Should You Learn Catalan?

Say What? Learning Catalan helps with reading signs in Barcelona

Say what? Learning Catalan helps with reading signs in Barcelona

Coming to Catalonia? Pick up a copy of Eat Guides: Barcelona, and dine like a local while in Barcelona. $4.99

By Regina Winkle-Bryan

I’ve got friends from all over Europe and the rest of the world here in Barcelona, and learning Catalan is always a hot topic at dinner parties among them. Some people are dead set against it, calling it a ‘useless’ language. “Why should I learn a language that I can’t use anywhere else in the world?” they say. Indeed, Catalan is helpful in Catalonia, and Andorra, Valencia, and on the Spanish Mediterranean islands of Majorca, Minorca, Formentera and Ibiza, but it’s not spoken in the rest of Spain or much anywhere else in the world. Others say that to know a culture you must speak the language, and therefore if you live in Catalonia, you must have some grasp of Catalan.

**We stand corrected. A reader pointed out that Catalan is also spoken in a small region of France -near the border- and Alghero, Sardinia. It looks like it is also spoken by a few souls in Aragon. While this still doesn’t make it very widespread, it is important to have the facts.

Majorca Island

Majorca Island

Here are common reasons for and against learning Catalan:

CONS:

No one uses it. Well, only the people in the places already listed above, but no, it’s not as useful as Spanish which is spoken all over the world.

People are bilingual. Many English speaking friends argue that they don’t need Catalan if they speak Spanish, because all Catalans are bilingual and can as easily speak in Spanish as Catalan. Furthermore, many Catalans speak English meaning a conversation could be had in English or Spanish, rendering Catalan unnecessary.

It’s ugly. Yes, some people don’t like the sound of Catalan. This is a motivator, or not, with all languages. If it sounds pretty to the learner’s ear, he is more likely to feel inspired to practice.

It’s hard. If you speak Spanish (or Italian, or French) it’s not that hard. However, there are some big differences in grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation, and it does take work to learn Catalan, especially if your mother tongue is not Latin based.

Catalan is not used in other parts of Spain

Catalan is not used in other parts of Spain.

PROS:

It’s the language here. If you live in a country, most people would agree that it is a good idea to have some idea of the language. Many Catalans feel that Catalonia is a country (it’s not, legally anyway), and Catalan therefore is the national language. By the way, Catalan is one of Spain’s national languages along with Basque, Galician and Valencian (like Catalan) and Occitan.

People will like you. If you make an effort, locals will appreciate that you are trying to learn their language and will be warmer towards you.

It helps you learn stuff. A lot of information in Catalonia is written in Catalan which means you’ll get more out of your experience if you can understand it. Also, many presentations and workshops are in Catalan, not to mention music, theater and other entertainment.

It helps you get a job. Many places will not hire someone who doesn’t speak some Catalan.

It gets your closer to the culture. Our languages are deeply connected to our cultures. Expressions are a great example of this or vocabulary words that so perfectly describe something we all feel. Learning another language gets you closer to the culture it comes from, opening little windows into the soul of a place and a people.

Cultural events are often in Catalan

Cultural events are often in Catalan.

Conclusion?

I’ve lived here since 2005. My Catalan is not great. I have taken two courses in basic Catalan, which were really eye-opening and have proven useful. In the long run, I plan to live here and need to learn Catalan to work and socialize at dinner parties. I know this, and it’s a goal, but it’s slow coming.

The writer, trying to remember the past tense....

The writer, trying to remember the past tense….

The truth is that I speak Spanish and English and can get by with these languages. My desire to speak and understand Catalan is more personal than anything else. I don’t want to be one of those English speakers living in a bubble (or non-English speakers, plenty of Spanish people also refuse to learn Catalan). That said, I almost never have a conversation in Catalan, though many times a month I need to be able to listen to or read Catalan. My husband is Catalan, but we speak in Spanglish, with Catalan lacing and a sprinkling of English.

Spanglish? Catalanish?

If you feel inspired to learn Catalan, sign up for free classes given by the Catalan government at :http://www.cpnl.cat/xarxa/cnlbarcelona/

If you hate Catalan and see learning it pointless, then living in Catalonia long-term is probably not a fabulous idea.

32 Responses

  1. John Bentley says:

    I thin that learning Catalan is a very good idea if you intend to live here for any considerable length of time. I’m afraid I totally disagree with the opinion that it sounds “ugly” (what is “ugly” anyway?), and it certainly isn’t as difficult to learn for English speakers as, say, French, and nowhere near as hard as German.

