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Winter 2009

The intensity and nature of linguistic segregation in Catalan schools, by Ricard Benito i Pérez i Isaac Gonzàlez i Balletbò


The article we present is based on the research: School segregation processes in Catalonia (2007, Editorial Mediterrània), which we carried out in 10 Catalan municipalities to find out the levels of segregation existing in the different schools (in P3, the point when pupils are incorporated into universal schooling), according to the parents' education levels, origin and language used at home. Of these three variables, to date we have not exploited the one referring to the language used at home. So, the purpose of the article is to approach the segregation occurring according to language in these Catalan municipalities. Beyond this first descriptive look at the Catalan situation, we also plan to relate the linguistic composition of schools to their social composition, according to the family's (mother's and father's) level of education, to find the point to which this is a key explanatory factor. Thirdly, we also want to know the way in which the overall characteristics of the municipality (overall volume of Catalan-speakers, level of education, volume of immigrants) affect both the existing levels of linguistic segregation and explain any segregation in terms of academic status. The theoretical basis of this article stems from two considerations. Firstly, providing a fresh look and empirical data concerning the correlation between language and social status in Catalan school, and, secondly generating knowledge about the different densities of Catalan-speakers and Spanish-speakers in areas where the country is socially mixed. Of these, schools emerge as a key area because of its strategic potential in the establishment of informal links between people from different social and linguistic situations.

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1. Introduction. The concept of linguistic segregation
2. Intensity of linguistic segregation and incidence of residential segregation
3. Relationship between the linguistic and social composition of schools
4. Conclusions
5. Bibliography

1. Introduction. The concept of linguistic segregation

The aim of this article is to explore the extent and features of linguistic segregation in the Catalan school system. The concept of linguistic segregation has so many connotations and meanings that we will start by defining what we mean (and do not mean) when we use the term. Firstly, by linguistic segregation we do not mean an intentional and discriminatory process of linguistic exclusion on the part of school service providers, whether public or private. The Catalan school system is not linguistically segregated or segregating - there are no pupil selection processes based on linguistic skills or language background. Nor do we understand by linguistic segregation the provision of a dual school network with Catalan or Spanish as the medium of instruction, leading to an academic separation of the two linguistic communities, whether desired or otherwise. In fact, the Catalan system of language combination is built on the assumption that Catalan is the only medium of instruction in schools. In terms of this second definition, the Catalan school system could be regarded as being designed to prevent segregation, as it seeks to eliminate the language factor in the assignment of pupils to schools, whether through the decisions of the education provider, or as an effect of parental choice.

The third definition of the concept is the one which we will use in this article. It defines linguistic segregation as the uneven distribution of pupils between schools according to the language(s) they use at home. We are not, therefore, referring to intentional segregation or a segregational model, but to a segregating effect on the distribution of pupils in the school system. In this sense we cannot refer to segregation as a feature which the system may or may not have, but rather as something that has certain features and exists to varying degrees.

The article's key interest lies in the fact that the different types of segregation that we find in schools - social, linguistic, origin, etc. - have significant social consequences. The school defines equality of opportunity and social cohesion as guiding principles. From our point of view the most significant type of segregation in schools affecting these objectives is that related to the educational background of the families - social segregation. The fact that in some schools there is a concentration of families with higher studies, while in others there are hardly any families with studies beyond compulsory education, establishes unequal educational contexts, which make the achievement of the goals specified above more difficult.

However, apart from social segregation based on the parents' level of education, there are other types of segregation which have socially undesirable effects. The first effect of linguistic segregation, which is what concerns us here, is that it interferes with the achievement of language immersion in Catalan. Processes of linguistic segregation which lead to a minority presence of Catalan-speaking pupils in schools hinder the normal use of Catalan in informal relations between the children. When linguistic segregation produces schools with (practically) no Catalan-speaking pupils, the potential instrumental and symbolic distancing of the pupils from Catalan can have other consequences apart from the failure to use it in informal relations at school.(1) Furthermore, the fact that social and linguistic segregation may coincide, and we propose to highlight the power of this combination, can lead to a disadvantageous structural situation (because of the absence of peers with a family background of post-compulsory education) which tends to limit involvement with the school, to which we would need to add the lack of opportunities for language development in the school's medium of instruction outside a strictly academic context. This has consequences for the achievement of language competence and the social perception of both the language and its speakers; they tend to be perceived as "other”, distant and foreign (González, 2008; Martínez, 2008) Beyond its effects on normalising the use of Catalan, the existence of schools in which Catalan speakers are very much in the minority (especially those cases in which the families' educational background is limited) also has negative effects in the area of social cohesion, equality of opportunity in education, and future socio-professional opportunities.

For its empirical basis this article draws on the field work carried out for the research project Processos de segregació escolar a Catalunya (Processes of segregation in schools in Catalonia)(2) (Benito and Gonzàlez, 2007). The field work consisted in giving a short questionnaire to the families of pupils in the third year of primary school in 10 Catalan municipalities, (3) with the aim of determining the distribution of the pupils among the schools in these municipalities, according to certain key variables related to their families.(4) In this article we focus on one of these variables: the language (or languages) used by the family unit at home.

The selection of the municipalities in the sample is of vital importance in supporting the supposition that the results of the research present a reliable picture of segregation in schools in Catalonia in general, and linguistic segregation in particular. In this sense the choice was intended to provide a wide range of situations, according to the size of the municipality, its sociodemographic profile, and its location in Catalonia. In linguistic terms, the municipalities chosen correspond to three distinct profiles: a) municipalities with more pupils who use Catalan exclusively at home than Spanish (henceforth, Catalan-speaking municipalities); b) municipalities with similar numbers of pupils who use Catalan and Spanish exclusively at home (bilingual municipalities), and c) municipalities with a (much) larger proportion of pupils who use Spanish exclusively at home (Spanish-speaking municipalities). This third profile can be seen in many large towns and cities in Catalonia, especially those located in the Barcelona metropolitan area, where a large part of the Spanish-speaking population is concentrated (although in many of them the difference between the numbers of Catalan speakers and Spanish speakers is less pronounced). The following table shows the distribution of languages used at home by the pupils in the different municipalities covered by the survey:(5)


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