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From footy to language

If the Spanish had regularly heard presidents González, Aznar, Rodríguez Zapatero or Rajoy speak Galician, Basque or Catalan while in office, the pedagogical power of their gesture might have had an effect on the people, eventually

I do not wish to alarm ARA’s kind readers but, for the first time in over three decades as a columnist, today I shall write about football.

Let’s imagine that, one of these years --and after completing a good season-- UD Almería qualifies, perhaps not for the Champions League, but for UEFA’s Europa League. And let’s imagine that, in one of the draws, Almería is matched up against Feyenoord, Bayern Leverkusen or FC Zenit Saint Petersburg, to give three examples. Naturally, during the press conference following the match hosted at Almería’s Estadio de los Juegos Mediterráneos, the away team manager would answer questions from Dutch, German or Russia media in Dutch, German or Russian. The local reporters would listen respectfully, without understanding a single word, and would wait for an interpreter to help them to communicate with the foreign manager later on. Would anyone doubt that sports journalists in Almeria are polite and able to accept that a foreigner may speak a foreign language to his fellow nationals? Of course not!

So, what was the problem the other day, when reporters from several local media complained noisily when Gaizka Garitano, Eibar’s manager, spoke Basque to the Basque journalists who had travelled to Almería? It certainly wasn’t because they couldn’t understand him. Rather, those reporters expressed a cultural rejection to the fact that the Spanish manager of a Spanish team was too rude to speak Spanish in Spain, when “ we can all understand each other (1)” in that language.

Needless to say, the sports journalists, the people of Almería and Spaniards in general cannot be held accountable for the incident in UD Almería’s press room last Sunday. The ones responsible for this sort of thing still happening in 2015 are the political parties and the leaders who have ruled Spain since 1983, when the basic framework of Spain’s regional devolution was completed.

Indeed, Spain underwent an enormous legal and formal change in the seven or eight years following General Franco’s death: not only did it shift from a dictatorship to a parliamentary democracy, but also from a fiercely centralised State to compound one made up of regional governments. Still, the latter change in the legal texts, this theoretical metamorphosis from Franco’s Spain to what some enthusiasts regard as a “near-federal system” --and José María Aznar believes to be “the most decentralised country in the world”-- was never followed through by a parallel change in the political and symbolic culture of Spain with regard to its own notion, to the way Spain understood itself.

If the Spanish people had been given a chance to watch how, for the last thirty years, members of their Madrid parliament routinely spoke Catalan, Basque or Galician while those who needed it used simultaneous interpretation, probably Gaizka Garitano would have shocked nobody in Almeria. But, instead, the Spanish have seen their parliament’s Speaker silence any rebellious MPs who dared to speak Catalan from the stand. The Spanish have also noticed how some Madrid newspapers laugh at senators in Madrid having to wear an earphone when, once a year, the members of the higher chamber are allowed to speak all four official languages and not just Spanish.

If the Spanish had regularly heard presidents González, Aznar, Rodríguez Zapatero or Rajoy speak Galician, Basque or Catalan while in office, the pedagogical power of their gesture might have had an effect on the people, eventually. But no such thing has ever happened. If the Spanish-speaking intellectual elite had used their prestige to promote multilingualism in Spain, things would be very different today. But, instead, those intellectuals have written manifestos “in support of our common language”, full of Spanish-speaking arrogance and disdain towards the “regional” languages.

Truth be told, the main figures within Spain’s royal family have used the other official languages when they have travelled to the Basque Country, Catalonia and Galicia. However, three or four years ago, during a private meeting in Barcelona, someone suggested to the then-heir to the throne that he should use all four languages in official events held in Madrid in order to sensitise the people. His answer was, quite literally, “they wouldn’t understand that, in Madrid”. This must be a deeply held belief of his, as we all know what was the weight of language diversity in King Felipe’s coronation speech on June 19 last year: “Moltes gràcies. Eskerrik asko. Moitas grazas” (2).

To add insult to injury, some spokesmen of organised unionism in Catalonia criticise Catalan nationalists for having monopolised the representation of Catalan and its speakers, for pretending to be “the sole proprietors of the Catalan language”. Make no mistake: we never sought to pretend anything. We have simply found ourselves all on our own, which is a different matter altogether. Has anybody, by any chance, ever heard Ms Llanos de Luna (3) utter a sentence in Catalan at an official event?

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1 N.T. The author echoes a sentence in Spanish that is often mentioned when a monolingual Spanish speaker insists that only Spanish be spoken in front of them.

2 N.T. The new King’s speech was read entirely in Spanish and he merely used Catalan, Basque and Galician to say “thank you very much” at the very end.

3 N.T. María de los Llanos de Luna is the Spanish government’s representative in Catalonia. She is based in Barcelona.