Monday, October 22, 2007

I Don't Speak Your Language, Can You Shout A Bit Louder?

Last week saw the return of the programme on Spanish television where politicians are subjected to direct questions from selected members of the public. Previous editions had featured Prime Minister Zapatero and opposition leader Mariano Rajoy, and both appearances made the headlines. This time it has been the turn of politicians from other parties, and the headlines have all been made by Josep Lluis Carod Rovira, of the Catalan nationalist party Esquerra Republicana. Carod Rovira was confronted by questioners who clearly were not there to sing his praises and who insisted on using the Spanish translation of his name, José Luis. The response of Carod Rovira to this was to say "I'm called Josep Lluis, not José Luis, both here and in China."

The whole incident was silly, the questioners were obviously out to show their disdain for all things Catalan, and Carod Rovira replied in a way that made it clear that the only audience interesting him was to be found within the boundaries of Cataluña. A pointless confrontation between rival nationalisms, but which did at least serve to highlight another issue. One of the questioners raised a common complaint made by those who live outside of regions such as Cataluña or the Basque Country. The argument goes like this; a person from Castilla-León who wants to work in the public administration in Cataluña has to speak both Spanish and Catalan, whilst someone from Barcelona who wants to work in Valladolid is only required to speak Spanish. Discrimination, so the argument runs, and those of us who live here in the capital can expect to hear this point being made fairly frequently.

Now regular readers of this blog, assuming there are any, should be aware by now that nationalism is not really my thing. However, on the issue of public services and language I take sides. Sometime long ago in a distant nation not far from France I decided, mistakenly as it turned out, to embark on a career in local government. Now things work a bit differently on this island and moving from one local authority to another was accomplished by the relatively uncomplicated procedure of filling in application forms and attending interviews. Occasionally though, things were slightly more complicated. Some Welsh local authorities would insist on applicants for a position in their district having knowledge of the local language. This to me always seemed entirely reasonable, even though it put me theoretically at a disadvantage – theoretically because I never actually applied to work in any of these areas.

People who complain about such a situation show zero interest in the provision of services to the public and should probably not be allowed to occupy a position anywhere in the country. If you think that the administration exists with the sole objective of providing you with a secure existence for the rest of your days then it is natural to see it as wrong that you be required to actually learn anything to be able to fulfil this role. On the other hand, those who believe that the administration should be responsive to the needs of those who pay for its existence might find it comprehensible that José Luis the funcionario from Valladolid should be capable of communicating with those he is supposed to attend to in the language which they habitually use. So instead José Luis and friends remain in their comfortable offices in Valladolid or Burgos, paying no attention to the public assistance telephone which has been ringing non-stop for the last 3 years, whilst bitching constantly to their colleagues about a non existent flood of Catalans who are not taking all of their jobs. Sympathy? Not here, or in China.

10 comments:

madrid teacher said...

While Cataluña is part of Spain then I think it is just plain discrimination to have the language test for civil servants, this will ultimately result in only Madrid candidates for position in Madrid etc.. There could be both Spanish speaking queues and Catalan speaking queues (note emphasis on queues).

If someone joins the civil service based on a wish to serve the public rather than a job for life then I can´t think of a justifiable reason why they should be excluded from Cataluña or Pais Vasco.

With regards to treatment by the civil service in Spain I have had both good and bad experiences, but generally I think that civil servants do work in the public interest (except trafico)

StarHound said...

Catalan and Basque are hardly fringe languages so it seems reasonable to need to have some knowledge of them in public service - at every level, not just 'customer facing' roles.

The problem here is a basic lack of respect and tolerance that has all too many echoes of Spains's past. The right have recently accused Zapatero of reopening the Civil War but I'm not convinced that it was ever closed. The attitude of the people trying desperately to offend Carod Rovira reflects this and is a much wider issue that whether or not someone is qualified for a job.

