Professor studies Catalan and its influence on language and society

Elena Hines
College of Arts and Sciences staff writer

Dr. Robert VannDr. Robert Vann, Western Michigan University full professor of Spanish linguistics, has had a longtime interest in the Catalan language and in the people that live in Catalonia, an autonomous community in northeastern Spain. He has recently been granted a sabbatical leave that will allow him to conduct longitudinal research in Barcelona, Catalonia’s capital, and it couldn’t have happened at a better time — “a confluence of historic moments,” as he describes it — with many Catalan nationalists seeking secession from Spain.

Catalan, a Romance language with about 12 million speakers, is spoken today in parts of Spain, France and Italy, vestiges of Catalonia’s Mediterranean expansion collectively known now as the “Països Catalans” (“Catalan Countries”).

After Catalonia lost its independence to Spain in 1714, the language was prohibited by law repeatedly in Spain for more than 250 years.

When Spain became a democratic state in 1975, relative freedom came for the heritage languages.

But for those of Catalonian descent, during the centuries when Catalan was outlawed, “many generations never learned their language in school, they never learned to read and write in their language,” Vann said. “Maintaining pride in their language was difficult when it was prohibited for almost three centuries.”

Vann’s interest in Catalan began while he lived and studied in Barcelona during his undergraduate year abroad.

In 1995, he started to research what the language situation looked like 20 years after democracy returned to Spain.

“This generation was the first generation of students in modern history for whom Catalan was widely available in what we in the U.S. would call K-12 and university instruction,” he said.

Dr. Robert VannHe has spent his career publishing research related to the data he collected in 1995, with an emphasis on particular ways of speaking Spanish that have been influenced by Catalan.

In 2009 Dr. Vann published a book about Spanish in Barcelona, and in 2013 he started a digital language archive dedicated to Spanish in the Països Catalans (available at 

His ongoing language documentation project includes a number of recordings, 168 distinct resource metadata pages, and 75 transcriptions of linguistic interviews and group conversations with members of two different social networks in Barcelona.

Through his research Professor Vann he has found documented a unique contact variety of Spanish not previously described in the academic literature.

Catalan Spanish was generally considered broken Spanish, he said. “Differences from Castilian Spanish were perceived as errors as opposed to innovative or alternative linguistic norms.”

Vann’s sabbatical leave for Spring 2017 will allow him to return to Barcelona and conduct a longitudinal study on the people with whom he spoke in 1995.

 “It’s fascinating what’s going on in Catalonia,” he said. “Those people I talked to in 1995 — decades later they stand as community leaders” as historical social changes are occurring.

Catalonia is trying to secede from Spain and linguistic self-determination is one of the pillars of the independence movement.

“No doubt the people I studied are the movers and shakers,” he said. He believes the views of those individuals, now in their 40s, influenced society.

“Catalan nationalism is at an all-time high,” he said. “In a recent poll, 81 percent favored independence from Spain.”

The separatist majority coalition that governs Catalonia is following a road map that leads to secession in Spring 2017.

“The time is good for conducting new research,” he said. “Linguistic practices are likely very different now given the sweeping ideological changes that have developed over the last 20 years as the Generation of 1995 has come of age in terms of social, cultural, and political capital in Barcelona."

“Certain ways of speaking Spanish could be linked to new identities and ideologies.”

When Dr. Vann travels across the Atlantic this January, he will reinterview members of the two social networks in Barcelona he originally interviewed in 1995 to see if they display new linguistic norms or greater Catalanist leanings than they did in 1995. He expects to find that members of both social networks will use linguistic resources and language ideologies differently than they did in 1995, reflecting the continuous and natural development of Catalan society towards cultural, linguistic, and political self-determination.

He plans to return with new sociolinguistic data to analyze as well as fresh digital language recordings to deposit into his linguistic archive for the benefit of students and other researchers.

He also plans a book proposal involving the development of language ideologies and language use over time in Barcelona.