The upper chamber of Spain's Parliament has sparked controversy by allowing senators to debate in five of the country's different languages, with a battery of interpreters employed to turn their words into a tongue they all speak perfectly, Castilian Spanish.

Critics claimed the move to allow senators to speak Catalan, Galician, Valencian and the Basque language of Euskara had turned the Spanish senate into a tower of Babel. They accused the senate of wasting public money at a time of swingeing public spending cuts.

The first orator to use one of the newly permitted languages was the Socialist Ramon Aleu, who chose to speak in Catalan.

His decision forced other deputies in the chamber to reach for the earpieces through which interpreters were converting his words into the Castilian Spanish he had used in previous speeches.

The bill for the 25 interpreters needed to turn the different languages into Castilian Spanish is €12,000 for each day of debating or €3,50,000 a year, Spanish media reported. Those senators in favour of the measure argue the upper chamber is meant to represent Spain's regions and that the new languages were accepted as official in four of these.

“We have to make this plurality normal,” argued Carmela Silva, a Socialist senator.

Senators from the conservative opposition People's party refused to use any other language but Castilian Spanish. “Something like this would not happen in any normal country,” said PP leader Mariano Rajoy.

Regional languages

Spain's regional languages have long been a point of conflict. Arguments over which languages should be used by school teachers or university lecturers and what everything from shop signs to place names should be written in have rumbled on for several decades.

The insistence of some regional governments on their civil servants speaking both Castilian and the local language has led to accusations that they exclude other Spaniards from jobs.

There is even an ongoing row over whether Catalan and Valencian should be considered separate languages or whether one is merely a dialect of the other.

An EU survey in 2005 found that 11 per cent of Spaniards — five million people — define their mother tongue as one of Spain's regional languages, with nine per cent speaking Catalan or Valencian, five per cent speaking Galician and one per cent Euskara.

Most residents in north-west Galicia, north-east Catalonia, the Balearic Islands and eastern Valencia can understand or speak their regional language, even if Castilian Spanish is their first language. Between them they make up a third of Spain — or about 16 million people.

Growing confrontation

Euskara, although taught intensively at schools in the northern Basque country, is more difficult to understand because it isn't a Romance language. Experts believe it is the last remaining pre-Indo-European language in Europe, possibly related to Aquitanian.

Spain has several other languages, including Aragonese, Asturian and Aranese, from the Catalan valley of Aran, which will not be allowed in the senate. The Catalan region considers Aranese to be an official language in its own area. The fuss over Spain's minority languages coincides with a growing confrontation between the national government of Socialist Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez 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.

“There is a spiralling phobia which places the regional governments — with Catalonia at the forefront — as a scapegoat for the crisis,” said Enric Juliana, a respected columnist in the Catalonia-based La Vanguardia newspaper.— © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2011

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