Getting to know Juan Pablo Martínez: A Q&A with an Aragonese language activist

Screenshot of Juan Pablo Martínez taken from YouTube video “Charrín Charrán”

Europe’s linguistic diversity is increasingly reflected in online spaces, where regional and minority language speakers and their communities leverage digital tools and media to preserve, promote, and revitalize their language heritage. In this spirit, Rising Voices’ online campaign @EuroDigitalLang has been curating a rotating X (formerly Twitter) account. Here, language activists and advocates narrate their personal stories in their own words, engaging directly with their audience and sharing ongoing challenges as well as successes.

In this email interview, Rising Voices spoke to upcoming host Juan Pablo Martínez, who is a Full Professor of Electrical Engineering at the University of Zaragoza. His field of research is in Signal Processing and Machine Learning applied to biological signals. He also works closely with the Aragonese language. You can follow Juan Pablo on X (formerly Twitter) at @jpmartinez_, as he manages the account the week of May 6–12, 2024. This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Rising Voices (RV): Please tell us about yourself and your language-related work.

Juan Pablo Martínez (JPM): Having a background in Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) and being a speaker and advocate of Aragonese language and multilingualism, I became very interested in the opportunities that technology offers to endangered languages such as Aragonese. I have taken part in and promoted a number of language dissemination, dynamization and revitalization projects, related to the use of Aragonese within the ICTs. These include the creation and sharing of free content (e.g., Aragonese Wikipedia), online learning, and software localization projects. I have also been deeply involved in the development of open-source computational linguistic tools for Aragonese, as a text-to-speech converser, a spellchecker, or a machine translator for Aragonese.

I’m a member of Nogará, an association that organizes Aragonese courses and promotes the use of the language, and co-founder of other nonprofit initiatives such as Softaragonés and Edicions Transiberiano. I’m also a member of the Estudio de Filología Aragonesa, where I coordinated the Gramatica Basica de l’Aragonés (Prensas de la Universidad de Zaragoza, 2021). I have also coauthored works on the situation of Aragonese and written papers and given talks on applied linguistics and the development of computer tools for Aragonese.

From 2019 to 2022, I was the conductor and scriptwriter of the section “Pizarra y Clarión” within “Charrín Charrán,” the first TV show in Aragonese on Aragon public television (Aragón TV).

In 2021, I was appointed as one of the initial members of the Academia Aragonesa de la Lengua (official institution for the regulation of Aragonese and Catalan, the two regional minority languages in Aragon), where I am currently the secretary and the director of the Instituto de l’Aragonés (the section regulating Aragonese language).

RV: What is the current state of your language both online and offline?

JPM: While Aragonese once enjoyed a period of prominence as the “state language” of the Kingdom of Aragon, its usage has steadily declined since the 16th century, being substituted by Castilian/Spanish. In recent centuries, it has became confined to the private sphere in select rural areas of northern Aragon. In the 20th century, the rate of language loss has accelerated, propelled by socioeconomic shifts, rural depopulation, the influence of mass media, the attitude of disdain towards its use by certain sectors (including the educational system for a considerable portion of the 20th century), and the absence of institutional support.

As a consequence, the intergenerational transmission of the language from parents to children was broken in many instances during the 20th century, which produced a dramatic decrease in the number of native speakers. According to the last censuses, it is estimated that Aragonese is spoken by some 8,000 native speakers in the north of Aragon (less than 1 percent of the Aragonese population) plus an indeterminate number of emigrated and second-language speakers. In most areas, only older people use the language. In contrast, there is a certain interest among young and middle-aged people to learn the language in areas where the language is not spoken anymore as a native language, with some new-speakers even raising their children in Aragonese. According to the UNESCO Atlas of Endangered Languages, Aragonese is categorized as “definitely endangered.”

The presence of Aragonese in education is scarce, as an elective subject in some schools of Northern Aragon, although the number of schools, teachers and registered children has increased in the last decade. There is an “Act on the Aragonese Languages,” which regulates the institutional use of Aragonese and also Catalan (spoken in the western strip of Aragon), but does not establish obligations for the government, so the policies are highly dependent on the will of each cabinet. The act also established the Academia Aragonesa de la Lengua, the official institution that regulates the linguistic norm of Aragonese and Catalan in Aragon, which initiated its activities in 2021.

As for the “online world,” I would say the language shows greater vitality there than in the real world. This can produce the misleading feeling that the language is in better health than it really is.

RV: What are your motivations for seeing your language present in digital spaces?

JPM: In today's digital age, where young and middle-aged individuals predominantly rely on digital technologies for communication, and dedicate a significant portion of their time to the digital realm, the presence of a language in digital spaces becomes increasingly crucial if we want it to be used by younger generations.

Another motivation is visibilization, both outwards and inwards. Digital presence allows non-speakers to know about the language's existence, increasing the appreciation and understanding of linguistic diversity. Moreover, within the community of speakers themselves, digital representation may serve to validate and reinforce the importance of their language, strengthening their sense of identity and pride, something particularly crucial for a language that has been perceived as rural and associated with the uneducated.

Of course, digital presence also contributes to the use of the language as it facilitates access to resources for language learning and usage: dictionaries, texts, grammars, educational materials and also linguistic tools as translators, spellcheckers, predictive keyboards, etc.

Finally, for a scattered linguistic community such as ours, digital spaces can overcome physical barriers allowing engagement between speakers of different areas and dialects, creating a stronger sense of community.

RV: Describe some of the challenges that prevent your language from being fully utilized online.

JPM: Fortunately, in the case of Aragonese, there are no technological barriers preventing the use of the language, as Aragonese can be written with the same keyboards and fonts as Spanish.

However, there are other barriers that may limit the use of Aragonese. The overwhelming presence of dominant languages “encourages” the use those languages at the expense of Aragonese, which remains marginalized.

Another issue, also related to the scarcity of digital resources and tools, is insecurity. Even fluent speakers are often not confident about how to write their language. Others, including learners, may worry about making mistakes or being judged by others for their language proficiency in Aragonese, which results in shifting to Spanish instead. This lack of confidence is specially exacerbated in public social media, while private social media (as messaging applications) may be seen as a “safer place.”

Finally, a major challenge for Aragonese is to normalize its use online, not only among activists and the most aware speakers, but also among the rest of the community. My perception is that the online community using Aragonese has increased in the last years, including speakers beyond the “highly active” groups.

RV: What concrete steps do you think can be taken to encourage younger people to begin learning their language or keep using their language?

JPM: In my view, the survival and revitalization efforts will only be successful if intergenerational transmission is restored and the community is enlarged with young new speakers. This is not an easy task, and different steps need to be done.

The main one is to integrate the language in formal education from an early stage, with stronger focus on the areas where Aragonese is still a vehicle of social communication. Outside those areas, elective courses should also be offered.

In order to engage young learners and speakers, it is important to create resources tailored to their interests and preferences: mobile apps, online games, multimedia, TV shows. Other ideas are organizing events enhancing the pride of speaking the language and the sense of community, where young speakers should be protagonists.

Whether we like it or not, practicality is also significant factor for families when determining whether to transmit their language to their children. So, enhancing the status of the language and its use in education, media, governance and public discourse, should also encourage Aragonese-speaking parents to transmit the language.


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