Note: this is an essay I wrote in 2013 for a undergraduate course on bilingualism, so this text is definitely heavier to read than most articles posted on Medium (although I have soften it a bit with some editing). Also, this was one of my very first *real* essays as an undergrad, so bear that in mind!
Catalonia’s Language Immersion Education
Spanish politicians are against it, but most scholarly linguists, sociolinguists, psychologists, educators and — most importantly — Catalans aren’t. Here’s why.
Catalonia, the bilingual autonomous region in the northeast of Spain, has had a language immersion educational programme for more than 30 years. For decades, the immersion system has been debated over and over in the scholarly and political atmospheres. The Spanish political scene does not approve the Catalan immersion education, mainly due to the minimal role that Spanish, the “National language”, plays in it. The scholarly literature, however, strongly states that this educational system is the most appropriate for the particular traits of the Catalan society and that it is as educationally efficient as the rest of the Spanish educational systems. We will mainly explore the academic literature on the language immersion system in Catalan schools.
The Catalan language has long been threatened by the Spanish state during the course of centuries. Spanish was not originally spoken in Catalonia. The unification of the crowns of Castile and Aragon (the basis of modern Spain) introduced Spanish in the Catalan-speaking areas, when Spanish began to be treated as the “national language”, leaving Catalan behind. Since then, the Spanish state has repeatedly promoted Spanish and has firmly tried to eradicate or diminish Catalan (and other languages present in the Iberian Peninsula). Specially after the dictatorship of Francisco Franco (1939–1975), the language situation in Catalonia was abnormal. The strong ban that the dictator Franco proclaimed on Catalan, together with a massive immigration of Spanish-peaking people from the southern parts of Spain (after this migration, 38% of the population had not been born in Catalonia) left the Catalan society with a small minority of Catalan speakers: in fact, only 15% of the population could speak and write Catalan by then (Arenas & Muset, 2007).
The Spanish political scene does not approve the Catalan immersion education, mainly due to the minimal role that Spanish, the “National language”, plays in it. The scholarly literature, however, states that this educational system is the most appropriate for the particular traits of the Catalan society
With the arrival of democracy in 1975, even though Catalan was as weakened as it has ever been, it was still seen as a medium of social ascent, as it was generally the language of the higher classes. An experimental language immersion project was started in 1986, inspired on the Canadian model started in 1965, first proposed by parents of Spanish-speaking families and teachers wishing a better future for their children, and run by the Generalitat de Catalunya, the semi-autonomous governing body of Catalonia. As of 1992, all Catalan public schools work with the same language immersion system (Badia i Pujol, 2010).
From the first year of pre-school (three-year old children), Catalan is the language used to teach, and children are brought into literacy in Catalan. Spanish is progressively introduced in Primary School, when kids are between 5 and 8 years old. From there on, Spanish and Catalan have their own subject as a language, and Catalan remains the official medium of instruction of all but the language subjects in Primary School, Secondary School and Bachillerato (the last two years before higher education), although some educators do unofficially teach in Spanish. The aim of the system (Arenas & Muset, 2007) is to avoid segregating children in accordance to their home language, to improve the proficiency and use of Catalan and to prevent social segregation due to language, aiming at creating a bilingual society. The system, then, brings together Catalan-speaking children and Spanish-speaking children in the classroom.
From the first year of pre-school (three-year old children), Catalan is the language used to teach, and children are brought into literacy in Catalan — Spanish is progressively introduced in Primary School. Spanish and Catalan have their own subject as a language, and Catalan remains the official medium of instruction of all but the language subjects during all pre-university stages of education.
The literature on the language immersion system in practice in Catalonia is enormous and many educators, psychologists, linguists and sociolinguists have contributed. The reason why the literature on the language immersion is so massive is because scholars have to fight the strong Spanish political forces who aim to disprove and dismantle the system, only with ideological motivations. However wide and extensive, the vast majority of the specialists agree on the educational and linguistic efficiency of the system, and certain arguments are repeated over and over in the literature.
