Spanish or Catalan – what do you speak?

I arrived in Barcelona totally ignorant about the language situation in Catalunya.  I didn’t even ask myself if I should learn Spanish or Catalan – I assumed that Spanish was enough.

I thought I was coming to a famous Spanish city where I could learn and practise Spanish.  I had been studying it and was excited and eager to get going.

I enrolled in a course and started reading local newspapers and watching  TV in Spanish.

But it slowly dawned on me that things were not as simple as I thought.  Here is what happened to me.

The street names tell you a  story.

Carrer de Petrixol        Passeig de Gracia        Carrer Flor de Lliri

catalan street name
Lily Flower Street

Cafes and restaurants display menus that list items like:

Xocolata Desfeta       Xurros        Pa amb Tomaquet.

catalan food
Xocolata desfeta – delicious

What are all these X’s and how do you pronounce them?  The Spanish word for street is Calle – so why are they all marked Carrer?  Isn’t bread pan not pa?   So many questions.

Barcelona is an incredibly social and friendly city and it doesn’t take long to meet new people and get invited out for a beer or tapas.

Just when you think it is time has come to practise your new Spanish skills, you find that everyone is talking a completely different language.

It is Catalan of course.  If you arrived from an English speaking country then you are accustomed to the power of your native language. You take it for granted. You may  never have mastered another tongue. Perhaps you learned French but were always too embarrassed to speak it. Of course in Britain there is Welsh but do you know anyone that speaks it everyday?  I don’t.

So having made a big effort to learn Spanish and  feeling quite pleased with yourself,  you arrive in Barcelona and get a shock. Now what?

In many situations people are speaking Catalan and you don’t understand a word.

It is frustrating and I felt like that in the beginning.  I had friends who spoke Spanish with me and we met regularly to do ‘ intercambio’.  We exchanged English and Spanish for an hour over a cup of coffee.  But when our friendships deepened and I went out with them to dance,  drink or share a meal, they were speaking Catalan.  I felt left out and confused.  I couldn’t cope with another language so I hung on for dear life to Spanish and I appreciated the many times that my new friends would switch languages so that I could join in. But unless you are a very selfish person it is hard to insist that people speak a language just for you.  Especially when it was historically forced on them when Catalan was banned.

English speaking people I have met  here fall into several camps

  1. Those who speak Spanish and don’t want to learn Catalan ever, not at all, no thank you!

These people often express a frustration with Catalan customs and culture. Some of them are negative about the issue of independence and they can be quite offensive in the way they talk about Catalan people. One example of this attitude was the English man who came to fit my satellite dish a few years ago. He has lived and worked here for many years and his children grew up here but when I asked him if he spoke Catalan at all he growled,  “No I would never learn Catalan. I hate the way it sounds, it’s ugly and grating. All the Brits think so”

  1. Those who learn and speak Spanish and say they will learn Catalan later.

There are a lot of foreigners who live in Catalonia who fall into this camp.   At the beginning it is a good option as it is hard learning two similar languages at the same time.

After spending a few years here this becomes the lazy option. If you can speak Spanish then getting started on learning Catalan is a sign of respect for the people here. They have their own distinctive culture and history and the longer you are here the more you understand that Catalonia is not Spain.  Imagine people coming to the UK and not bothering to learn English….how would they integrate or ever feel at home?

  1. Those who speak neither Spanish nor Catalan.

It is possible to live here just speaking English and as so many people want to improve their English you may be popular to help them practise.  For generations British people have come to Spain and refused to learn the language so I suppose this option is good for people who have no interest in getting to know local people or who don’t intend to stay. But why pass up a chance to learn a new language?  It is a door into a new world.

  1. Those who decide not to bother learning Spanish at all and just concentrate on Catalan.

I am not in this group but I  have friends who are. It is so much easier to learn the language that surrounds you and  starting with Catalan is a good option for people who want to learn quickly, to communicate with their friends, neighbours, doctors, people on the street…

And what did I do?

I arrived totally ignorant and rather naive about the history and the culture and I was an example of the type of person who loves Barcelona and comes here to learn Spanish. When Pepa, a Catalan woman in her 80’s who was renting me an apartment, suggested I learn some Catalan too, I was horrified.  It was enough for me to cope with Spanish and the idea of studying a minority language which would never be useful outside of Catalonia seemed ridiculous.

But I have moved on!   I was ignorant but it wasn’t entirely my fault.

Few people outside of Catalonia know much about the area, the language or the culture.  Barcelona is the capital city of Catalonia and is not really a Spanish city!

Streets re-named in Spanish in Franco’s dictatorship went back again with democracy.

Catalan street names
Spanish or Catalan street names

I spoke Spanish for a year and was frustrated with my lack of progress. Then I dropped it completely and enrolled on a Catalan course.  Rapid improvement felt very satisfying.  A year or two later I went back to study Spanish and since then I have tried to improve both languages.

I want to be like Catalans and to speak both Spanish and Catalan with confidence and flair!


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6 thoughts on “Spanish or Catalan – what do you speak?

    1. You are my best example of someone who just went for it with Catalan! Such an inspiration and I suppose you would agree that this is the way to feel more integrated? Spanish is something I find it hard to write about without bias because it was the first foreign language I fell in love with and I couldn’t imagine being here and not learning it. But for normal life in catalunya? It’s not really necessary I don’t think unless you dance tango, or want to speak to a mobile phone company! Kate x

  1. Complicated! I think most of are unaware that a large number of people who live in what we call Spain don’t actually speak Spanish as their first language. Let alone have a clue about the historical importance of speaking Catalan. Belgium is another example – you might be forgiven for thinking that you would just speak French in a town like Bruges but in fact it’s situated in the Flemish-speaking part and is called Bruggen (and Flemish is actually Dutch with a different accent and more French words). Thank goodness when I moved to the Netherlands, it was clear I would be learning Dutch!
    I do admire you learning two languages that are quite similar, it can’t be easy. But it’s so rewarding when you can follow conversations, say something funny yourself and know what’s going on in your part of the world.

  2. Hello. I moved to Catalonia in June 2014 and in July I started to learn the language. Catalan of course. But according to my experiences it´s necessary to speak Spanish as well. Otherwise it´s hard to get a job.

    1. yes I agree totally! To fit in we need Catalan and to really survive here we need Spanish too unless we are working as English teachers. But it is so hard to learn two at the same time. Look forward to hearing how you deal with this issue. It has taken me 5 years to get to feel fluent in both (ish) Kate x

  3. Well, I have problems to get a job as a teacher as well (as I don´t have a passport from the UK). 😀 BUt I hope this summer I can strat to study Spanish (after I pass my first state examination from Catalan). 🙂

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