Language Misperceptions in Spain. The language problem in monolingual communities

May 18, 2013

by michelle (talkingpeople.net)

Because for 40 years we were told that in Spain people should speak Spanish, and people who belonged to bilingual cultural backgrounds were persecuted and banned from speaking their other language (which terrified everybody all the same), there is a Spanish-nationalism tradition in monolingual communities in Spain that exhibits (and exposes) this fact: those people’s very-aggressive hostility to bilingual communities. Why should they feel like that? Why such self-justified bellicose outrage? And what if there is resent among people’s whose language was banned? (Obviously, those who feel that need to overcome it, after decades of language revitalization policies and the end of past persecution.) What’s the big deal their heart warms more when they speak the language that was once persecuted? (If you were forced to stop speaking your family’s language, how would you feel?) Why should their heart necessarily love more Spanish than their community’s language? (I don’t mean to justify intolerance on anyone’s side, of course. I’m a free thinker and as such, I’m critical of all nationalisms, because nationalism is not — in my view — about collective identities but about collective impositions.)

In monolingual communities we are confronting a problem and people consistently refuse to tackle it: we need to consider, at least in Madrid, the kind of monolingual people who are always accusing bilingual people of intolerance are not aware that they are perpetuating a tradition which we should have already long overcome — the Spanish democracy re-started in 1976 and the 1978 Constitution included the acknowledgement that Spain was a multilingual country, a country where different cultures coexisted with the Spanish culture.

The 1978 Spanish Constitution recognizes the linguistic diversity in Spain in Article 3.3 where it states: “The richness of the linguistic varieties in Spain is a cultural heritage that will receive special respect and protection”. Co-official languages in Spain: Aranese (in danger of extinction), Basque, Catalan/Valencian and Galician. Other languages in Spain

Since the 1990s I’ve been bringing up this issue in my lessons, especially when I had Advanced level English students. I’ve tried to make people think critically about the biased opinions monolingual people help spread, distorting in this way the educational process of language and cultural respect to diversity in Spain. To this day (2013), I’m still shocked at the strength of people’s misperceptions, at how they defend these biased opinions as if this was a fundamental ideological issue in their lives, yes, a question of patriotism… Why should someone living in Madrid, an Autonomous Community in Spain, have a say about whether a Catalan person should not prefer to speak Catalan in Catalonia, another Autonomous Community in Spain? Why should they feel they can actually say / they have a “right” (!) to say that Catalans have to speak Spanish in Catalonia, when we’ve had Autonomous Communities – protecting cultural diversity – since the 1970s and 80s? From a democratic or linguistic stand, there is no way language and cultural diversity can be seen as threatening or negative for any community or any part of a community.

2009 Languages of SpainBy-default-mentality people (“ordinary” people) in monolingual communities in Spain say things as false, unfair and openly impolite as this — and it makes me feel so ashamed and overwhelmed that I can’t even react properly in spite of my knowledge and my role as a language teacher: “Galicians don’t know how to speak / write Spanish” (!! against ALL evidence!), “Catalans / Basques have to speak Spanish whether they like it or not because we are in Spain” (!! Francoist mentality!). Just two grotesque examples (grotesque, if we consider it from an informed and democratic standpoint). The fact is that monolingual communities speak only one language, and bilingual communities speak two, and they do. Why should monolingual people be unable to understand that there exists bilingualism in Spain? And that speaking your mother language or languages is a human right? And that languages that have been banned (!!) have needed language revitalization policies – which we have fortunately had since democracy started? Shockingly enough, in Madrid the educational authorities are pursuing bilingualism – not Quality Foreign Language Education, bilingualism they call it — with… English!, a language which is not in people’s cultural background, except people like myself, children from culturally-mixed marriages at the time when Franco, the dictator who isolated Spain from being in touch with the world (with the social movements in the 1960s for instance) welcomed US American airbases in the country. Except minority cases like my own, English is and will be a Foreign Language in Madrid (which doesn’t mean people can’t learn it well and also in the public education system, where we have qualified teachers like myself!)

