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Promoting the regional languages of Spain online

Peter GERRAND, La Trobe University, Australia

From the early 1990s, Basque, Catalan and Galician language nationalists pioneered use of the Internet to promote their languages. This article outlines some of their initiatives, covered in much greater detail in a new book by the author.1

Some early online initiatives

In 1992, Euskaraz, the first online forum in Basque appeared, presumably as a bulletin board. It was ‘pulled’ two years later, then reappeared in 2002 as

Photo: B a m s h a d

Photo: B a m s h a d.

In 1993, the newly founded Open University of Catalonia (UOC) made the far-sighted decision to deliver all its courses —in Catalan— via the Internet. This was a year or two before the World Wide Web had become ‘mainstream’, and at the time, Internet penetration in Spain was —as in most countries— below 10%, and mostly dial-up. Today the UOC has over 30,000 online students pursuing a wide range of university degrees in Catalan (and business degrees in English).

In 1993-4, the first website in Catalan/Valencian was created at the University Jaume I in Castelló, Valencia; it is believed to be one of the first 100 websites in the world. And in 1995-6, the regional governments —the Xunta de Galicia, the Generalitat de Catalunya and the Eusko Jaurlaritza— set up their official websites.

By the late 1990s, the Basque, Catalan and Galician autonomous governments were using their official websites to promote their regional languages and cultures. From the early 2000s, all deployed the Internet to help implement their policies of linguistic ‘normalization’: i.e. to extend use of their regional languages into all practical domains of economic and social life.

A top priority for the regional governments was of course the teaching of their ‘own’ languages in their schools (the issue of the minimum hours per week for regional languages versus the national language (Spanish) remains highly controversial to this day). The Internet has been the most cost-effective delivery mechanism for supplying course materials and reference dictionaries for schools, as well as supporting language learning itself, inall languages.

However, the Internet can only be used effectively when users can use their preferred languages for their computers’ operating system, Internet browser, and common applications. With this aim in mind, the Generalitat de Catalunya paid Microsoft close to $500,000 in the mid-1990s to produce a Catalan-language interface to the Windows 98 operating system; and joined with the Andorran and Balearic Island governments to pay Yahoo €600,000 to produce a Catalan interface to its portal. Meanwhile, Softcatalà was developing Catalan versions of all useful ‘open source’ business software products, as were government–funded researchers in the Galician and Basque industry and university sectors. By the 2000s, Microsoft and Google were providing free software tools to enable lesser-used language communities (including state languages like Czech and Hungarian, as well as regional languages) to develop ‘own language’ interfaces to their mainstream products.

The Basque Government’s parallel Euskaltel initiative was launched in 1997. It created an independent broadband Internet carrier as a public-private partnership to accelerate the roll-out of affordable broadband access to homes and businesses throughout Euskadi. This initiative was designed to minimise ‘market failure’ in the roll-out of broadband access by the commercial carriers. This model was subsequently imitated in several neighbouring regions of north-eastern Spain.

Raising the profile of regional languages

It is one thing to provide affordable broadband access, online technical dictionaries and language classes, and (most importantly) human interfaces for important software products in the target regional language. It is quite another thing to create prestige around the use of a ‘lesser used language’ when facing a dominant State-wide official language such as Spanish, which itself is the fourth or fifth most widely spoken language in the world.

One such initiative became a ‘world first’ in February 2006. This was the creation of an Internet top level domain, .cat, to promote a single language and culture: Catalan.

After four years of operation, the .cat registry has been a notable success, boasting 40,000 registered second-level domains, with an estimated 20 million web pages in Catalan (as at February 2010). But .cat remains a lonely precedent for regional language champions, as ICANN has yet to launch a new round of applications for top level domains since 2005.