The Right may see Basque, Catalan and Galician culture as a threat to the Spanish state but their attitude will serve only push more people away from the idea of 'Spain'. Why would someone want to be part of a country with so little respect for the people it claims?

madrid teacher said...

They are not fringe languages, but they are not the national language and therefore they are a barrier to civil service jobs, which in practice bars the majority from applying for posts in certain areas. One of the four EU freedoms, the freemovement of people, is basically tamepered with for political purposes. If this was the private sector then maybe there could be an argument in favour i.e. our clients speak Catalan, therefore you must, but this is the public sector, paid for by all members of society.

Respect is relative i.e. the burning of pictures of the head of state and his wife might seem dis-respectful to some.

Graeme said...

Nobody is being barred from applying for jobs, they are simply being required to possess skills which enable them to be able to deliver the services to the end users. Anyone with a genuine commitment to those services should not find that requirement an insuperable obstacle. We are talking here about languages which are official, alongside Spanish, in the regions where they are spoken. I could present a reasonably good argument for similar consideration being given to some non-official languages too.

Tom said...

Madrid Teacher - Catalan is one of Spain's official languages and the national language of Catalonia. It's not just something that a few people speak. Your idea for a two-tier civil service sounds either simply unworkable or seriously unequal.

Just because someone wants to serve the public, that doesn't entitle them to a position in the civil service. Could a German or a handsome young Englishman apply to work at the Ayuntamiento de Madrid with poor Spanish? Likewise, would a Catalan who can't read but can pronounce the 'l·l' sound perfectly be offered a job in my local town hall? No.

Actually, I know of one fairly senior civil servant who got his job despite not speaking Catalan, so it's not all doom and gloom. I mean, we can't all be President of the Generalitat but it's something to aim for!

madrid teacher said...

Hi Tom,

I would have thought Spanish Bureauocracy would love a two tier system and all that extra paperwork it enatils , no joking aside.
I personally think it is unfair to place barriers in government jobs because in the long run as I said before there could be a situation where its Madrid jobs for Madrid, la Rioja for La Rioja etc...

While it could be said that people should therefore learn the minority language this is not always practicable.

At the end of the day I understand that you should have the local language when dealing with the public, but then this will ultimately cause resentment, and I still contend that it is discriminatory.

Tom said...

I don't believe it is causing much resentment. Consider this: all the internal business of the is conducted in Catalan. The introduction of non-Catalan speakers into this system would end up being incredibly costly.

What needs to be understood is that there's no law preventing someone from Valladolid working for the Generalitat. They just have to learn Catalan beforehand. In the same way, there's no legal bar to me working for the Generalitat or the Stockholm city hall: I'd just have to learn the language first.

The civil service is not a 'jobs for all' employer. It must support equal opportunities, but only to the point where it hires people who are qualified for the job. Catalan language skills are a qualification which is obviously necessary for employemtn in the civil service here. I just don't see the sticking point.

leftbanker said...

I don’t mean to always play the devil’s advocate here but how many people in Catalunya don't speak Spanish? I think the number is probably close to zero. So why is a civil servant required to speak Catalan? I'm all for people speaking Catalan (I personally have my hands too full with Spanish to try and learn Valenciano), but to say that people need to speak Catalan to do their jobs seems a bit disingenuous. I actually saw that show so It must have been during or after the football game. So much for sport being anti-intellectual.

Graeme said...

Well let's turn the question around. Why should the people who pay to receive their public services have to renounce the use of the language they use on a daily basis, and which is an official language of the region where they live, just because the person who is paid to provide that service is unwilling to learn that language? I missed the show, which possibly means I missed the football as well? Obviously I need to sort out my priorities.

Tom said...

leftbanker - it doesn't matter whether people understand Spanish or not. What matters is that they should be served by their government in their mother tongue, Catalan. Catalan is not some funny little dialect, you know. It's spoken by up to 10 million people in Europe (including the Valencians!). I don't think it's asking too much to require civil servants to speak and understand the language of the people they're serving.