    Without going into the tedious debate about the “obligation” to learn Catalan, I would argue that there are tremendous advantages for the foreigner who makes the effort to do so. Never mind “knowing the culture” and all that – if you want to do business here and be taken seriously by Catalan companies, Catalan is a must. You can get by with Spanish, as many do, but you will be very much smiled upon by the locals if you make the effort to learn what is, for most people, their mother tongue.

    It is, after all, a sign of respect.

  2. admin says:

    I agree John. And just to clarify, I don’t think it’s ugly, it’s just an excuse I’ve heard before. Catalan has grown on me a lot over the last 6 years….I listen to a lot of music in Catalan which has turned me on to the sound of it more. While I am not fluent, I love learning expressions in different languages – gives me another way to see the world and express myself.

    Thanks for your comment.

    Regina

  3. If you live in Catalunya, sure … I have no reason to learn it so I wouldn’t. I would, however, concentrate most on my castellano so as to be more proficient. I don’t like sounding like a bumbling foreigner.

  4. admin says:

    I hear you Kaley. That’s been a struggle for me, in that I don’t have time to study both languages as much as I would like and still make dinner, walk my dog and do yoga….oh yeah, and work! This is why I’ve always done intense 1 month Catalan courses. I’ve also taken private and group Spanish, but at this point, only a private teacher will work (I have very specific grammar issues after so many years in Spanish speaking countries). Anyway, in a way you’re lucky in Madrid because you only have to focus on Spanish! Not so in Valencia, Catalonia, Basque Country or Galicia….or the Balears or Andorra (I realize it’s not Spain).
    Cheers!

  5. kayla says:

    I wholeheartedly believe learning the native language is essential if you’re going to live any extended time in a place, especially if it’s not a big urban area. I lived in Menorca for two years working as an English assistant. I went there thinking that I wouldn’t need or want to learn Catalan. I wanted to focus on my Spanish and I thought that not knowing Catalan wouldn’t be an issue. After a couple months I realized that in order to truly feel integrated I didn’t need Catalan at all; I needed Menorquí! Sure, people spoke to me in Spanish but they spoke around me in Menorquí and I always felt like an outsider. I can’t count how many times I was in the teacher’s room or with some friends, drowning in a sea of Menorquí. When I started to learn the language, I instantly saw new doors opening. I made oodles of friends, not just native speakers either. Plus, I joined Amb tu en Català, an organization that pairs you up with a native volunteer. Through that I got to know the island, the people living there, and the culture much better. Plus, Menorca is such a small place with very few Americans (let alone ones that speak the language) and I felt like a celebrity. So many times I was introduced like this: “Hey, you have to meet this girl! She’s American and she speaks Menorquí!” And of course, then they’d ask me to say something. Now that I’m in Madrid, I miss the language a lot. I don’t speak perfectly but there are still things that I feel I can express better in Menorquí, and I’ve been studying Spanish for over a decade.

  6. admin says:

    I can see how you would need Menorqui on such a small island. Thanks for sharing. I’ve often thought that if I lived in a place where I HAD to speak Catalan more, I’d be better at it, like in Girona or something. In Barcelona it’s not critical, just polite. I wonder how similar Menorqui and Catalan are?
    Regina

  7. MªCARMEN says:

    hola

    i need to learn catalan fast . i wish to be informed were to find
    a free , totally free online place . please , if any body know
    something , be kind to inform me .

    gracias , merci

    adeu ,

    M CARMEN

  8. admin says:

    Hi, I don’t know of any online sites, but contact the link in the post, they may know!

  9. Molly says:

    I agree with John B (the 1st comment) if you intend to live in Catalonia for an extended time it´s important to get a basic handle on the language. I think that learning the language of a place is the first step to understanding the culture and the people of a new region.
    I lived in Barcelona for 9 years and learnt Catalan although I didn´t need it for work at the time.

  10. Ah123 says:

    It is so self-centred and egomaniacal to carry this attitude that you’d move to somewhere and not need to learn the native local language. Swedish is useless, too, in the grand scheme of things. But they wouldn’t think those moving to Stockholm should pooh pooh learning it. True, you can live in Barcelona with just Castilian. But if you want to do anything of substance you’d eventually need to know Catalan because inevitably it will cross your path. And though all Catalans are bilingual, people don’t realize Castilian for many is actually a second language learned later in life. So many prefer to speak their first and native language because they are better at it. In essence, these people are forcing natives of a land they move into to adjust to their language choice. Again, what egomaniacs!

  11. admin says:

    Thanks for your comment Andrew. Sometimes I feel like my Catalan would improve by leaps and bounds if I lived OUTSIDE of Barcelona in any nearby village. Here, in the city, people see me and go to Spanish, not Catalan, because I look foreign (or at least I think that’s why they do!). If I go to say, La Garriga, it’s Catalan all the way.

