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A Kindergarten Student Reignites Spain’s Eternal Battle Over Languages

Language is an ultra sensitive subject in Spain , especially in Catalonia, where a schoolboy and his family found themselves at the center of online hate campaign and a constitutional storm.

Photo of two girls wearing Catalan and Spanish flags in Barcelona, Spain

Catalan or Spanish?

Alain Pitton/NurPhoto/ZUMA
Laure Gautherin

In Spain, language is politics.

Historical and regional differences and claims of autonomy are often expressed through demands about what language to use. Yet the latest public battle was sparked by a simple request by a kindergarten student in Canet de Mar, in Catalonia, a region that has long fought for the preeminence of the Catalan language. Instead, this time, the five-year-old schoolboy in question (and his family) had asked to have more lessons that are taught in Spanish, which set off many others similar requests for more bilingualism throughout the region around the city of Barcelona.

The debate has unleashed both solidarity and strong opposition directed at the family, reports Spanish daily La Rázon. Catalan, spoken by about nine million people, has been the region’s official language since the Catalan parliament passed a law in 1983. This came after the language had been banned for four decades under the dictatorship of Francisco Franco.


Since then, the Catalan educational system, unique in Europe, has been based on a linguistic immersion model granting Catalan language the status of “vehicular language,” meaning it is the primary language of instruction for all subjects. Spanish is a curriculum option and is taught like other foreign languages. Yet in reality, the Catalan education department does not impose a quota for each language, and each school has a certain amount of freedom to organize their linguistic programs as they see fit.

Catalan government v. Spanish Supreme Court

In Canet de Mar, once a Catalonian separatist stronghold, this newfound resistance towards the Catalan language is only contributing to a wider trend that has independence supporters worried about the status of their language.

Even before the schoolboy’s request created a political storm, the Catalan linguistic immersion model was being challenged when the Catalan High Court ruled in December 2020 that schools in the region would teach at least 25% of their lessons in Spanish.

This is not about language quotas but about powers over language policy.

The Catalan government opposed the ruling, but the Spanish Supreme Court rejected the appeal on Nov. 23. Now schools have two months to change their program to include this resolution, though some already have, with the support of parents. For their part, the child’s family has asked that figure to go as high as 50%.

Language has become even more of a hot topic since an independence referendum in 2017, which was rejected by the Constitutional Court of Spain. Since then, pro-independence sentiments have declined.

Photo of a group of students at a pro-independence rally in Barcelona, one of whom is flying the flag of Catalonia

Student flying the flag of Catalonia at a pro-independence rally in Barcelona

Gustavo Valiente/i-Images/ZUMA

Death threats at the boy's family 

“Language should never have been politicized like this,” said Rosa Maria Villaró, of the Workers’ Commission labor union, to El País. “This is not about language quotas but about powers over language policy.”

The boy’s request and what followed was met with unexpected vitriol, and the situation was quickly blown out of proportion, especially on social media. Parents opposed to bilingualism created a Twitter account to discuss measures to stop and discredit the family.

The family even faced several death threats, though also received an outpouring of support. The "hashtag" "YoApoyoALaFamilia" (“I Support the Family”) turned into a trending topic. The Socialists’ Party of Catalonia and right-wing political parties, such as Vox, Ciudadanos and the People’s Party, have also expressed their support, but the Catalan government remains silent.

Interviewed by La Rázon, Ana Losada, president of the Assembly for a Bilingual School (AEB), the leading group advocating for Spanish in Catalonia, said her group will now be handling the boy’s case. She describes this as a “unique moment” in history with the total linguistic immersion model reaching its endpoint.

Still, even as all eyes are turned to the courts and the Government to see if the laws will change, when it comes to the politics of language this surely won’t be the last word.

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