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Sociolingüística catalana
Winter - spring 2001

Mother Language, Father Language, Nanny Language: Who Learns What from Whom in Catalonia, per Paul O'Donnell

1. Introduction
2. Methodological concerns
3. Mothers and fathers
4. Special cases
5. The guarderia as a linguistic influence
6. Conclusions

  en català    

1. Introduction

1a) The term "mother language" has an almost reverential status for many linguists and demographers. For the Canadian Government, the term has, at least, a working definition. For Statistics Canada, mother tongue, or langue maternelle, represents the "…language that this person first learned at home and still understands." Elsewhere, the expression is lost in mythology and misunderstandings. (1)

1b) Gilbert(1981:260) merely refers to "immigration, foreign sock, and mother tongue statistics," without defining the term. One "test" for mother tongue, for some, is to find "the language in which you swear best, pray best, and count best." (2)

1c) Chomsky suggested (1965) that all humans have a L.A..D. ("language acquisition device") providing them with a natural proclivity for language learning. Indeed, a child must have an exceedingly low I.Q., or be severely socially deprived, not to learn human language. How does a bilingual, "minoritized" population like that of Catalonia position itself in this universe of theoretical contradictions, anecdotes, and folk legends? Our evidence indicates that the traditional "mother language/father language dichotomies do not find a close correspondence with the reality in the Principat. If we take the "nativist" view of the genetically programmed child, and the "mother as the main teacher" (Moerk 1992:185) as polar opposites, we find that the Catalan child cannot be pigeonholed easily into these categories. Nor can we assume that Catalans have a more developed "L.A.D." than their stubbornly monolingual American counterparts.

1d) Thus, the "mother tongue" model proves inappropriate for the bilingual (and, increasingly, multilingual) setting in Catalonia. Herein, we therefore examine four individual figures:

  • the mother

  • the (less present) father (3)

  • the "nanny figure," who can be 1) a cangur, ‘babysitter,’ 2) a senyora de fer feines (who also has childcare responsibilities), a tata, or ‘maid,’ who watches children for even longer times than the senyora.

2) Finally, the guarderia enters the linguistic picture. We shall examine the daycare center/pre-school in detail further on.

2a) As one employee of the Catalan government commented, when parents spend more than eight hours away from home, "perhaps we should talk more about the llengua de la guarderia (‘the day-care language’) than about the mother language"(4). The majority of Catalan residents live in the urban setting of the "ŕrea metropolitana of Barcelona. In this high-rent area, many two-income households hire non-family members to watch (and thus, to talk to) their children. The senyora de fer feines, the cleaning lady, often plays an important role here. By 1984, at least 33% of Spanish women had entered the work force, (and we assume the numbers are even higher in Catalonia). With a minimum of 33% of Catalan women working in the regular ("formal") economy, who is minding the children? (5)

2b)As the economia submergida (‘informal economy’) became the choice of more and more women, the official unemployment rate climbed to 22% by the mid-80’s. There is no indication whatsoever that, when women took "under-the-table" jobs, their unemployed husbands minded the children in great numbers. A man who received unemployment compensation would gain by having a spouse in the underground, rather than the formal, economy: Documented household income increases could jeopardize access to government benefits. Spaniards who do not pay taxes, but depend on someone who is a taxpayer, may still use the national health care system, the Seguridad Social. As women went to work, according to my survey and other sources, even more women were drawn into the workplace to staff guarderies, act as babysitters, to act as senyores de fer feines with childcare responsibilities, and to work in daycare centers. The days of the ŕvia (‘grandmother’) and the tieta (‘aunt’), and even the full-time nanny as caregivers are declining in Catalonia.

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