  12. @Lanimavalenta says:

    Thanks for sharing! As a tour guide, a catalan, and mainly a peaceful soul I really want to say you made me smile. For a Catalan it is always big emotion to feel someone try to learn our language.

    I speak fluidly 6 languages, and so I know that nobody really gets to the inner depth of a culture or a person without the language. Si mai et puc ajudar, compta amb mi!

  13. John says:

    With English and a little bit of Spanish it’s enought

  14. admin says:

    John, I agree it’s enough in Barcelona but not in smaller towns outside Barcelona.

  15. Tam says:

    I am learning catalan but if you think this will make it easier to make catalan friends forget it. The catalans are famously closed to the point of rudeness and in my experience speaking to them in their own language makes no difference. The impression is that they have their friends already from childhood and no amount of catalan speaking is going to make them welcome a stupid guiri into their circle. To a degree I respect that but an occasional friendly gesture, stranger to stranger even, wouldn’t go amiss. After living here for a few years, visiting places rumoured to be closed, like London or Berlin, is like being surrounded by family. Thank god there are enough non catalans living here to make foreigners not remain completely friendless. Before this page explodes with nationalistic fury, of course this is a generalisation and I will continue learning catalan out of respect for the few catalan friends I have, and the culture of my host nation. In my opinion catalan culture needs to confront this issue of closedness before it is ever going to become an attractive language for a foreigner to learn. A language is attractive to foreigners because of wanting to be part of the inviting, attractive, welcoming culture it represents rather than feeling despised for not doing so. More carrot less stick in other words.

  16. admin says:

    You have echoed what many believe and I find that the more people you know individually, then the openness begins. Sales people, folks on the Metro, are not usually up for a chat. While I would like to learn Catalan, learning Spanish is difficult enough for me! No thanks to learning another language.

    Nancy

  17. I arrived in Barcelona not knowing either and after 8 years ended up with conversational Spanish with some Catalan. I wanted to be able to speak to everyone in Barcelona, including other Europeans, South Americans, first and second generation Spaniards as well as Catalans. For that you need Spanish to show your not an English chauvinist. The longer I was there, the more I picked up Catalan. I personally like the sound of the language and have a thing for scatological expressions because of sophomoric humor. But I wasn’t linguistically gifted enough to learn a third language as well as a second which I’m still far from fluent in. I also found the Catalans warm and hospital, except those who live in the mountains. Some can be cansino with their politics. but that’s everywhere else in Spain, right? I guess the best analogy would be moving to Hawaii and after making the effort to learn English, you then realized you had to learn Hawaiian to fully understand the local culture.

  18. Brian says:

    In my experience (25 years living in S.Catalonia) there’s all sorts of folk, pretty much the same the world over. I don’t find Catalans ruder or more polite than English, they just have a different way of showing it! I’ve made loads of friends and settled in really well. I think living outside of Barcelona, in the “real” Catalonia makes a big difference. And I’d say it’s essential to learn Catalan; essential, polite, respectful, and generally good for both parties. If you just “get by” with Spanish or English you’re never speaking to most people in their own language , the language they think and feel in.
    The argument about it being useless – I heard that too when I first came here, that learning Spànish would mean being able to go anywhere in the world. But the point is I don’t want to. I don’t want to live in Peru, or Madrid. I want to live here and the true language here is Catalan.
    To cut a long story short, I highly recommend it, and also giving the “locals” a bit of leeway before judging them on being rude or “closed up” etc.

  19. Michael says:

    I wrote about the majority of these points here: http://www.hudin.com/blog/the-catalan-language-question/

    The reason I’ve been learning Catalan is that I plan to actually stay here as long as is possible. If you don’t plan to stay in Catalonia, well, do as you please and never learn more than English is that’s what suits you. There are plenty living here in Catalonia as well as the rest of Spain who speak neither Catalan nor Castilian. There are also plenty who only speak Spanish, but they do it horribly and this is the thing that I’ve found in that as an expat, I can always speak crap Spanish given that little more is expected of me, but if I speak good Catalan, well, that makes all the difference in the world.

    As to the “closed off” argument that Tam brings up, I tire of this. First, yes, people do have childhood circles of friends. Outside of major cities in the US, you find this to be the same as well. If I were still living in my backwards Californian home town in the interior of the state, I would still be hanging out with the same people I’ve known for decades. We’re pack animals and this is typical to stay with the known and fear the new. But, having now learned Catalan and been working in wine here, I now count a much greater number of friends here in Catalonia after one year than I ever found in San Francisco having lived there for 15 years.

