Nos falamos galego
Santiago de Compostela, the capital of the Spanish region of Galicia, is the final destination of the 1000-year-old international pilgrimage called The Way of St. James. It is also a centre of local language activism for the Galego language and the reviving Galician culture. The two identities of the city sit in uneasy balance – especially if you’re an international visitor.
When I told my friends that I would be leaving for Santiago de Compostela, their reaction was always the same: “So, you’ll do the St. James’ Way then?” And me: “Yes. But by car.” The reasons I renounced the St. James’ walking stick and chose a Volvo S40 instead were two big suitcases, a handbag and a violin. I didn’t come to Santiago as a pilgrim. I went there as a student – a rather nervous one, as my Spanish was a little wobbly and the university was about to start straightaway.
It was already dark when Santiago finally appeared between the endless hills of Galicia. The town greeted me with an impressive thunderstorm. (Accordingly, the International Student Office provides umbrellas as a welcome present. Lovely, isn’t it?) But it was not the famous rainy weather that would mark my stay. It was a language called Galician – or, as Galician people say it: Galego. I learned that Galician was a Romance language, closely related to Portuguese. Strictly speaking, there are several Galician dialects (depending on the region), spoken by a total of around three million people. Together with Spanish (also known as “Castilian”), it is the co-official language of Galicia. So far, so good. What worried me was the fact that Galician is also the official language at the University of Santiago. But my international coordinator reassured me: “It won’t be a problem for you. The vocabulary is almost the same as Castilian. It may sound a bit different, but you’ll be fine with it.” We will see…
First day at the university. My professor asked in Spanish: “Who of you is studying for an International Master’s degree?” Five other students and I raised our hands (there were a total of fifteen students in this class). “All right, good to know.” It would be the last time that the professor addressed us in Spanish. From then on, fifty percent of my classes were in Galician. At first, I was enthusiastic. I liked the sound of the language. I liked listening to the teachers and trying to catch the words. Juego (game) became xogo, the Castilian mamá was the Galician nai. However, it was impossible for me to understand whole sentences, much less follow the class. The more I tried, the more I got confused with Spanish.
To clear our heads, my friends and I went to a tapas bar. Ordering dishes became a challenge. Polo instead of pollo – that was easy. But what about pulpo (octopus)and the Galician polbo (which sounds like the Spanish polvo – dust)? It was strange to see that the menu had a Galician page, then an English page, then a French one. If you were lucky, you might find the Spanish translation on the last page. It was the same in the aquarium in La Coruña. The explanation boards were written exclusively in Galician, with some general info in English. My Spanish friend felt rather lost when it became clear to him that in his own country, it wasn’t possible for him to get information in his mother tongue, even when he asked especially for a Spanish brochure.
One day, I tried to discuss the topic with some of my Galician classmates. We were sitting in the cafeteria, having iced café and sandwiches. Unfortunately, I could understand of what they answered, as they refused to speak Spanish with me. What I did understand was that they are proud to be Galician, that it is part of their identity. But did they really risk losing Galician identity when speaking Spanish from time to time with a foreign student? (I wondered what they would say if I started to speak in a local German dialect.) Isn’t it more about communication in those moments than about asserting your identity?
Fortunately, most of the Galicians I met had no problem using both languages in their daily life. I had the impression that Galician radicalness came mostly from official institutions and a few language activists. Until the 1970s, Galician was seen as the language of the poor. So, for example, you were not appreciated as an author if you wrote in Galician. Galician nationalism was forbidden during the Franco era and the language itself was banned. No wonder the reaction to that is now a strong Galician revival. This is strengthening Galician culture and reinforcing Galician identity, but it often goes along with an awkward anti-Castilian movement. When I went to my Spanish course, I had to pass a banner: Only Galician uni classes in Galicia. When I received official mails from the university, they were only written in Galician. The moment that shocked me most, however, was seeing the wall behind my faculty building defaced with a huge graffiti: Erasmus fora – Erasmus out!
Apparently, international students like me were inconvenient for the language movement. It would be so easy for Galician professors teaching in their language without having annoying foreigners asking for an explanation in Spanish! How unfortunate for them that the University of Santiago decided to take part in international Erasmus and Erasmus Mundus student exchange programmes.
After four months in Santiago, I was managing to read Galician texts and to understand my professors. But my initial enthusiasm for the language was lost. It was simply too politically charged to be interesting for me. However, the decision not to actively learn Galician was not an ideological, but a practical one. I had to concentrate on Spanish, because – even if Galician supporters do not want to hear it – in a global context, it is more useful. Effective language and culture preservation is not a matter of teaching basic grammar to foreign students. In this context, I wouldn’t mind a more relaxed attitude regarding language activism, especially within an international scope. Pro-Galician does not automatically have to be anti-Spanish. And a person who decides not to learn Galician is not automatically a “fascist”. Wouldn’t the coexistence of both languages be truer to the spirit of Santiago de Compostela as a historic European centre of pilgrimage?