Following —and departing from— major language models

When the Basque, Catalan and Galician nationalist movements arose in the late 19th century, they began by imitating some of the successful French and Spanish models for promoting their languages: creating prestigious language academies to ‘fijar, limpiar y dar esplendor’ (to) their mother tongues. They then assigned these new academies the responsibility to create new dictionaries and grammar books that would unify and standardise their languages, as an essential support for mass education (as well as administrative and judicial processes).

Thus we observe the historical creation of the Real Academia de Galicia in 1906, the Institut d’Estudis Catalans in 1907, and the Euskaltzaindia (Royal Basque Academy) in 1919, and their subsequent labours in creating new dictionaries and grammars. And under the linguistically progressive modern Spanish Constitution (1978), academies in support of the smaller Asturian and Aranese languages have also been created by their regional governments.

The historical sequence is shown in Table 1 below:

Table 1: Establishment of the premier language Academies (Gerrand 2009: 177)

Language Institute Year founded
French Académie Française 1635
Castilian/Spanish Real Academia Española 1713
Galician Real Academia Galega 1906
Catalan Institutd’Estudis Catalans 1907
Basque Euskaltzaindia 1919
Asturian (bable) Academia de la Llingua Asturiana 1981
Aranese (aranés) Institut d’Estudis Aranesi 1983

Interestingly, the Alliance Française’s successful model for global language promotion (founded in 1883)2, imitated by the Società Dante Alighieri (1889), the British Council (1934) and the DAAD/Goethe-Institut (1925/1951), was not emulated within Iberia until the 1990s (with the Instituto Cervantes in 1991 and the Instituto Camões in 1992), undoubtedly stimulated by the imminence of Spain’s anno mirabilis 1992.3 The historical sequence is shown in Table 2:

Table 2: Establishment of Institutes to promote languages worldwide

Language Institute Year founded
French Alliance Française 1883
Italian Società Dante Alighieri 1889
German (1) DeutscherAkademischerAustauschdienst
(2) Goethe-Institut
English (1) British Council
(2) US Information Service
Dutch NederlandseTaalunie 1980
Spanish Instituto Cervantes 1991
Portuguese Instituto Camões 1992
Catalan Institut Ramon Llull 2002
Source: Gerrand (2009: 177)

With the exception of the recent creation of the Catalonia’s Institut Ramon Llull (2002), it is noticeable that global institutes for cultural promotion, on the model of the Alliance Française, have not been followed by Spain’s regional governments. Instead their major global initiatives, since their inception in the 1980s, have been the support of their diasporas (both overseas and elsewhere in Spain), particularly in the support of grassroots, historical community centres such as the Centros Gallegos, Casals Catalans, Euskal Etxeak —and many, many others— which in total number over one thousand.4 The Internet has been their communication device in binding the ‘mother region’ with its far-flung communities.

In some areas of the Internet, such as in the allocation of top level domain names, there is a huge advantage for the languages of sovereign native states over the rest: an advantage which will actually be heightened with the introduction of Internationalised Domain Names. But in other online arenas, most noticeably in Wikipedia, the playing field is level.

Wikipedia currently includes 271 parallel language versions, each produced independently by scholars and other enthusiasts. The first Wikipedia articles, all in English, were implemented in February 2001. The second language to be used was Catalan, one month later (and one month before any other language).5 By February 2010, the total of 571,000 Spanish language articles in Wikipedia can be compared with 230,000 in Catalan, 56,000 in Galician, and 52,000 in Basque. The Catalans have been very active!

1 Gerrand, Peter. (2009) Minority languages on the Internet: promoting the regional languages of Spain. VDM-Verlag.

2 itself modelled on the Alliance Israélite Universelle (1860): see (Gerrand 2009: 90-93).

3 With the XXV Olympiad in Barcelona, the World Expo in Seville, and Madrid the European City of Culture for that year.

4 Gerrand, Peter. (2008). The worldwide diaspora of Spain’s regional communities: its reach, its history and its modern relevance.

5 Spanish articles first appeared in Wikipedia in May, and Basque in December 2001.


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