Children in the Catalan immersion programme have the same competence in Spanish, mathematics and other academic subjects as the children who are schooled in Spanish. Children who are schooled in Spanish or 50/50 in Spanish/regional language have a much lower proficiency in the regional language than those in the immersion programme.
One of the arguments that scholars provide in favour of the language immersion education is that this the only system that guarantees that Catalan children learn both Catalan and Spanish proficiently. Other regions of Spain where other languages apart from Spanish are also spoken, such as the Basque Country (where Basque is spoken) and Valencia (where Catalan is called Valencian) have three different school systems (Artigal, 1993) with different linguistic results. The first one, which they call model A, has Spanish as the language of instruction while Basque/Catalan is treated only as a subject. The second one, model B, where teaching is provided in Basque/Catalan and Spanish, normally 50–50%, though children learn to read and write through Spanish. The third one, called model D, is the same as the language immersion system of Catalonia: Basque/Catalan is the medium of instruction of all but the language subjects (Spanish and foreign languages).
Reports on the efficiency of the three programs, such as those made by the Government of the Basque Country (Beardsmore, 1993), show that there is no difference in the knowledge of Spanish of the children in the three models (nor in mathematics and social sciences). The three also have similar effects on the learning of a foreign language. However, in the knowledge of Basque/Catalan, model A is the less efficient, as expected, followed by B, being the model D, the immersion model, the one that achieves the highest knowledge of Basque/Catalan with a vast difference.
Serra (1997) also tested the knowledge of Catalan of a group of 396 children of low socio-economic background, aged 9 and 10; half of them were schooled in the immersion system and the other half in a school of the model A (Spanish as the medium of instruction; Catalan only as a subject). The immersion children had significantly higher knowledge of spoken and written Catalan (59.34 vs 41.09). For its part, Serra (1997) evaluated the knowledge of Spanish of the two groups above mentioned. Serra found out that children in the immersion system not only had a higher level of spoken and written Spanish than the other group of children (who have Spanish as the medium of instruction), but also that their knowledge of oral and written Spanish was higher than their own oral and written Catalan. Canal y Vial (2005) also found similar results.
The Spanish National Institute for the Evaluation of Education (INECSE) also reported on the Spanish oral comprehension, written comprehension and writing competencies of children from the different regions of Spain at the last year of primary school (Aparici et al, 2012). Catalan children had the exact same level of written comprehension (63), writing competencies (71) than the average of the other Spanish regions, being oral comprehension the only ability slightly outperformed by 2 points (average Spain 59 vs. average Catalonia 57). Immersion, thus, guarantees that both languages are learnt better than the other educational systems. In fact, while only 15% of the population could speak and write Catalan right before the immersion system was introduced in 1975, 44% could in 1996 (Arenas y Muset, 2007).
Another of the main topics dealt with in the literature is the educational capability of the immersion system. Some believe the fact that children are not taught in their native language might affect their learning process. Researchers, however, have proved this belief wrong, at least in this case. Ferrer et al (2011), for instance, refers to the 2009 PISA study by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), an organisation which periodically tests science, mathematics and reading competence of 15 year-old students from 65 countries. In this test, the Spanish-speaking students from Catalonia (schooled in the immersion system) achieved similar marks in sciences, mathematics and reading as the rest of the Spanish students schooled in their native language. Catalonia has participated in the PISA study several years, including 2003, 2006, 2009 and 2012, all of which reported similar findings. Serra (2007) himself also tested the mathematical knowledge of children in the language immersion programme and children schooled in their own language and found identical results: both groups had comparable competences; the language immersion children even having insignificant but higher results.
