My life through linguistics

Originally published on Traduttore Traditore, on September 23rd, 2011

My name is Noemí Llamas Gomez. Originally no hyphens, although I have adopted one in between my two traditionally Spanish surnames as means to reduce the amount of people who think that Llamas is my second name. Gómez is my mother’s surname. Don’t get me wrong, I love my mother, but when I am cool and famous, I want people to know that I am Llamas Gómez, or Llamas-Gómez, a bit like García Marquez or Vargas Llosa.

I was born in Barcelona in 1986. I have never lived in the big city though, I am a suburb girl. We lived in a small city called Sant Boi de Llobregat, just 20 minutes away from the city centre in the subway. My family speaks Spanish. It used to be five of us in the flat before I moved out: my parents, my younger sister Marta, born in 91, and my grandmother. I am the second generation in my family to be born in Catalonia. My grandparents were all from the south of Spain, mainly Andalusia. They emigrated to Catalonia in the sixties, when the industrial revolution was kicking in Barcelona, and a large amount of factories were built. The flat I lived in was originally built as a council building, as well as the rest of the neighbourhood. There were barely any shops apart from the local supermarket when I was younger – it was built to be a sleeping neighbourhood.

Despite being a Catalan by birth, I never learnt Catalan from my parents, as they do not speak the language. Only in recent times, my dad has made an effort to learn some, and he can communicate with Catalan speakers very well, thanks not only to his passive Catalan knowledge, but to his outgoing spirit and his social skills. My mom, on the other hand, can’t stand it. She gets nervous when the Catalan channel (TV3 or C-33) is on, because she has a hard time understanding what it’s said, and, as she argues, “watching TV should require no effort or concentration at all”. To fill you in slightly on why my parents do not speak Catalan, I need to quickly remind you that Spain was for 40 years under the dictatorship of General Franco, who was not a fan of what was not 100% Spanish. Catalan was banned from the public life and restricted to private and home use. High fines, discrimination, police abuse and even prison threats kept population “under control” – hence schools taught in Spanish only. Since none of my parents came from a Catalan family, Catalan was not known or spoken at their house, so they never learnt it, and knew nothing about it until 1975, after Franco’s death and when Catalonia recovered their national rights.

I learnt Catalan at school. After the Spanish-dominant dictatorship, the Catalan government was granted the possibility of establishing its own model of education – based on the fact that, during the “transition to democracy” years, loads of concessions were made to all the diametrically opposite political parties, in order for them to agree in the democratic terms of the new constitution. Studies showed that the new generations (in 1978) did not have the right knowledge of Catalan, and a model based on positive discrimination of the language that was banned from public speech for almost half a century came in place. All subjects in school, besides Spanish language and literature, were to be taught in Catalan. So I spoke my mother’s language, Spanish, as a monolingual person until I was about four, and then I was introduced to Catalan. My earlier exposure was next to nothing until then, given that at my household, the Catalan TV channels were never in fashion. I, however, do not have any recollections of a pre-Catalan learning time, when all my life was dealt with in Spanish. As far as I remember, I have always being “bilingual”.

Learning Catalan at such young age helps kids develop quite a good grasp of the language, independently from the language they speak at home. That was my case. All day in school speaking in Catalan to teachers, talking to my friends in Spanish, and then going home and watching the news or reading the papers in Spanish. I never had a computer until I was 17, so the language in which I browsed the Internet does not apply here. Actually, I believe that I have probably had, along the years, visited more websites in English than in any other language combined. I never had any issues understanding people in any of the two languages, and I have the same level of oral understanding of Catalan as I do with Spanish. The same happens with reading. Actually, and because of my mainly Catalan schooling, it is easier for me to understand textual units written in Catalan – or to explain history or literature matters, for example, because that is the way that these concepts are “saved in my system”.

When it comes to communicating and speaking out, the issue is much different. Spanish has always been the language spoken at my house, to all my family members (despite my cousin, the only boy of my generation, to whom we always spoke to in Catalan because my aunt so wished), and I’ve always had the feeling that it was the language I was most skilled in. It is, after all, my “mother tongue”. However, at the same time, I feel that, as a Catalan, Catalan is the language I should be speaking, as it is part of my national identity.

For that purpose, after leaving secondary school and going to prepare my pre-university high school years, I made a lot of emphasis in improving all the concepts that were wrong in my Catalan – such as grammar, Spanish-copied expressions, writing style… It got to the point that I needed to delete my Spanish accent when speaking Catalan. Despite having been the suppressed nation for so long, Catalan does have some over-nationalistic traits that can be a bit discriminating towards non-Catalan born speakers. I always felt a bit excluded in my basketball team as a kid because I went to a different school to play, a school where all kids were from Catalan-speaking families. My accent, my origin (I was from the poor neighbourhood, this was a private school) and my reluctance to speak Catalan to them (because I was afraid they would make fun of me) condemned me to a strange degree of isolation. Only three things saved me from quitting then: my social skills, my basketball skills (ironically, I was the best in the team), and my love for the game. This discrimination got under my skin as a kid, and it was still present when I accessed university. I took all the positive steps to speak the best Catalan I could… by not speaking any. My attitude to it was just to suppress it, in order not to be classified as a “Spanish person speaking Catalan”.

The good part from these years in university in Spain were that I managed to develop a very curious language pattern with most of my classmates. We agreed, without even speaking, that everyone would express themselves in the language they felt most comfortable with (this often included having some expressions in English, Italian, French, etc to spice up and add some banter to the conversation), but not changing the language their interlocutor was speaking. This has an explanation: there is a study run in Catalonia a few years ago that said that the Catalan speaker is so culturally weak, or polite for that matter, that when he or she is addressed by someone else in Spanish, they will speak Spanish, but that if a Spanish speaker is addressed by someone in Catalan, the Spanish speaker will continue to speak Spanish while the Catalan, out of politeness, or weakness, will switch to Spanish as well. We, as linguists, and future translators, did not believe in weak languages, so we spoke in whichever language we wished, without having to change it. This seemed most impressive to some of our professors then, especially to our Catalan to Spanish Translation teacher, who had had to battle this problem for a long time. As I heard from a reliable source, she was most impressed with my abilities to speak and translate Catalan to Spanish and viceversa “for such a strong Spanish speaker”.

This then, makes me think about what I consider to be my mother tongue and how has that affected me and my sense of identity and cultural belonging. I have always felt a Catalan, but that does not exclude feeling like a Spaniard. After all, and despite it being a bit of a politically correct argument, Catalonia is in Spain and belongs to the country, whether we like it or not. I have never felt truly bilingual despite all my efforts to close the gap and the closest I’ve been to it was in my early twenties, right before coming to study in the UK, and even then I had the feeling I was a 55/45. Now my ratio varies from 60/40 to 70/30, given I only even speak Catalan to the Catalan teachers in university, or when I go back, to people in the shops or in the street, as friends and family speak to me in Spanish. This lack of Catalan practice and my accidental learning of Italian made my spoken Catalan prone to a premature death, but after a very embarrassing incident in a conversation with my old history of art teacher, who is a Catalan nationalist and romantic, and in which I kept saying Italian words by mistake, I took it more seriously to keep my identity language alive. Now I still feel a bit embarrassed about the fact that I don’t speak it as well as I would like to, but I now value much more the actual effort to speak the language rather than the quality or purity of it. I have not given up on it, and I hope she hasn’t given up on me either. Only time will tell.