Carme Junyent, linguist and lecturer at Barcelona University

"Indifference kills languages, not languages' enemies"

  • Barcelona University's Carme Junyent gave a conference at the University of the Basque Country Humanities Faculty as part of the presentation of Oihaneder Euskararen Etxea's Hitz adina mintzo cycle. Before talking about the death of languages, Junyent underlined the quality of the cycle, praising the excellence of the experts speaking and inviting the members of the audience to take part in all the sessions.


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"People often tell me that Franco put Catalonian in danger, and that's true, but Catalonian wasn't at risk during Franco's time because there were monolingual speakers" (Photo: Zaldi Ero)

The subject of Carme Junyent's conference at the university was the death of languages, but the first surprise was that she spoke in Catalonian from start to finish. Which was the starting point for our interview.

You gave the conference in Catalonian.

They suggested that to me, and I didn't object. You have to take conference’s contexts into account. I was talking to people who are concerned about linguistic diversity, and about Catalonian, so I wanted to show that one way to help languages to survive is encouraging mutual comprehension. In fact, it's a great help. We don't expect everybody to learn all the Romance languages, but, in fact, those of us who speak one Romance language are able to understand the others fairly well too. All we need to do is make a little effort, it isn't that much work.

A little effort.

Yes. We linguists often do that. To give an example, we did some work recently with four Japanese linguists. We thought about how we could work without using English, which is always the easy way out, the first solution that comes to mind. One of the linguists knew Catalonian and so spoke in Catalonian. The second of them, who works in Belgium, knows French and spoke to us in French. The third of them knows Occitan, and spoke in that language. The fourth, who doesn’t know any Romance language, spoke in Esperanto! When we published our book, the articles were in those four languages, and we also got the Catalonian translated into Japanese. And everyone was happy with that. In fact, if we'd done it in English, it wouldn't have been interesting and nobody would have come to the conferences. By doing it that way, we showed that languages can survive and that language diversity is possible.

A positive attitude is indispensable.

You know that all too well. At the same time, if you have a positive attitude you probably lead a very happy life. But I know that speakers of majority languages have a lot of difficulty understanding what I'm saying. They haven't had that experience, they haven't felt it, they have no idea of what we're talking about. I come to the Basque Country a lot and one of the things which most strikes me is how often you have to give up on your own language because the people around you don't know Basque. They don't even think about it, they don't reflect on it, but it must be tough for Basque speakers to have to change language time and again.

"As language activists are finding out, the key is not formalising use but, rather, stimulating spontaneous use".

There are very few of us to be able to turn that tide back.

Being few of you means that you have more responsibility too. Some languages don't need to make any effort to survive. On the other hand, if languages with just a few or with less speakers aren't spoken, they cannot survive long. That means that speakers of minority languages have a commitment towards their language, a responsibility, and speaking in that minority language in front of other people has nothing to do with respect for or aggression towards other people: it's no more than the two languages living in equal conditions. I said that in Iruñea once and a language school pupil came up to me and said: "Yes, we often have to change languages and speak the other language, but we do know which bars to go to, which bakers' to go to if we want to speak in Basque". I thought that was incredible because it inevitably leads to creating two different communities. There is one thing which we should demonstrate above all, monolingual people's inability leading to bilingual people taking the trouble to learn more than one language. Bilingual people do that, but monolingual people don't? Knowing more than one language is a source of happiness. And monolingual people, not knowing any other languages, are less than their neighbours, they demonstrate that they have fewer skills.

What should be done about monolingual people?

I'm in favour of appealing to people who speak majority languages, above all because we need their solidarity and support. You have to bear in mind that 96% of language speakers around the world speak in 4% of the languages and the opposite: 4% of speakers around the world speak in 96% of the world's languages. If we want to recover eco-linguistic balance, majority language speakers' solidarity is indispensable.

You talked about the death of languages in your conference in Gasteiz, and you said that they do not die because of their own characteristics.

