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Spring - Summer 2005

“Volunteers for language”, Linguistic Integration Programme in Catalan: facts for evaluation, by Joan Solé Camardons, Jonatan Castaño and Agustí Díaz

This article reviews and evaluates the programme “Voluntaris per la llengua” (“Volunteers for language), and it does so triangulating the quantitative statistical analysis and the qualitative statistical analysis from personal interviews. To begin with, the programme is placed within a general context, so that a typology of volunteers and programme learners may then be created, proposing an explanatory model of the elements enhancing the linguistic benefits of this experience –understood as the integration of the ability to speak Catalan and its subjective use. Secondly, the influence of the programme upon the social integration of the learner is analysed. Lastly, the article points to some measures which, according to these analyses, would improve the programme.

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2. "Volunteers for language": the Programme

8. Bibliography

1. Phenomena involved in migratory movement

In our present society, we may distinguish two different types of dynamics related to migratory movement (1) (Casey, 1977:16):

  • Dynamics of individual immigrants.
  • Movements dynamics of the host society.

On the other hand, the IOE (Colectivo IOE, 1987) differentiates between associations or councils created by immigrants and those created for immigrants. The contrast between them may also be applied to less institutionalised instances. Casey takes this differentiation further, distinguishing two different types of association within those created in the receiving society, or associations for immigrants. As he sees it, civil society offers services to immigrants through three different kinds of associations:

  • Ethnical associations: created by immigrants themselves, they usually stand for the interests of one single ethnic group, although “they may include ethnical associations coordinating councils” (CASEY, 1997:16).
  • General associations within the receiving society: their services are not solely addressed to immigrant population, even if a part of their resources are assigned to this immigrant population.
  • Specialised associations within receiving society: solely concerned with immigrant integration, even if their members are not usually immigrants. They also include associations devoted to the study of the migratory phenomenon and its expansion.

Such classification within associations, which, again, may also be applied to the movements, does not point up the distinction between those associations concerned with social action according to an “assistance” model, and devoted to responding to their housing, work or legal needs, and those centred on claiming their rights according to a more transforming or anti-systemic model and on the fight to obtain “new” rights, or to improve the rights immigrants already enjoy. There is, moreover, another type of action: the cultural activity orientated towards the so-called “post-materialist” services, and as such they differ from the assistance model, which offers basically materialistic (logistic) services. (2)

Having said all that, we can cross the principal types of actions with the types ofdynamics concerning their origin, to obtain a typology of organizations, movements and public programmes related to migration, which can be further elaborated (see table 1).

According to this typology, the “Volunteers for language” Programme may be outlined, on the one hand, as a generalist cultural movement; that is to say, the services it offers are not solely addressed to immigrant population, and it has a linguistic and cultural character. On the other hand, it may also be considered a public cultural service, taking into account that it is a Programme pertaining to the Generalitat of Catalonia (public administration).

Table 1. Different types of organizations, movements and public programmes
connected to the migratory phenomenon



Cultural (3)

Pressure group

Ethnical (and coordinating)



Ethnic pressure group

Specialists from the host society

Specialist and assisting

Cultural specialist


Generalists from the host society

Generalist and assisting

Generalist and cultural

Pressure group generalist

Public Administration

Public and assisting

Public and cultural


2. "Volunteers for language": the Programme

The Programme “Volunteers for language” was set up as a local initiative of several linguistic normalization centres and promoted by cultural entities –organizations such as Òmnium Cultural – with the aim of attending and fostering the non-Catalan speakers who take the Catalan courses for adults. Later on, this initiative was taken up and promoted by the Secretariat for Language policy and by the Consorci per a la Normalització Lingüística (Consortium for Language Normalization) itself, and was then spread throughout Catalonia. This experience also took in other previous experiences of linguistic volunteers, from University students, foreign students, Erasmus and others. (4) Nowadays, “Volunteers for language” main goal is the learning of Catalan, the promotion of its use and the integration of recently arrived individuals. Thus, the Programme’s function is to coordinate linguistic pairs, where a Catalan speaker and a non-Catalan speaker share a minimum of 10 hours conversation. This initiative, born, as we have said, from an agreement between the Consortium for Language Normalization and cultural entities such as Òmnium Cultural, has spread and developed, and is now promoted by the Secretariat for Language Policy, the Catalan Institute for Volunteers, the Secretariat for Immigration de la Generalitat of Catalonia and the Consortim for Language Normalization. It articulates the initiatives from volunteers and cultural entities in the creation of linguistic pairs, and it embodies many voluntary organizations throughout Catalonia.

As regards the kind of relationship between the Programme “Volunteers for language” and other institutions and organizations, its link with public administration should be underlined. The Programme is in touch with cultural entities or assistance at ethnic community level, with specialist and general to mainstream organizations, and with pressure groups of a mainstream nature, such as the trades unions (see table 2).

Probably the fact that “Volunteers for language” has currently little or no contact with the minority group associations is a weak point in the programme. These associations represent a potentially important source of learners, difficult to reach via other means owing to fragmentation either because of external factors (social, religious, ethnic or geographical factors) in the country of origin, or because of internal factors such as the immigration laws and migration policies (5). It would also be worthwhile to bear in mind the recent new lease of life of the federations of immigrants’ associations. These second-order entities may well, in the near future, be a good way to reach immigrant learners from ethnic groups that to date have been severely underrepresented in Catalan courses and in the “Volunteers for language” programme.

