José Antonio Sierra has been fighting for the teaching of co-official languages for 50 years
For almost 50 years, the teacher and journalist José Antonio Sierra has been fighting to promote the teaching of Catalan, Galician and Basque in official language schools throughout Spain, an objective that has not yet been achieved, he regrets, due to “prejudice” and the lack of political will.
Sierra, who lives in Malaga, is 86 years old and has been retired since 2003, although he maintains his particular quest to promote the study of the co-official languages of Spain beyond the communities in which they are spoken.
“Catalan, Galician and Basque are languages as Spanish as Castilian” and for this reason they should be able to be studied in all official schools and language institutes at universities, “as long as there is a minimum number of students enrolled”, he maintains in an interview with EFE.
Born in Villanueva de Gómez (Ávila) in 1936, José Antonio Sierra has a degree in Philosophy and Letters and Teaching and has studies in Journalism and Social Psychology. Most of his professional career has been developed outside of Spain, mainly as a teacher in France, the United Kingdom and Ireland, a country where he has lived for 34 years.
His attraction to languages began at a very young age, first when he heard other languages spoken on the radio as a child, which aroused some intrigue in him, and years later when he spent a summer at a campsite in Torredembarra (Tarragona) and came into contact with with Catalan, a language that he has studied, like Galician, although he has not had the opportunity to speak.
In 1962 he was granted a position as a language assistant at an institute in Lyon (France) and there he had the “privilege” of working under the direction of the Occitan poet Bernard Lesfargues, translator into French of authors in both Spanish and Catalan languages, who gave him aroused the real interest “in knowing the linguistic richness of Spain”.
Already in the seventies, and after working for a time in the United Kingdom, Sierra settled in Ireland, where in 1974 he founded the Spanish Cultural Institute of Dublin, the predecessor of the current Cervantes Institute, and introduced the teaching of Catalan to the academic offer, Basque and Galician.
“It was the first institution in Spain in the world to introduce the teaching of these languages,” says José Antonio Sierra, who acknowledges that the initiative “raised blisters in certain sectors”, since they considered it “a danger” for Spain.
“They asked for my head, but the Spanish ambassador in Ireland defended my attitude and I continued in office,” recalls the retired professor, who despite government reluctance remained at the head of the institution for 22 years.
In this institute, Catalan classes were given, but not Basque or Galician, since the minimum number of students enrolled to form a class was never reached, points out Sierra, who also worked in Ireland as a correspondent for various media.
After his retirement, in 2003, he returned to Spain and settled in Malaga, where he continues to reside today and from where he continues to defend the importance of teaching minority languages through the ‘Diversity and Coexistence’ association, which he himself founded in 2004.
Sierra has written hundreds of letters to politicians, ministers, general directors, counselors and other positions in the different administrations asking that the official Spanish schools, whether in Murcia, Madrid or La Rioja, offer the possibility of studying the co-official languages. But his claim is still far from being a reality.
He believes that this is due to the fact that “there is a general lack of knowledge of the linguistic richness of Spain, terrible prejudices and the fact that languages are politicized”. And especially, he adds, to the lack of will of the politicians.
Sierra insists that his intention is not to force anyone to teach these languages, but to give any Spaniard the opportunity to study them regardless of the community in which they live.
Despite the fact that their demands have so far been ignored, José Antonio Sierra promises to continue fighting from Andalusia to reverse what he considers an anomaly in Spain, convinced that languages ”are the wealth of a country.”