools, describing the total immersion policy as “a brutal propagandistic strategy” masterminded by pro-independence Catalans.

However, the Catalan government appears determined to disobey the ruling and has told schools not to increase their use of the Spanish language, pointing out that the immersion model is enshrined in the region’s education law.

Pablo Casado, leader of Spain’s main opposition Popular Party (PP), responded by calling on Socialist prime minister Pedro Sánchez to introduce direct rule in the area of education in Catalonia.

“All children in Catalonia have the right to receive at least 25 per cent of their classes in Spanish, which is the common language of all Spaniards,” he said. “Sánchez has the duty to defend this and if he does not, he is perverting the course of justice.”


Sánchez’s government has said that although any ruling must be obeyed, it is the court itself which is responsible for implementing the decision.

The total immersion model, based on that of French-speaking Canada, has been seen by successive nationalist governments in the region as an effective way of promoting the Catalan language and encouraging the integration of children of migrants from other parts of Spain.

“Historically, pro-independence Catalans have placed a lot of importance on the language, the same way that nationalists in Ireland have,” said Francesc-Marc Álvaro, a columnist for La Vanguardia newspaper. “The difference is that in Ireland the language lost influence whereas in Catalonia it didn’t.”

According to 2019 Catalan government statistics, 81 per cent of people in the region speak the Catalan language, although it is the mother tongue for only 32 per cent. Catalan tends to be predominant in rural areas, whereas Spanish is spoken more in Barcelona and the industrial belt surrounding it.

The Catalan wing of Sánchez’s Socialist Party has also long endorsed the policy, reflecting a broad consensus on this issue since the return to democracy four decades ago.

However, over the last decade, it has become more politically charged. Álvaro says that the arrival of the stridently unionist Ciudadanos party as a force in Catalonia stirred up opposition to the immersion model, as did the conservative Spanish government of Mariano Rajoy. Against the backdrop of a nationalist drive towards an ultimately doomed independence bid, language became yet another battleground.


Figures released this year showed that the immersion model is often not implemented. Use of Catalan in schools has plummeted over the last 15 years, with only 21 per cent of children using the language among themselves in class.

Nonetheless, campaign groups who want more Spanish spoken in the education system say that if parents are unhappy with the current model, then it should be changed. Since 2005, 80 families have complained about the existing policy.

“The idea that 80 families should try to change an [education] model is outrageous and obscene,” said Iolanda Segura of Ustec, a Catalan teachers’ union.

The Spanish coalition government, whose parliamentary majority relies on the support of the nationalist Catalan Republican Left (ERC), appears to have little appetite to wade into this debate.

As part of negotiations on the 2022 Spanish budget, Sánchez has agreed with ERC to a law change meaning that streaming platforms such as Netflix and Amazon must provide subtitles and dubbing in Catalan for six per cent of their content. The change also applies to Basque and Galician, the languages of Spain’s other “historic nationalities”.

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