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Catalan separatists want university classes taught in the local language. Spanish academics resist the change. 

​​​​​​​Language has always been at the heart of the Catalan people’s campaign for independence. And the regional government is once again demanding that university professors teach their courses in Catalan. But does the Catalan-language law further the nationalist cause, or leave the region more isolated? Professors are already rebelling. 

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Alejandro Rodriguez, an engineering professor at the Polytechnical University of Catalonia, starts his Intro to Radio Frequencies class the same way every Friday — in Spanish.

“I can do it in Catalan, I can do it in English,” he said. “But Spanish is the language in which I can teach better. I think I should have the right to decide which language to use.”

Rodriguez’s students are a mix of Catalans, who’ve grown up speaking Catalan and Spanish, and Spaniards from elsewhere. Throw in some international students, Rodriguez said, and teaching in Spanish makes the most sense.

But now, he may have problems with school administrators. Under a new higher education initiative, he’ll soon be forced to lecture, answer questions and correct papers all in Catalan.

The semi-autonomous region of Catalonia has two official languages: Spanish and Catalan. But authorities there have decided that Catalan will be the lingua franca for higher education. Their goal is to have 80% of university classes in the region taught in Catalan by 2025. Professors who don’t adapt could soon be out of a job.

Although the measure has its supporters, others, like Rodriguez, are angry.

“I have been teaching for more than 25 years,” he said. “Spanish is my mother language, and I have never had any problem with my students.”

Catalan education officials say there are a lot of reasons for the new law, starting with wanting to protect Catalan students themselves.

“Our pupils have the right to learn in Catalan,” said Jordi Matas, the University of Barcelona’s vice rector for language policy. “It’s enshrined in regional law.”

man in office

Languages don’t have rights, Engineering professor Alejandro Rodriguez says; they’re just tools for communicating. People have rights. He defends his, to teach in Spanish, which is an official language in Catalonia alongside Catalan. Catalan education authorities say Catalan students have the right to learn in Catalán. The debate can seem endless but one thing is clear: The Catalan language is inseparable from the regional identity of many of Catalonia’s roughly 8 million residents.


Gerry Hadden/The World

The law stipulates that professors who don’t pass a Catalan-language proficiency test will lose their posts. It sounds drastic, Matas said, but what’s at stake is nothing less than existential.

“The Catalan language is a symbol of our identity,” Matas said. “There are cultural and historical aspects that differentiate us from the rest of Spain, and our language is essential to our sense of belonging.”

In recent years, politicians in Catalonia have tried to exploit that sense of identity. Tensions culminated in 2017, when Catalan separatists staged an illegal referendum on seceding from Spain. Crowds who came out to vote were met by police officers wielding truncheons.

The drive for an independent Catalonia drew international attention. And that’s what Catalan education officials want now.

Catalonia’s universities commissioner Gemma Geis spoke at a press conference recently.

“We’re convinced that we can express ourselves in Catalan and become internationally renowned for our universities. We embrace the world — in Catalan,” she said.

Catalonia’s public universities accept about 13,000 international students each year. But not all of these pupils embrace Catalan.

“For us Italians, speaking in Catalan is a problem,” said 21-year-old exchange student Alexia Scalarandi, speaking in fluent Spanish.

She’s come to the University of Barcelona from Turin, in northern Italy, for the year.

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Engineering professor Alejandro Rodriguez in his office at the Polytechnical University of Catalonia. Rodriguez is against a new measure requiring 80% of classes in public universities here to be in Catalán. He’s fluent in Catalán and Spanish, but more comfortable teaching in the latter. He says higher education is about imparting knowledge in the best way possible, not about protecting languages.


Gerry Hadden/The World

“A lot of professors here teach in Catalan, and we can’t understand them,” she said.

To avoid losing both time and knowledge, Scalarandi switched out of classes taught in Catalan.

“I’m studying Russian, Spanish and German,” she said. “I don’t have time to learn Catalan, too.”

That’s hardly the international acceptance that Catalan educators are after. And it raises the question: If all classes are in Catalan, will international students and professors still come to these universities? Or even those from outside Catalonia, for that matter?

They likely will, but it doesn’t matter, said 22-year-old college student Jan Figueras Gibert. Catalan must be preserved no matter what, if not restored to its former glory, he said on a recent stroll through downtown Barcelona.

“Catalan has a spectacular history,” Figueras said. “Europe’s first cookbook was written in Catalan.”

In addition, for centuries, Catalan was the language of commerce and law around much of the Western Mediterranean, “but modern nation-states have been slowly exterminating Europe’s minority tongues,” he said.

“We need to fight, so that every place can maintain its cultural richness. And that includes Catalan.”

Figueras is studying Catalan history. He looks like he’s just stepped out of one of his textbooks — dressed in clothes from the 1730s. But what makes Figueras really stand out: He won’t speak Spanish, ever.

“Whether I’m in class or anywhere else,” he said. “My sense is that if I don’t speak in Catalan, my native language will lose its place in society.”

It already did once, Figueras said, under the dictator, Gen. Francisco Franco, from the late 1930s until the 1970s. During that time, the use of Catalan was banned in public institutions.

“If I had my way, Catalonia would be its own country, with 100% of all classes in Catalan,” Figueras said, adding that Spanish would be treated as a foreign language.

Catalonia’s new education initiative won’t exactly reduce Spanish to a foreign language. But it will anchor higher education to Catalonia’s other, deeply cherished tongue.

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