The Public and Legal Life of Language in Catalunya

As an anthropologist, I came to Catalunya to research questions about multilingualism in public administration and in the legal system. However working with public and legal institutions in Barcelona, I found that I needed to rethink my conceptions of multilingualism and zones of language contact. The local government offices I have visited – the Oficina per la no Discriminació, Oficina d’Acollida, Oficina d’Atenció Ciutadana – are dedicated to combating discrimination, registering and providing orientation and information to citizens and new citizens. They are often covered, as in the photo above, with signs and posters in Catalan, but within the offices one may hear as much Spanish as Catalan. The majority of the consultations that take place in these offices are conducted in Spanish, and office staff are often fluent in French, English and other European languages. More frequently than individuals from North Africa, Chinese and Indian clients require interpretation services. These municipal offices share a small number of interpreters, and also use interpretation services provided by local agencies. While a large percentage (42%) of the complaints received by the Office for the Prevention of Discrimination (Oficina per la No Discriminació) and the Office of Welcome (Oficina d’Acollida) (40%) were brought by immigrants, only a minority required interpretation.

The use of Catalan in the judicial system may also be changing. Currently, one has the right to present one’s testimony in Catalan, but the language of the court is Spanish. The legal system is facing a shortage of judges, and most of the judges appointed in Catalunya come from other regions within Spain. A legal translator specializing in Arabic, Spanish and Catalan translations and one of the few certified by the Generalitat, the government of Catalunya, said that the majority of requests for translations he receives are from Arabic to Spanish, not Catalan. Requests for translations into Catalan come primarily from Andorra, where Catalan is co-official with Spanish. Andorra is also the legal entity pushing for official recognition of ancient Catalan customary law.
I have also been intrigued by the legacy of a strong monolingual bias, which in part has its roots in Franco era policies that brutally suppressed regional languages and cultures. At times in conversation, Catalans with whom I spoke expressed a perception that Catalans themselves tend to look down on their own language. These perceptions vary with the age and social background of the speaker, but the ideologies surrounding the status of Catalan have been complex and rich in ways I had not anticipated. I have talked with professors from four different universities in Barcelona, Madrid and Vic whose work also addresses the articulation of language and culture, primarily in the educational system. While educational system is a powerful socializing force, it cannot alone explain the structural and political factors that influence language acquisition and choice. This week I travel to Reus and Barcelona for interviews with lawyers and legal professionals, to explore how ideas about language and culture are communicated in different legal institutions.
Johanna Lenkner, PhD Candidate, Anthropology

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