Why I have I chosen to crank up my Spanish – as opposed to any other language? The question might seem baladí, i.e. trivial or redundant, given the fact that I live in Spain, and am exposed to Spanish on a daily basis. But I also live in Catalonia, where Catalan is the mother tongue of at least half the population, and is spoken and understood by a good many more. Moreover, as Catalonia drifts inexorably towards secession from greater Spain, it might be politic to throw in my lot with the language that is so inextricably identified with its nationalist aspirations. What’s more, in the town where I spend most weekends (see pics), Catalan is the language of choice, and I might be better accepted, and hence more fully integrated, if I could speak it well.
So, why Spanish? A fairly obvious answer is that Spanish has more traction, globally speaking, and will stand me in good stead on trips, not just around Spain, but in Latin America. There is also a copious literature, and the undoubted pleasure of being able to read Machado or Bolaño or even Cervantes in the original is a strong motivator.
But how often do I go to ‘greater Spain’, let alone Latin America? (In the last three years I’ve spent a mere five days in the latter). And how often, indeed, do I read poetry or fiction? Wouldn’t my time be better spent learning a language that is more closely identified with ‘home’? (And which also has an impressive literature, if that’s what I’m into).
What’s more, the triumphalist rhetoric associated with Spanish never ceases to irritate me. This week sees the sixth Congreso de la Lengua Española taking place, this year in Panama. Predictably, the press is pumping itself up with facts and figures related to the global dominion of Spanish. Thus, the director of the Instituto Cervantes (roughly homologous with the British Council) writes (in El País Babelia, 12.10.13, p. 7), ‘La historia de los congresos de la lengua ocupa ya un lugar de privilegio en la imparable expansión de nuestro idioma por el mundo’ (The history of the Spanish language congresses now occupies a privileged position in the unstoppable expansion of our language in the world). (When would even the most conservative British or US press ever refer to English as ‘our language’?)
Associated with this triumphalism is a shameless appeal to normative values. Thus, the director of the Real Academia Española (the Royal Academy) writes, in the same issue of El País (p. 6), ‘El idioma peligra si no lo aprendemos adecuadamente en la escuela, si se borran las diferencias entre los distintos registros de uso o so emplea un vocabulario o una sintaxis pobre’ (The language is at risk if it’s not learned properly in school, or if the differences between different registers [presumably formal and informal usage] are ignored, or if poor vocabulary or grammar are used’. (I hate to think how my impoverished Spanish may be contributing to ‘our’ language’s ultimate demise!)
To their credit, El País do publish a piece by the writer Antonio Muñoz Molina in which he rails against the linguistic imperialism enshrined in such conferences (‘There’s not a speech that doesn’t tout triumphant figures about the number of speakers of our language [there it is again!] and in particular with regard to its demographic progress in the US’), and he makes the point that, ‘que yo sepa, no hay congresos del la lengua inglesa, por ejemplo, y jamás he escuchado a ningún político americano o británico glosar su variedad y riqueza ni felicitarse por el número de sus hablantes’ (As far as I know, there are no conferences of English, for example, and I have never heard a single American or British politician extol its variety and richness, nor congratulate themselves on the number of its speakers).
Well, Muñoz Molina is being a little disingenuous, let’s admit: there are plenty of politicians, particularly in the US, who trumpet the supremacy of English. Nevertheless, English-language linguists are generally very wary of adopting a triumphalist attitude to English, and, if anything, the dominant discourse in academic circles is one of embarrassment rather than of celebration. And quite rightly so: the global spread of English is one reason that people like me are so inept when it comes to speaking a second language.
So, why Spanish? Well, the (sad?) fact of the matter is that it is the language which, for better or worse, I chose to ‘inhabit’ when I arrived in Barcelona. At the time, it seemed the pragmatic thing to do. Had I first landed in Vic, or in Reus, or in Lleida, the story might have been different. But now, having accumulated a passive knowledge of around 10,000 words in Spanish (see my last post), and, given my imminent senescence, it seems only wise to build on what I’ve got, rather than start afresh.
I’m holding out the faint hope, though, that the learning strategies I acquire in de-fossilizing my Spanish might be transferable to Catalan at some not too distant date – in time, even, to coincide with my acquiring Catalan citizenship!