In Catalonia, all public schools work with the immersion system and your only way out of the system is to pay for a private school. This ‘lack of freedom’ is criticised by Spanish politicians, who advocate for a more bilingual education ‘to guarantee that Spanish-speaking children effectively learn Spanish’, but scholars refer back to the studies that suggest that introducing more hours of instruction in Spanish only reduces competence in Catalan and does not improve proficiency in Spanish.
So far, arguments brought by scholars have been supported by studies, some carried out by independent organisations for the aim of comparison between countries, some carried ad hoc for the justification of the system. However, there is one argument that is not backed by any study or dissertation, and that is the belief that the immersion system somehow guarantees the social cohesion of the Catalan society. This, which seems reasonable at first sight, is repeated over and over in the literature and the media, yet no author has explored the concept of “social cohesion” nor has it been analysed in which ways the system would be crucial for the social cohesion of Catalonia (Villarubias, 2014).
Moreover, Catalan scholars like to look up to Quebec, Canada, and how Catalonia imported their acclaimed, successful immersion system, but they tend to avoid mentioning that one of the biggest premises of the Canadian model is that is it optional (parents decide wether they want their children to study in the immersion system). In Catalonia, all public schools work with the immersion system and your only way out of the system is a private school. This lack of freedom is criticised by Spanish politicians, who advocate for a more bilingual education where Spanish would play a bigger role in order to guarantee that Spanish-speaking children effectively learn Spanish, but scholars refer back to the studies that demonstrate that a more theoretically bilingual education not only does not improve the proficiency in Spanish but reduces the knowledge of Catalan (Serra, 2007). But might not be the case that the obligatory character of the system may elicit children and family’s bad attitudes towards the Catalan language or the system itself? This possibility has been rarely explored in the literature.
The literature on Catalonia’s immersion educational system, then, although quite extent, focuses on a few arguments. First, the linguistic efficiency of the system is not only proved by ad hoc studies but also by general comparisons with other Spanish school systems. Secondly, studies have also supported the view that the performance of Spanish-speaking children who are not taught in their native language is not affected negatively by this fact. Finally, there are some aspects which have not been adequately explored or have not even been considered, like the alleged power of social cohesion of the language immersion or the potential negative attitudes towards the imposition of the system.
Aparici, M., Arnau J., Bel, A., Cortès-Colomè, M., Pérez Vidal, C., Vila, I., Strubell i Trueta (Ed.), M., Barrachina (Ed.), Ll. A., Sintes Pascual, E. (Ed.) (2012). Resultados del modelo lingüístico escolar de Cataluña. La evidencia empírica. Universitat Oberta de Catalunya.
Arenas, J. & Muset, M., (2007). La immersió lingüística: una acción de govern, un proyecte compartit. 1st ed. Barcelona: Centre d’Estudis Jordi Pujol.
Artigal, J. (1993) Catalan and Basque immersion programmes. In Beardsmore, H. B. European Models of Bilingual Education. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.
Badia i Pujol, J. (2010, October). Gràcies a la immersió lingüística. Òmnium, 20–23.
Beardsmore, H. B., (1993). An overview of European models of bilingual education. Language, Culture and Curriculum. 6 (3), pp.197–208
Canal, I. & Vial, S. (2005). Llengua i escola a l’ensenyament primari. Symposium conducted at Tercer Simposi sobre l’ensenyament del català a no-catalanoparlants. Vic (Barcelona) September 2005.
Ferrer, F., Valiente, O. and Castel, J. L. (2008). Equitat, excel·lència i eficiència educativa a Catalunya. Una anàlisi comparada. Barcelona: Fundació Jaume Bofill.
Serra, J. M. (1997). Immersió lingüística, rendiment acadèmic i classe social. Barcelona: Horsori.
Villarubias, M. (2014). Hi ha alguna relació entre la immersió i la cohesió social?. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.cronicaglobal.com/ca/notices/2014/04/hi-ha-alguna-relacio-entre-la- immersio-i-la-cohesio-social-6844.php. [Last Accessed 7 May].