VoxEU Column Education Europe's nations and regions

Education, language and identity

Language is not only a tool of communication but also of empowerment and cultural identity. This column presents evidence that mandatory instruction in Catalan strengthened perceptions of regional identity and boosted political support for Catalanist parties. This evidence of the efficacy of multiculturalist policy should instruct policymakers in ethnically diverse societies.

Education has often been invoked as an important instrument of nation building and state power consolidation. Nation-building policies – such as the implementation of a sole national language in schools and across the entire territory of a state – as well as multicultural policies that explicitly recognise cultural differences (regional autonomy, the devolution of powers, or the use of multiple languages in schools and in other contexts) have often been proposed as sources of conflict management in ethnically divided societies.

Social scientists have argued that the boundaries of ethnic groups and the strength of ethnic ties are not exogenous and change over time (Anderson 1983, Bates 1983, Horowitz 1985). They are likely to be affected by social and economic conditions and to depend on economic and policy choices. We know surprisingly little about whether government policies in general – and educational systems in particular – can enhance national cohesion and revitalise the national sentiment of a country.

In a recent study we take a step in this direction by analysing the effect of a particular educational policy (implemented in the Spanish region of Catalonia) on the process of identity formation and on political preferences (Clots-Figueras and Masella 2013). Up to 1983, Spanish was the official language of the Catalan education system. That year the education system became bilingual, and both Catalan and Spanish were used as languages of instruction.

Exposure to the Catalan language at school varies depending on the cohort of birth and the number of years of education completed. The larger the number of years of schooling the individual has received in Catalan, the more affected he or she will be, but given that the number of years of schooling is typically an individual choice that could also be related to identity, we consider the number of years of compulsory education under Catalan teaching as the main measure of exposure to the reform. This number of years is not an individual choice and varies across cohorts. We then include polynomial functions of the year of birth in the regressions to account for the fact that, irrespective of the reform, different cohorts or individuals of different ages may respond differently to the identity question. A number of factors lead us to believe that the link between the educational reform and individual identity is causal. Several robustness checks allow us to conclude that the results are driven neither by cohort specific trends on Catalan identity nor by the impact on identity of another important event such as the end of the Franco dictatorship. We also find no evidence that the reform affected migration flows or changed the composition of the Catalan population.

In our empirical analysis we use data provided by Centro de Investigaciones Sociologicas on political and social attitudes of residents in Catalonia. The survey was conducted in 2001. To identify individuals' national attachment to Spain or Catalonia, we rely on the following question: "With which of the following sentences do you identify with more? (1) I feel only Spanish, (2) I feel more Spanish than Catalan, (3) I feel as Spanish as Catalan, (4) I feel more Catalan than Spanish, (5) I feel only Catalan". The CIS 2001 survey includes a question in which individuals are asked who they voted for in the 1999 elections for the Catalan Parliament. Respondents are also asked about their opinion on how the Spanish state should be organised and how strong the degree of independence of the Catalan region should be.

The effect of the reform

We find that individuals who experienced greater exposure to teaching in Catalan are more likely to say that they feel more Catalan than Spanish. In the following figure we plot the answers given to the identity question for two groups of individuals: those who had at least one year of compulsory education after the reform, and thus were affected by it, and those who did not. Differences are mostly at the extremes, the proportion of individuals answering “I feel only Catalan” increases 6.75 percentage points with the reform, while the proportion of individuals answering “Only Spanish” decreases 6.35 percentage points.

Figure 1. Identity: Individuals affected and not affected by the reform

Results from our regressions suggest that one year of exposure to the reform increased the probability of feeling only Catalan, more Catalan than Spanish or as Catalan as Spanish by more than two percentage points. As is the case for most of the reforms involving changes in the languages of instruction, the introduction of bilingualism in Catalan schools was associated with other adjustments to the curriculum, such as changes in textbooks and course content. Although the existing data do not allow us to disentangle the language effect from the effect of these additional features, with our identification strategy we deliver a global evaluation of the 1983 reform which is broadly comparable to similar linguistic reforms implemented in other educational systems across the world.

We define members of a minority group as all respondents of non-Catalan origin or with parents who are not of Catalan origin (first and second generation immigrants); the effect of the reform on individual identity appears to be present also among such respondents. Nation-building policies (such as the implementation of a unique national language in schools and across the entire territory of a State) seem to promote the growth of a common national feeling. The 1983 reform of the Catalan education system can be interpreted as an example of a multicultural policy within Spain, with individuals living in Catalonia being the relevant minority. According to this interpretation we conclude that multicultural policies instead tend to favour the development of regional identities.

We also discuss how the educational reform has had an effect on political preferences. We find that individuals who have experienced greater exposure to teaching in Catalan are more likely to declare that they chose a party with a Catalanist (Catalan regionalist) platform. Results suggest that the reform increased the salience of the ethnic issue in the Catalan society and helped consolidate a political system organised along ethnic lines. As a further step, we then study the effect of the 1983 reform on separatist attitudes and we find that respondents affected by the reform are more likely to claim that Spanish regions should have the right to be independent States.

Policy implications

Nowadays, most countries in the world could be classified as multilingual. However, not all of them have multilingual educational systems. The UNESCO report Education in a Multilingual World explains that the choice of language of education constitutes an important challenge in the development of educational policies. In addition, mother tongue instruction is considered important to the quality of the education provided. Language can be regarded not only as a communication tool but also as an attribute of empowerment and cultural identity. Research of this sort, along with the study of the effects of such reforms on political and economic outcomes, are highly relevant in ethnically divided societies where linguistic policies can be seen as mechanisms of conflict reduction.


Anderson, B (1983), Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origins and Spread of Nationalism, London: Verso.

Bates, R (1983). “Modernization, ethnic competition and the rationality of politics in contemporary Africa”, in (D. Rothchild and V. A. Olorunsola, eds.), State versus Ethnic Claims: African Policy Dilemmas, pp. 152–71, Boulder, CO: Westview.

Clots-Figueras, I and P Masella (2013), “Education, language and identity”, Economic Journal, Volume 123, Issue 570, pages F332–F357

Horowitz, D. (1985), Ethnic Groups in Conflict, Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

4,724 Reads