It is true that a minimum working knowledge of Catalan is needed to be able follow the programme as a student. Indeed, the fact that the majority of the latter come from adult Catalan classes may in effect be leaving aside a proportion of newly arrived immigrantswho lack sufficient education or training.

In 2004, the Secretariat for Language Policy carried out a sociolinguistic survey of 1,300 participants on the programme, by means of telephone interviews –involving the interviewing of 650 teachers and 650 students out of the total population of 4,016 individuals. The aim here was simply to evaluate the programme. The fieldwork was carried out by the CIES consultancy firm, under the technical direction of the Sociolinguistics Institute of the Secretariat for Language Policy.

3. “Volunteers for language”: participant description

Associationalism the tendency to associate

In terms of volunteers’ membership of association, what stands out is that it is much greater their student’s level of membership, in the case of the four main types (linguistic or language specific, NGOs, cultural associations and others). Almost 11% of volunteers belong to an association dedicated to promoting the Catalan language. The most frequently mentioned were: Òmnium Cultural and the Coordinadora d’Associacions per la llengua (CAL, Coordination of Associations for the Language).Some 24.5% of the volunteers and 9% of the learners were members of an NGO, including Intermon, the Red Cross, Greenpeace, Médicos sin Fronteras (Médecins sans Frontières) and Amnesty International.

Furthermore, 28% of the volunteers and 10.8 of learners are affiliated to local or national organisations such as civic or popular culture centres or parish institutes, music clubs and organisations, choral societies, athenaeums, study centres and ramblers’ associations. Lastly, 28.3% of volunteers and 14% of learners are members of sports clubs, neighbours´ associations,AMPA (parent mothers association), parties and unions and organisations providing support for the infirm.

In general, however, it can be observed that few volunteers belong to the immigrants’ associations, and even fewer of the learners do so.

Personal interview with a volunteer

To complete the results of the survey a semi-structured interview was carried out with a volunteer, in order to obtain more qualitative information on the volunteers’ viewpoint. Below we offer some of the main points that emerged.

With regard to speaking skills, the volunteer believes that her learner’s ability has improved considerably: “I’ve seen how much he’s improving in terms of language. I mean, at the beginning he wasn’t at all fluent and now, now…, well you can see how good at speaking he is.”

And in terms of use of the Catalan language, too, the volunteer states that after attending the programme, the student is making greater use of Catalan than before, in everyday situations:

Question:Well, so, in terms of speaking, speaking ability. Do you think your learner is better at speaking Catalan than before.

Answer: Oh definitely, yes, yes and what’s more, that’s really worth thinking about. I’ve thought about it a lot…. the typical stuff you get, you know? “Those Catalans insist on speaking Catalan, and never ever change”. They tell you that, and you have to take it..., and then he (the learner) tells you “I start speaking Catalan and when they see I’m struggling, they immediately switch to Spanish, so I can never speak Catalan with anyone. You’re the only person I can speak Catalan to. Now, on the other hand, he says: “I can have more conversations, now, with the baker, the butcher, and I don’t know who else… because I’m more fluent, and people notice, and so now they carry on [in Catalan].”

The volunteer expresses a humanist, life-affirming point of view from start to finish, and this is perhaps not out of place in a voluntary language worker of this type, and probably equally true of other volunteers. Expressing this point of view, however, does not preclude her thinking about the issue of language use, and more generally about the issue of immigration. On the first, she puts forward her own suggestion for a new language norm: “Not to change to Spanish when speaking to an immigrant person who’s having a bit of difficulty with Catalan.” I got to thinking a lot about this, about changing [switching] to Spanish,and now for example I don’t do it.Before when people answered me in Spanish, I changed to Spanish too, right? And now I’ve said no to that!”

On the overall issue of immigration, she concludes that more knowledge implies spurning stereotypes. “I think the immigrant problem is a problem of lack of information. And people, when you don’t know, you’re like “they’re I don’t know what”. And when you get to know them, at least you’ll know: “It isn’t what’s-his-name.”

Lastly, it’s worthwhile noting that this volunteer had not thought about what aspects of the programme could be improved, but she formulated her own views when asked for her observations. She proposed that the institutions behind the programme monitor proceedings: It’s like once you get to know your language partner (the learner), you may find yourself very out of touch with your people (institutions promoting the programme), right? Not to be able, at the end of six months, a year, two months, or whatever, to have a bit of continuity, you know? I did have the sensation of being more committed to somebody, because otherwise you’d feel you’d just met them down the Ramblas [street in Barcelona] (laughs).

4. Learners of Catalan taking part in the Programme: description (6)

4.1 Types of learners 

In the questionnaire administered to learners, they were asked to assess their ability to speak Catalan on completion of the programme, and also about frequency of use of the language after completion. To assess what we have labelled the individual sociolinguistic success or failure of the experience, the following two variables were considered:

  • Increase in ability to speak Catalan after the experience;
  • Increase in frequency of speaking Catalan after the experience.

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