Languages don't die because they aren't modern, because they are underdeveloped… A lot of stupid things get said. We've heard it said that Basque is not as suitable for modern life as other languages, but experience has shown us that is not true. All languages have the same abilities and capabilities. And they die because of the pressure which some speakers put on certain languages to make them die. That is how languages die, and, knowing that, we should be able to turn the situation around and, above all, while we're still in time, guarantee transmission and use, which are fundamental.

You didn't talk about the advantages of bilingualism in your conference, but you did mention bilingualism more than once.

You have to distinguish between them: there's individual bilingualism, which doesn't harm anybody. Somebody knowing two languages or more and speaking in them is great. It's another matter, however, when another language is introduced into a community and that second language takes the place of the first language, replaces it, which means the death of the first language. That is the process which kills languages. Bilingualism isn't the cause, but it is indispensable if the replacement process is to take place. People often tell me that Franco put Catalonian in danger, and that's true, but Catalonian wasn't at risk during Franco's time because there were monolingual speakers. So it was impossible to make the language disappear at that time. My grandmother, for instance, only knew Catalonian: imposing Spanish on her would have been useless. Nowadays, however, there is no point in striving for a monolingual society, Internet and lots of other things are out there. Our first proposal – which we make after looking at some other societies – is to accept multilingual society. In Catalonia, to start with, more than 10% of people have neither Catalonian nor Spanish as their first language. So we should take advantage of this situation to rethink the relationships between languages, going beyond bilingualism.

Use, transmission, language replacement… finally, we will have to revive it.

That is our concern now because we have reached a situation of near collapse. For instance, in April we are going to hold the first language revival congress in Barcelona along with the universities of Vic and Indiana. We are quite astonished by the diversity of the proposals which we have received, and, above all, most of them have come from experts in the field. Amongst other things, we said that we did not want a purely academic congress, we wanted language activists there too. And it's incredible to see the paths people take: they use music, or games and playing; in other words, activities which have nothing to do with school. As language activists are finding out, the key is not formalising use but, rather, stimulating spontaneous use. We'll have to see what happens at the congress, but I think that's an idea which is taking root: use and transmission are the keys. Other factors can be optional, but those two, use and transmission, are indispensable. And we also have to try to make that use spontaneous.

People often tell me that Franco put Catalonian in danger, and that's true, but Catalonian wasn't at risk during Franco's time because there were monolingual speakers".


What is the situation in Catalonia like? I would have thought that the language was full of life, but you're saying it isn't.

That's the official message, things are going well. But they aren't, you only have to visit different schools to see that. Not long ago we published a new type of work: we examined a whole area and went to all the schools there. There are all sorts of situations in the area, industrial areas, farming… We went to one of those towns – where everyone is believed to be Catalonian speaking – and in the school playground the children were playing in Spanish. You don't know if that'll lead to the language dying, but that's the reality. When you talk about Catalonian, people always think about the cities. "That doesn't happen in Girona, pupils speak in Catalonian outside the classroom too there!" they'll tell you; "Not in Vic either, people speak Catalonian in Vic!" But I've been to both those places and gone to the schools, and I know what I heard there: pupils speaking in Spanish. Even so, that's a perception, in many places they don't speak in Spanish: but I'd say that pupils speak in Spanish everywhere.

One thing's the official version, another thing's the reality.

As if we had to believe that everything was going well. At the start of the Spanish Transition, Catalonian was 50% of people's first language. Now, it's 36%. We've gone back fourteen percent over the last 40 years, and that's a lot. The Catalonian government's data gives us the census, and data in Barcelona tells us the same thing, as does data from other cities… Always moving backwards. If we were talking about the Zulus' language, we'd say that it's in the process of disappearing. But, as it's Catalonian, we don't say that. But the crude data's out there. I haven't made it up.

We say that society has to be activated.

People who are indifferent have to be activated. There's always been 15% of people who are activists for the language, 15% of people who are against us and 70%, the biggest proportion, are indifferent. Work has to be done on that 70%. The activists are always there, there's nothing you can do with the language's enemies, so people who are indifferent are the key. In fact, indifference kills languages, not the language's enemies.


[This article was translated by 11itzulpen; you can see the original in Basque here.]

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