Col·lectiu Emma - Explaining Catalonia

Thursday, 23 december 2010 | Catalan



"Language immersion is a method of teaching a second language (also called L2, or the target language) in which the target language is used for instruction. Unlike a more traditional language course, where the target language is simply the subject material, language immersion uses the target language as a teaching tool, surrounding or "immersing" students in the second language. In-class activities, such as math, science, social studies, and history, and those outside of the class, such as meals or everyday tasks, are conducted in the target language. "
From Wikipedia, entry on “Language Immersion”

The debate on school and language models is ultimately a debate on a model of society. A cohesive society shares, first of all, a common language allowing its members to cooperate in building a project for their future; and this must be based on a dialogue between cultures if that society, as is the case in Catalonia, is made up of members of an original local population and newcomers from all over the world.

In 1983 the regional authorities agreed that in the Catalan school system children would not be segregated on account of their parents’ language. Instead, following a method that had been successfully implemented in Quebec, all children were to be schooled in one common language, regardless of what they spoke at home. The learning of basic language skills in the early years (including reading and writing) is done in Catalan. Between the ages of 5 and 8, Castilian is progressively introduced, both orally and in writing. While Castilian and Catalan are taught in primary and secondary education, Catalan is the vehicular language for most courses, and at the end of their schooling students will have acquired an equivalent knowledge of both Catalan and Castilian. A third language (usually English) has recently been introduced in many centers at the pre-school or primary levels.

Although the program was launched at a time when most non-Catalan speakers had Castilian as their mother tongue, it has proved to be a wise choice considering that, twenty-seven years later, there are in Catalonia thousands of children of immigrants from all parts of the world, and not only from Castilian-speaking areas or countries. More than 100 languages are represented today in Catalan schools, and children speaking those languages at home need to be integrated fast through a common language. In an effort to respond to this additional challenge for the education system, special classrooms have been set up in ordinary schools in order to make the transition easier for children from such diverse backgrounds and to speed up the process of socialization in their new environment.

The immersion program has been generally well received, and indeed it couldn’t have succeeded without the active support of non-Catalan-speaking families, involving a strong commitment to their children’s all-round education. That has also contributed to generating among immigrant, non-Catalan-speaking families, through their children, a positive view of the language of the land and a stronger sense of belonging in their new society.

However, the striking success achieved through this line of action could be overturned. Since its inception, the priority given to the Catalan language in the school system has been taken as a special target by the Spanish nationalist camp. As part of its long-standing crusade against the normalization of Catalan, the doggedly centralist Partido Popular went as far as to submit to the European Parliament a proposal aiming to undermine Catalonia’s inclusive approach in the name of a superior right of parents to choose the language in which their children should be educated. It was assumed that this language would be Castilian, thus opening the door for Castilian speakers to avoid learning Catalan.

In March 2009, the EP voted to reject that proposal, acting on the principles that “it is vital to safeguard multilingualism in countries or regions in which two or more official languages coexist”, and that “children should, in their own interest, be able to speak the language of the country in which they live to ensure that they are not subject to discrimination in the course of their education or subsequent training and are capable of taking part in all activities on an equal basis”. The EP reiterated “its longstanding commitment to the promotion of language learning, multilingualism and linguistic diversity in the European Union, including regional and minority languages, as these are cultural assets that must be safeguarded and nurtured”, as well as “the importance of promoting and supporting the development of innovative pedagogical models and approaches for language teaching in order to encourage the acquisition of language skills and to raise awareness and motivation among citizens” (emphasis added).

On the other hand, hundreds of studies conducted in Canada have proved that several common criticisms of the immersion method are completely unfounded. Results show, among other things, that: as regards literacy, immersion students catch up with their monolingual peers after the first few years; immersion programs have no negative effects on spoken skills in the first language; early immersion students acquire almost-native-like proficiency in passive skill (listening and reading) comprehension of the second language by the age of 11; early immersion students are more successful in listening and reading proficiency than partial and late immersion students; immersion programs have no negative effects on the cognitive development of the students; monolingual peers perform better in sciences and math at an early age, but immersion students eventually catch up with, and in some cases outperform, their monolingual peers.

Findings such as these from academic studies and the decisions adopted in European political fora should have been enough to settle the matter, but facts have never been an obstacle for Spanish nationalists, who have now turned to their own court system for help in a renewed campaign against the Catalan language. Quite productively, as it seems: in 2010, as a spin-off from the Constitutional Court’s highly restrictive ruling on the Catalan self-government charter as regards linguistic matters, several Catalan norms and policies have been challenged and overruled by Spanish courts. Some fear that these are just the early salvoes of a long-term offensive intended to roll back the gains made by Catalans on the language front, and a prelude to the reinstatement of Castilian at the center of Catalan public life.


The negative effects of the two-track education system that some would like to impose in Catalonia can be seen in the neighboring region of Valencia, where schoolchildren are segregated according to the language they speak at home. The theory is that parents can freely choose the language in which their children will be educated –Castilian or the Valencian modality of Catalan. In practice, however, the system is strongly biased in favor of Castilian, and those opting for the Valencian tracks face all kinds of administrative obstacles and limitations. Even though the actual demand is much higher, only 30% of children can be accommodated on the Valencian tracks. The result is a deepening split in society along linguistic lines and a retreat of the language of the land in areas where it used to be predominant not very long ago. Which sounds a lot like the scenario that Spanish nationalism has in mind for Catalonia as well.

This article is based on a report by Prof. Joan Badia i Pujol, originally published in Catalan in Òmnium magazine.
Information regarding the European Parliament’s position on this matter has been kindly provided by Oriol Junqueras, MEP, and his aides Jordi Bacardit and Xavier Garcia Gabaldà.
Information on the results of the immersion method in Canada is taken from Colin Baker: Foundations of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism (1993), Clevedon: Multilingual Matters, quoted on Wikipedia, entry on Language Immersion.

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Col·lectiu Emma - Explaining Catalonia

Col·lectiu Emma is a network of Catalans and non-Catalans living in different countries who have made it their job to track and review news reports about Catalonia in the international media. Our goal is to ensure that the world's public opinion gets a fair picture of the country's reality today and in history.

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Col·lectiu Emma - Explaining Catalonia