MADRID - In the land that gave the world the first modern novel, Don Quixote, the language of its creator, Miguel de Cervantes, is under threat. This is the contention of bilingual campaigners and conservative politicians who believe a new education law will erode a constitutional guarantee to teach Spanish, also known as Castilian, in schools.
Spain is a linguistically diverse country where the Catalan, Galician and Basque languages have equal status that is protected by law.
Spain's left-wing coalition government has introduced a reform, which says Castilian Spanish does not have to be the principal language in classrooms throughout the country.
It means in regions like Catalonia, the Basque Country or Galicia, educational authorities must still teach Spanish but it does not have to be the first language and instead can be taught as a secondary subject.
The law has sparked a passionate political dispute in a country where language wars have been raging since Spain returned to democracy in the late 1970s.
Longtime leader General Francisco Franco banned regional languages for four decades. After he died in 1975 and democracy was stored, regions won the power to decide which languages were taught in the classroom.
Catalonia, which for almost 40 years has been run by nationalist regional governments, embarked on a policy of linguistic immersion with Catalan as the main language in public schools. Spanish is taught for only two hours per week.
Elsewhere, in the Basque Country, Galicia and the Balearic Islands, which include Mallorca, Ibiza and Menorca, regional languages have also been offered in schools.
Heritage at stake
Campaigners who defend the right to learn in Spanish accuse the left-wing coalition government of abolishing the last remaining guarantees to education in what has been Spain's dominant language for centuries.
The reform was agreed among the ruling Socialists, their junior partners in the coalition, the far-left Unidas Podemos and the Catalan separatists Catalan Republican Left, ERC.
Ana Losada, president of the Assembly for Bilingual Schools in Catalonia, believes the reform will give authorities a chance to rid Spanish from the classrooms.
"Here in Catalonia, they have imposed Catalan and relegated Spanish to a secondary subject. We have fought through the courts to defend our rights under the constitution for our children to be taught in Spanish and we have won," she told VOA.
"This law change will take away that right to defend our language."
Losada recounted the case of 30 parents at the Guinovart School in Castelldefels near Barcelona who took legal action to force authorities to teach in Spanish in 25% of teaching time.
She said the Spanish constitutional court defended their right to learn in their mother tongue, despite suffering abuse from those who oppose their actions.
The issue of language has proved hugely divisive in Spain.
Some Spanish speakers believe Spanish is an integral part of the national culture.
Equally, Catalans, Basques and Galicians claim they want to defend their own heritage, symbolized in their languages.
Carlos Carrizosa, leader of the center-right Ciudadanos party in Catalonia, believes the reform was a concession by the minority government so Catalan separatists would support the 2021 budget in a vote due after Christmas.
The support of the ERC, which has 13 lawmakers, would be crucial to approve the government's spending plan to help Spain recover from the economic damage of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Ciudadanos, a party with only 10 MPs, may also be vital for the Socialists to win a majority to pass the budget but they are going to make this education law a bargaining chip in return for their votes.
"My party has said today that we will not support the budget if they go ahead with this reform. Until now children have been guaranteed Spanish in schools in Catalonia - even if we have had to take court action to ensure this. This law will change this," he told VOA in an interview.
Proponents of the reform, which will come into action when schools return in September 2021, denied the charge that they show no respect for the language of Cervantes.
"The charge that we are trying to rid of Spanish could not be further from the truth. This law will ensure that any pupil must leave school speaking Spanish and any other language, be it Catalan, Basque or Galician equally well," Juan Mena, education spokesman for En Comú, a far-left party allied to Unidas Podemos, told VOA.
"The mention of Spanish no longer being the principal language is only because previous education laws said Spanish must be the principal language even in regions where other languages are spoken."
Spanish is spoken by 534 million people, making it the fourth most important in the world after English, Mandarin and Hindi.
"It is a victory for us because we have managed to safeguard Catalan as the principal language in education without impairing Spanish," said Raul Murcia, a spokesman for ERC.
Gregorio Luri, a respected educationalist, believes the amendment may be challenged by the Spanish constitutional court.