In our ignorance we had always assumed that Spain had just one language – Spanish but of course that is not so. An EU survey in 2005 found that 11% of Spaniards – five million people – define their mother tongue as one of Spain's regional languages, with 9% speaking Catalan or Valencian, 5% speaking Galician and 1% Euskara.To make matters more complicated, Spain has several other languages, including Aragonese, Asturian and Aranese, from the Catalan valley of Aran. The Catalan region considers Aranese to be an official language in its own area. There is even a row over whether Catalan and Valencian should be considered separate languages or whether one is merely a dialect of the other.
The official language of Spain is Castilian Spanish which everyone speaks and understands. It used to be the only language used in the upper chamber of Spain's parliament. However, now senators are allowed to debate in Castilian or any of the four other recognised languages; Catalan, Galician, Valencian and the Basque language of Euskara. The argument goes that the upper chamber is meant to represent Spain's regions and so senators should be allowed to speak in their own regional languages.
What this means is that they now need interpreters to translate from the regional languages into Castilian Spanish for the benefit of the other senators. And the bill for this comes to 12,000 Euros every day that a debate takes place.
The first orator to take advantage of this was the Socialist Ramon Aleu, who chose to speak in Catalan. Previously all his speeches were in Castilian which every body understood. His speech yesterday though had the other senators reaching for their headphones to listen to the translation. One newspaper described the senate now as being like the tower of Babel. As the leader of the PP, Mariano Rajoy said, this would never happen in a normal country.
The fuss over Spain's minority languages coincides with a growing confrontation between the national government of the Socialist prime minister, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, and the more independent-minded regional governments, especially in Catalonia. Zapatero is reportedly attempting to prevent Catalonia, one of the 17 semi-autonomous regions into which Spain is divided, from increasing its debt unless it reins in a budget deficit. He also plans to harmonise some rules that vary from region to region across Spain, such as the opening hours of shops. The move to allow senators to speak in regional languages is thus one sign of dissent to the ruling socialist government.