People in monolingual communities in Spain like the Autonomous Community of Madrid should stop making the ignorant “jokes” and comments on bilingual people we hear every day. This shames us all. This speaks of people’s ignorance and prejudice, it does not “defend” any legitimate Cause. When we tackle the language issue we should exert some minimum respect, and express our questions and comments as such, rationally and with empathy (tactfully at least), because in our past there has existed a terrifying language reality that has made a lot of people suffer and we should not pretend Nothing happened. We should not use our questions and ideas as weapons for showing despise for a different language community. We should question our own perceptions and feelings (in monolingual communities), too, admitting we also have a trauma, the trauma of believing there are languages which are more important than others and should be imposed, if necessary.


  1. You’ve made some very perceptive and heartfelt insights here. My not-so-humble opinion is that because language is closely tied to culture and identity, this is one of the reasons the state seeks to strip people of their native tongues. It’s also easier to disseminate messages (propaganda) to the masses when everyone speaks the same language, literally. Diversity should be sought after whether its in the gene pool or multilingual communities.

  2. Hiya! Thanks!
    Well, the human brain is capable of speaking different languages. Bilingualism for instance here includes Spanish. I mean, Spanish is not threatened, it’s just that some people speak more languages! So it’s crazy. And there’s something else, related to how “masses” obey unknowingly, in the line of what you say: it’s “ordinary” citizens kind of lynching, spreading “urban legends” on bilingual people, some incredibly vicious.
    I decided to write on this because it’s a taboo issue here, so I appreciate you were interested and posted!

  3. About what you say about attacking languages in favor of one-only language culture, I totally agree. War always included acculturization very importantly via banning the language of “the oppressed”. When Spanish people invaded America, they did not allow the indigenous population to speak their languages, and made them wear their cotton clothes (huipiles, in Guatemala, as T-shirts, for instance). Women had to weave on those their culture to continue transmitting it. Fortunately, the invaders thought “these indians are liking the stuff”. 😀 Arrogance is like that! 😀 But Mayans were resisting acculturization. And in the 1980s they still spoke about 22 languages in Guatemala, for instance.
    The US American war mongers (operating in their own home country) also proceeded like that, with North American Indians, the first nations, right? In those schools, that also did for them some harm as I gather in terms of their spirituality — clearly religion has nothing to do with spirituality because it’s all about dogmas of faith that have to be imposed on all — they were again not allowed to speak their “savage” languages.
    One of the most terrifying things this has, not allowing people to speak their language, is that the rest, and then these people, believe these people are dumb. It’s so cruel. If you don’t speak a language, you can’t understand, but that doesn’t mean you are dumb. If you start speaking the language, you speak clumsily, but this is unrelated to how intelligent you are. If you are told your language is crap, and you have been “defeated” (abused radically, by dirty war, really, though all war is dirty), you end up despising yourself.
    Mayans have a long tradition of nonviolent struggle. They also carved their gods in the stone crosses the priests put outside the churches to make them pray to their Christian god (not allowed to enter the churches because they were “animals” with no soul). But the priests laughed and said, “they’re decorating the crosses, see?” Always underestimating people’s intelligence.
    Nonviolence has great potential!!!

  4. […] Then, I was wondering if I should have a second second for “Talks & Discussions” because in this way I might be able to include some of the Speeches I give every now and then! I’m thinking of pieces on love and living, sex (Having Orgasms is Good for People!), death, and language matters, like the recent piece — I would have to review — on The language problem in monolingual communities… […]

  5. […] last year!, where I wrote follow-up stuff on things that came up in class! (From this year, I have Language Misperceptions, Don’t Buy Exams, and The Casino Story… I’ll review these and see if I remember […]

  6. […] As someone who loves Linguistics and Human Language: for years, I lived in a region where Spanish nationalism has become extreme, to the point you couldn’t even mention it would be a good idea to have Catalan, Basque and Galego at least as optional subjects in secondary education because people would start speaking to you full of outrage and righteousness, convinced you didn’t understand the situation because those people just want to impose their languages and divide Spain! Last year, before exile, I wrote a little article, from the point of view of someone who studies Linguistics, and loves human languages. If we hold a discussion on this topic in class, I won’t be taking part, because I’ll be helping facilitate the discussion, OK? But if you want to read it, it’s Language Misperceptions in Spain. The language problem in monolingual communities. […]

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