    While the “colla” is an institution in all of Spain, to think that this is the reason you can’t make friends in Catalonia is ridiculous. Given Tam’s statement, I don’t think I would much care to be friends with her and the many English speaking foreigners I meet here who have nary a Catalan friend all have an attitude that because they’re from the US or UK, they’re automatically amazing. Get over it. Be a bit humble and you’ll find Catalans will open up to you a lot more as it’s a defining aspect to their culture given the centuries of put downs they’ve received from the rest of Spain.

  20. Toni says:

    For the sake of accuracy, I’d invite writer and readers to check on the actual extent of the Catalan language here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Catalan_language

    The scientific consensus recognises that Valencian and Catalan are actually two traditional ways of referring to the same language (exactly as the other names it gets in the Balearic and Pityusic Islands, a.o.).

    We actually speak it in four European countries, 3 of which EU member states. It was spoken in other places all along the Mediterranean area, and linguists agree it has influenced significantly on the following languages (or dialetti, which is how unofficial languages are called in Italy): Sardinian, Sicilian, Neapolitan, Patuet (Algerian-originated, spoken by the pieds-noirs), Maltese…

    Plus, it was (up until the times of the Inquisition’s invaluable task) alongside Occitan (aka Provençal) one of the most vivid cultural expressions of Europe outside of the Latin-led religious system of knowledge monopoly. When enjoying liberty to do so, it continues today to develop extremely interesting proposals for cultural experiences…

    So much for an addendum to your PRO side of the piece. Thanks.

  21. admin says:

    Thanks Toni. Yes, some even say that Christopher Columbus himself spoke Catalan! I’m no expert on the language but had heard that it was widely spoken historically across the Med. We appreciate your input and have added some of it into the post (above).

    Reg

  22. admin says:

    Michael, are you based in Barcelona or in the countryside? Just curious! I’ve always thought my Catalan would be better if I lived in a village or Girona where it was spoken more than in Barcelona.

    Moltes gràcies for your comment.

    Reg

  23. admin says:

    Thanks Brian. I agree that you’ll learn it faster outside Barcelona. In Barcelona lots of people speak Catalan, but also Spanish, English, Italian, French….you name it. Many times for me, the common language in a group setting is not Catalan, but English, or Spanish, because of the mix of nationalities. Sigh. I still sort of fantasize about how good my Catalan would be if I lived in La Garriga. As of right now, it’s not great.

    R

  24. admin says:

    Interesting comparison to Hawaii. Thanks!

  25. Bryan Hammond says:

    Would have loved to have travelled the world before 67 but the opportunity to have a little stake in Catalunya popped up. Suprisingly despite a lifetime of cautious procrastination and WORK , I just signed the cheque.
    Never been so welcomed abroad than here in rural Catalunya, yep for sure Castillian is widely spoken, particularly in larger, more touristica areas near coast , but up here in the hills, ” si us plau i Adeu” is much welcomed.
    “Ara estic buscant orador Catala a Essex , UK.”

  26. admin says:

    Thanks for your input Bryan. From the comments it seems like we’ve got more folks with positive experiences than negative.

    Reg

  27. Michael says:

    I live in Barcelona, in the center–which is 50% expatriates I might add. It hasn’t been a problem to learn and speak Catalan at all. Most any non-Catalan Spaniards who live here can understand it fine and I just speak it with them while they answer in Castilian.

  28. admin says:

    We’re happy to hear you’ve had a positive learning experience with the language, Michael. Thanks for your comment.

    R

  29. p says:

    As a foreigner , and coming from India, a country that has over 20 official languages with its own script , i don’t understand what the fuss is all about catalan. Barcelona is still Spain, so i am ok if people criticize me for not learning spanish. I feel that the catalan people are taking this nationalism to the extreme alienating themselves from the expats community. The govt. and the people are trying to shove the catalan language down peoples throat, thats a great way of making friends. Thats my two cents, I am ready to pack my bags and move on to a more friendly place.

  30. admin says:

    Thanks for your response. Others also feel the way you do. Then again, the Catalans are wonderful people. I hope that you get a chance to know them as individuals.

  31. Ellen in NEW England says:

    I am learning catala by means of books, dictionaries, youtube and various online resources. I am a naturally shy person, and keep to myself, so all the catala in the world will not help me make friends there. Or here! But at least I can make an effort to know what people are saying to me and make my needs known.

  32. Igna says:

    i was leaving in mallorca
    for almost 6 months
    and almost a few times i listened people speak mallorquin (catalan with a little variations)
    so even in palma mallorca
    and even mostly all locals people
    speak spanish
    and i know that in barcelona
    its pretty similar
    and more people speak spanish over catalan
    so its not useful, and its a waste of time
    cause to learn a language it really complicated
    and u need a lot of input to make it
    u cant get it in one hours or 2
    and i dont believe that if u dont speak it
    its disrespect for anyone but nationalists

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