Languages at School

by xabier

The first draft for the decree on languages’ usage in the Galician education system was published when I was on holidays in Norway, fortunately and completely unplugged. Back home, a record amount of emails were stored in my mailbox: those of them completely in opposition to the decree are even more than those giving me advice on credit, penis erection or teeth problems, or than those wishing me a happy 2010. However, the decree is not that bad as expected even if far from perfect, and a mild landscape of opportunities is created for the Galician language. The strategy of total opposition upheld by pro-Galician groups is very conservative, unproductive and, I am afraid, a waste of precious time.

Some of the most remarkable points of the draft will be commented in this post. Then, the strategy to pursue in the years to come will be considered and the present reaction criticised.

First, I need to do two initial explanations. On one hand, I am liberal and I regard every advance in freedom as a positive step; also, I consider myself a pro-Galician activist. On the other hand, it needs to be stated that, until now, education in Galicia was chiefly delivered in Spanish language: for many generations brought up in Galician-spoken environments, school was an only-Spanish institution, where Galician language was banned and often physically punished. Over the last years, however, Galician language was timidly and slowly gaining some ground: even if the Castilian presence at schools is now still clearly wider and stronger than the Galician one, in some predominantly Spanish-spoken areas, such as the major cities, school is the only link between youth and the Galician language. This link is clearly not solid enough, and for that reason, important groups of young people are not able to speak nor to write in Galician at the end of their school years (and this is not the case with the Spanish language, as many reports have presented).

Who can choose the school language?

Spanish and Galician educational system is highly controlled by the state, and different laws determine contents, timetables, religions (only one, in fact) and languages in a very unwavering way: schools have a extremely narrow margin to create differentiated options. Leaving apart Galician shortcuts to avoid the law (as registering children in garages or in the grandpa’s flat), parents cannot choose between different state schools (assigned according to geographic distance), and independent schools are more related with catholic teaching or class bias than with effective differences in quality. Amongst state schools and independent schools funded by the state (97-98% of the students under 16), competitiveness is non-existent and, therefore, quality control systems are not known or a merely pointless formality.

In such a context, the present Galician government have been pushed by a right and far-right lobby in order to reduce the presence of the Galician language in schools and, specifically, in order to give parents who dislike Galician language the option to send their children to schools with no-Galician contents. This lobby has hoisted the unbeatable flag of freedom, even if at the same time they have spoken in favour of a stronger school control by the state or a bigger authoritarianism inside the classrooms. In fact, they don’t pursue freedom, but privileges, and both concepts are quite the opposite.

The draft published is, however, far from their position: a minimum of a third of total modules must be delivered in Galician and another third in Spanish, and a maximum of a third of total modules must be delivered in foreign languages, chiefly in English. As this last third is unachievable (I will came upon this later on), Galician and Spanish will effectively gain ground to English. For instance, the worst scenario for Galician language for the stage between 6 ad 10 years old is 3 modules of 9, and the best is 5 modules of 9 (33% to 55%), and the worst scenario will be occurred only in the unlikely case of three modules delivered in English. These percentages will be also examined in depth later on.

Until now, the decision to deliver contents in one language or another was taken in most of the cases by the teacher, and the language chosen predominantly was Spanish. Certainly, previous law rules a minimum of modules for being delivered in Galician, but very often the law was not respected, and controls to convey schools and teachers to respect the law were not strict at all.

According to this new draft, the decision for the language in which modules are delivered will be taken by the school councils (not the parents) for the school levels from 6 years old to 18 years old, and also for professional education, schools of Arts, schools of Sports and for lifelong learning centres. In the school council are represented teachers, parents, students and other staff, but it is controlled by teachers, who hold the majority of the seats. Moreover, elections to school councils are well known by their low level of participation: it was not possible to me to find recent and rigourous data about it, but I would consider optimistic levels of participation over 15% amongst students and parents.

The parents’ margin of decision will be, for those education levels, only in order to choose which modules they prefer being delivered in Galician and in Spanish (and only in some cases), but not about the total amount of modules delivered in every language. Even for that, decisions will be always collective, not individual: if the parents’ majority in one school say that Maths will be delivered in Spanish, and Environment’s Knowledge in Galician (as expected), I could not send my daughter to Maths in Galician and Environmental’s Knowledge in Spanish (a pointless option, by the way). Moreover, this choice will be produced only every four years: therefore it is possible that some parents never vote (high school) or that their decision will affect others’ children, but not theirs.

What will be changed? If this draft becomes a decree, there will be not important changes in terms of choice: teachers will eventually decide, and small groups of well organized parents can drive the majority’s option in the few cases where parents can choose. I would prefer a system where parents, but mostly students, can choose the school, and where schools struggle to deliver better programs, creating new modules, including new languages, offering new services or developing new systems of assessment not based on exams, in order to achieve a better education for all. Sadly, my dreams are far from the present situation, and also far from the rules designed by this draft.

What about the youngest children?

