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Sociolingüística internacional

School language and demosociolinguistic context in francophone children and teenagers in Canada outside of Quebec: a warning for the Catalan situation,
by Albert Bastardas i Boada


Differences in initial individual competence can explain to a large extent why English is used for interpersonal colloquial functions. When the class-group is formed, the language that best permits communication between individuals is English, rather than French. The latter is underdeveloped for many, particularly in terms of expression, whereas English is generally the first language of pupils of mixed origin. Moreover, individuals with L1 French have a sufficient command of English because they are exposed to it in their sociolinguistic context. Even in communities that were predominantly French-speaking (Saint-Paul, in Alberta, for example) subsequent population shifts have led to frequent contact with non-Francophone individuals. Early exposure to English, therefore, may also occur on an interpersonal level and not merely through the media or signage.

This leaning towards English at the point when the class-group is formed makes this the language usually chosen by this 'microsociety' of pupils for their general relationships with each other. However, individuals from families that only speak French may prefer to speak with one another in French, particularly if others present at least understand the code, since they have a command of this language. Nevertheless, the general language of non-formal school life tends to be English rather than French.

In time, individuals with L1 English will improve their command of French and most probably become capable of expressing themselves in this language with a certain degree of comfort. However, their French will never compare to their fluency and spontaneity in English. Thus, if they have a choice, they will generally choose English rather than French for interpersonal communication. This is sustained by the emphasis placed by the education system on writing and grammar, rather than on expression, enjoyment and leisure functions which correspond to interpersonal relationships, particularly at these ages.

The tendency to conserve initial language choices accounts for the rest. Once an individual has decided to use English to communicate with an interlocutor, that language will tend to be used from this point onwards, unless the promotion of ethnic awareness leads to a rethinking of established language choices. Throughout their school-life, and afterwards in other social areas, these individuals of Francophone and/or mixed origin will tend to speak English instead of French, despite perhaps expressing sympathy for their origins and for the maintenance and promotion of French.

3. Comparisons with Catalonia

Many of the comments we have made about Canada can also be applied to the situation in certain areas of Catalonia. Except for cases in which the majority of the school population has L1 Catalan and, hence, usually use this language in class-group relationships, we very often find mixed groups – individuals with L1 Catalan and L1 Spanish. In these cases, although Catalan is the habitual vehicular language of education, Spanish rather than Catalan is more commonly used for informal, interpersonal communication. It is used by L1 Spanish individuals when talking amongst themselves and by L1 Catalan individuals when addressing their L1 Spanish classmates. In groups with more L1 Spanish individuals or where a large proportion are children from mixed marriages, we even find L1 Catalan individuals using Spanish with each other, because they adapt their language choices to those that predominate in the school microsociety of which they form part.

I therefore believe that the Catalan situation could also be affected by the factors mentioned above in the Canadian situation. Initial command of language is unequal even at nursery school level, since many L1 Catalan individuals will have been exposed to Spanish – even through the language uses of their own parents – to a much greater degree than L1 Spanish individuals will have been exposed to Catalan, given that many immigrant parents are not generally bilingual speakers. Even today, many individuals in Catalonia generally have a higher level of exposure to Spanish than Catalan. Moreover, whereas much of the native population lives alongside Spanish-speaking individuals, fewer members of the alloctonous population live in everyday contact with Catalan-speakers due to their residential distribution whereby a large number of these individuals were concentrated in quasi-segregated and often self-sufficient areas. In addition to this, exposure to audio-visual mass media, labelling, advertising, administrative forms and documents of many businesses, etc. (still predominantly Spanish) reveal that this context facilitates Spanish more than it does Catalan, particularly for the majority of the population with L1 Spanish concentrated in metropolitan areas.

This initial asymmetry, in addition to the possible continued influence of the adult norm of immediately switching to Spanish when communicating with a ‘non-Catalan-speaking’ individual, could best explain the apparent 'mystery' of the predominance of Spanish over Catalan in relations between boys and girls from different linguistic groups. As in the Canadian case, the tendency to conserve initial language choices favours the subsequent use of Spanish, even where L1 Spanish individuals have a good communicative command of Catalan, unless the L1 Spanish individual indicates to their L1 Catalan interlocutor that they would like to be spoken to in Catalan and the L1 Catalan interlocutor agrees to change his or her language choice.

The residential concentration (and subsequent quasi-segregation) of many L1 Spanish individuals in Catalonia is characteristic of the Catalan situation. The demolinguistic composition of schools in Catalan metropolitan areas logically reproduces that of society in general, and that of the neighbourhood or area in particular. Therefore, this demolinguistic distribution produces a situation whereby a high number of schools have a clear majority or all pupils with L1 Spanish and very scarce or no personal contact with Catalan-speakers, except for teachers.


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