On a beautiful sunny morning in Santiago de Compostela, I made my way to Semente Primário, the primary school established in September 2018 by Galician language activists. The students were starting a storytelling activity, each with a piece of paper, blank except for one dot. They listened to the story of Aquiles, o puntiño (“Achilles, the little dot”) and drew their own interpretations. The story goes:
A little dot stands alone in the middle of a blank paper, no drawings or marks to be found on it. It is light, almost transparent. The sun crosses over it like a mirror in the water. Slowly, the little dot colors itself and turns into a blue eye. The eye wants to look around with such attention to detail that, failing to see wide enough, it becomes two.
The group invited me to join in, even though I warned everyone that my drawing skills are terrifying. Maré, age six, said to me reassuringly, “Tanto ten, o importante é participar.” (It’s alright. What matters is participating.) I fell for it!
I sat next to Tiago, who is madly in love with the Beatles, so no surprise when I asked him what he wanted to draw and he said John Lennon and Yoko Ono. Siro, also age six, reminded me to put my name on the paper.
“With this pencil?” I asked him in Galician.
“No, not that one,” he replied, also in Galician. “It is not sharp.”
I leaned forward to look for a—“Sharpener! Damn it, how do we say it in Galician?” I thought to myself. My brain felt useless. “I am the adult! I must know the words—all of them!” But all that came to mind was the Spanish sacapuntas.
“Busca un afiador!” Siro rapidly advised. Find a sharpener!
My brain wandered. “Afiador. What a wonderful word.” I didn’t recall ever hearing this as a child, but I do remember my grandfather explaining how to afiar things when I used to spend time with him in the village where I lived for fifteen years. In a matter of seconds, my indigenous memory traveled back to the roots, relearning and reconnecting with my own Galician heritage.
This is not an isolated anecdote. It happened repeatedly throughout the time I spent doing fieldwork in Galicia, a region of the northwestern Iberian Peninsula. The Smithsonian’s Sustaining Minoritized Languages in Europe (SMiLE) project has taken me back to my homeland after more than a decade in the U.K. Our research focuses on the Galician language immersion schools, called Semente, meaning “seed” in Galician. The first Semente school opened in 2011 as part of a grassroots movement led by activists who belong to a larger movement to revive Galician customs and traditions.
Semente is not just schools but an incredibly dynamic community-based project. As such, our SMiLE research consisted of countless meetings and observations at different activist, educational, and recreational spaces around Galicia’s capital city of Santiago de Compostela. So there I was as a researcher, observing social practices that were readily familiar to me, limboing between my imagined insider and outsider perspectives, and confronting a rather complex emotional response in the way I rationalized the experience.
I underwent what some have called “reverse cultural shock.” I have adopted “British” customs more than I would like to admit. I also faced the harsh realities of language attrition: despite the fact that Galician is my mother tongue and despite the belief that I am, arguably, its proudest speaker, I struggled to fit in. I felt self-conscious about making mistakes, sounding weird, or not being recognized or heard as a local. To some people, I sounded foreign, yet I was a speaker of a local variety of Galician some time ago.
Growing up in the small coastal village of Xove, everyone around me spoke Galician. In my primary school, kids from other regions learned the language organically, just from playing with their peers. At home, our family predominantly speaks it—although more and more, my young cousins speak only Spanish. When I started high school in Viveiro, a town only ten minutes away, I found the linguistic habitat was radically different: virtually monolingual in Spanish. For the first time, I was treated differently because of the way I spoke. There was a condescending attitude toward those of us from Xove, for they were “cosmopolitan” and “open,” whereas we were “rural” and “backwards.” Linguistic prejudice and intolerance are still present today in Galicia.
Even after nearly forty years of institutional language policies to foster the use of Galician language, urban and semi-urban spaces alike are still battlefields for those who dare to subvert Spanish authority. Speaking Galician outside of close-knit circles still indicates a sense rurality, lack of education, or nationalism.
Semente fights against this status quo and “plants seeds” for the future of the language through a new generation of Galician speakers. It’s a geraçom das mil primaveras, as they call it: the generation of the thousand springs. Semente’s ethos has thus been to reinforce a sense of “linguistic pride” to counteract the prejudices that linger over Galician, perpetuated by the Spanish-orientated education system. Semente as a social movement is a civic and self-organized response to the displacement of Galician by the Spanish language.
The goal is a transversal language—one of union, diversity, and an open door to cultures around the world. Semente’s pedagogy draws on co-education, social justice, linguistic tolerance, and intercultural competence. The schools endeavor to work against Spanish linguistic nationalism, which has historically hindered the transmission of many indigenous languages within the Kingdom of Spain and normalized Spanish Castilian monolingualism.
At Semente, they believe Galician is a communication tool that grants access to other world cultures. But how can a minoritized language in such a small country bridge people to the world? If you look up Galician on the internet, you are likely to find information on how it is the native language of Galicia in northwestern Spain. However, the Semente crew—just like other social movements in Galicia—understand that Galician (or Galician-Portuguese) is part of a much wider language system commonly known as the Lusophony. This plays a fundamental role in the way they frame the Galician linguistic reality.
Semente students learn that their language is spoken in Brazil, Angola, Mozambique, Portugal, Macau, Cape Verde, and other places, with varying accents and idioms. They connect to the cultures of those countries, which strengthens their linguistic self-esteem and works against the supposed limitations of the language.
There is something truly fascinating about the way these kids have internalized the Galician language, how naturally they use words unknown to the average speaker. But Semente is not about language purism or prescriptivism—it’s about recovery. The instructors encourage and regularly use all sorts of Galician dialectal forms. When the students use “Castilianized” words, the teachers do not correct them but repeat or acknowledge it with the equivalent in Galician. This way, Semente ensures that those who speak Galician at home reinforce their language practices, and those who speak Spanish at home can acquire a comfortable level of Galician.
Thus, Semente students learn thatto dive into na maré (“the sea” in Galician-Portuguese) is as beautiful and correct as the standardized Galician no mar, or that to buy gelados (“ice cream”) is as delicious and right as xeados, or that to wear peúgas (“socks”) is as warm and valid as calcetíns.
This goes in sheer opposition to the official language policies of the Galician government, which does not acknowledge the revitalization strategy of connecting Galician with Portuguese. Semente schooling transcends the territoriality borders and takes its students on a journey around diverse voices and accents. It both enriches and questions their own language practices, just as I have done reconnecting with my indigenous heritage, ultimately decolonizing the rigid idea of citizenship imposed through traditional language schooling.
Alejandro Dayán-Fernández is a co-investigator for the Galician language case study of the Smithsonian SMiLE project. He is also a doctoral researcher in sociolinguistics at the University of Glasgow.
SMiLE Research Awards are sponsored by the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage with funding from Ferring Pharmaceuticals Inc.