This is, on my opinion, the draft’s worst point. At this level, children will be taught in the environment’s dominant language or, at least, in the language that parents’ majority declare as dominant in their families. Therefore, schools will not act for compensating the linguistic knowledge of children, teaching Galician-speakers in Spanish language and Spanish-speakers in Galician language, but increasing the divide between areas and speakers.

However, the draft also points that the other language must be promoted, and the effective knowledge of both languages must be guaranteed at the end of this educational level. What will be changed then? Nothing, perhaps. In the urban areas, where a decisive action must be taken for promoting Galician language, Galician will be excluded (as it is happening now), and in rural areas the guarantee for an effective knowledge of Spanish will be an alibi to promote this language where teachers want to do it.

English? How?

The alleged commitment of the present Galician government for English teaching has boiled down to nothing. There are no mandatory modules that must be delivered in English, but a maximum (a third of the total modules), and therefore the imperative spread of English will be brought by volunteer teachers (if so). In this draft neither rules nor percentages nor steps are established in order to achieve a progressive implementation of English teaching. However, a firm, vigourous action must be taken in this field, and this draft is a missed opportunity for not losing too much advantage against other cultures and societies.

The lack of precision is worryingly present in some other draft’s paragraphs, such as the point concerning languages’ usage in schools out of teaching activities: it is said that Galician language must be promoted in this field, but teachers will also have “some rights”. It is relevant to state that those unclear and unspecific rights are recognized for teachers, but not for administrative staff, creating two different classes of right-holders.


These will be the percentages according to the draft:

Percentages described by the draft

Percentages described by the draft. (*) As said, the percentage of Galician language in the first level will be dependent exclusively on the family language; therefore, this is not exactly an option, but a fact. At the same time, some contents will be delivered in Galician or in Spanish, but a percentage cannot be determined according to the draft.

Positive actions

There are few interesting actions in the draft, but there are some. The most important is that an annual, independent quality control is established in order to determine if children are effective able to communicate in both languages. That includes, and this is crucial, also the youngest children, who at this moment achieve the next stage without being able of speaking in Galician.

However, nothing is said about how this quality control will be performed, or how large is the span of actions that could be put in place in order to correct deviant trends. Moreover, for a government not able in three decades to guarantee the law’s obeyance concerning languages timetable, it seems a hard task to identify trends in learning performance and to correct them.

The Culombo’s last things

  • Why a student coming from China, the Netherlands or Brazil could be exempt of Galician qualification (not teaching) over three years, but not exempt of Spanish one? Are there no choices nor freedom in that case?
  • What will be the rights of children who have Chinese, Portuguese, Romanian or Arabic as their mother languages? Is the Galician government thinking about them?

What can be done?

What can be done by pro-Galician activists in a short term and in a middle or long term? Since this document is still a draft, some aspects can be changed during the negotiation with other parties, unions and social groups. However, it is beyond any hope that the minimum percentage for Galician language would be raised. Then, taking into account that a model of percentages will be ruling at least for the next four years, and that changes on percentages will be not significant, what can be achieved in a negotiation process? Three are the most important approachable flanks, in my opinion: first, the situation in schools for the youngest children, particularly when Spanish and Galician-speaker percentages are close or equal (what percentage is considered as dominant? 51%?). Second, the system to assign modules under the school council control, still to be defined. And third, and most importantly, what actions will be taken for controlling effectively the children ability to communicate in Galician language?

The other option is do not negotiate. If we consider that everything in the draft is wrong the best way is to self-immolate in cities’ squares in a bonzo way, despite the climate change. Some variants of this incineration method include boycott, strikes and so on. I have two reasons for advocating for a moderate and firm negotiation, instead a warlike way. On one hand, for the majority of the population, silent or not, it is not an important issue to move the Galician language presence from an unreal, present 50% down to a 33%. It is still possible to lie, and to affirm that this decree would extinguish the Galician language in a short term, but lies have short legs. On the other hand, because pro-Galician activists have two very important battles in the future, and for those battles a visceral opposition now will be probably a handicap rather than a help.

Those two future battlegrounds are parents and school councils. Parents are not an important element yet (as they will determine only up to a 22% of the modules’ distribution), but they (and students) will become more and more important in these kind of decisions. After thirty years of linguistic activism on democracy, the parents’ opinions expressed some months ago were extremely disappointing. If our efforts are not addressed to this crucial sector, no matters if 33% or 50% or 65% of modules are delivered in Galician. And for gaining these parents to the Galician language, more solid tactics than strikes are needed.

The other battleground are school councils. Parents and students are again important in them, but teachers hold the key with their votes. Until now, teachers were the motors of Galician promotion at schools (the few classes in Galician that I had at the high-school were delivered thanks the volunteer decision of my teachers), but also the most refractory factor. They will continue to hold their power. Mild elements (neither against Galician language nor Galician activists) need to be approached and convinced about the importance of Galician language’s presence at schools. It seems to me that a strong policy based on boycotts, strikes and demonstrations will be not a good bridge with them.