I don’t speak Spanish. Catalan, please?

After a very busy couple of weeks, I’m finally here to tell you all about my adventures in beautiful Catalonia. As I mentioned in my previous article (which, by the way, got a lot of attention from my Catalan readers), I travelled to Barcelona for a week to attend a conference on the revitalisation of minority languages. And of course, being obsessed with the Catalan language, it was just about right that I tie in a bit (or lot) of language practice too! By that I mean full immersion. Everything possible to make the most of my stay in the Catalan-speaking world.

Overall, I must say that my attempts to learn and speak Catalan were welcomed with great enthusiasm by the locals – which gave me courage to carry on learning. I made lots of friends who deliberately spoke to me in Catalan and didn’t mind me replying in English if I couldn’t say a word in response.

But on the street and in the shops, at hotel and in the taxi, there was a bit of a problem. Barcelona is so bilingual that the locals sometimes switch between Catalan and Spanish without even realising, with no explanation. They use whichever they consider more convenient in the given circumstances. Of course, I appreciate this amazing ability, but it did made my life considerably harder in the city. Here’s the reason: I don’t speak Spanish.

“Just ask them to speak Catalan,” you might be thinking. But the issue is more complicated than that. Not only do they code-switch all the time and even use Castillianisms (loanwords from Spanish) in spoken Catalan, there’s also little coherence in their written language use. As both languages are official in the region, companies are free to choose whichever language they prefer to display signs in. Very often, this is either Catalan or both languages at once. But it’s not unusual to see signs written only in Spanish despite the staff speaking fluent Catalan. And of course product labels, adverts etc. are mostly in Spanish as they are made available across the whole of Spain and are not specific to the Catalan market.

So my initial reactions were different to what I expected. Especially with all the political and cultural tension on mind, I was gradually losing confidence about using Catalan in a city where most people approach me in Spanish. By the end of my first day in Catalonia, my mind was filled with questions and concerns…

“If I’m queuing in McDonald’s and all the customers in front of me are being served in Spanish, perhaps they won’t appreciate me ordering in Catalan? Perhaps they don’t speak Catalan and I’m being inconsiderate by not using Spain’s ‘universal’ language which everyone knows? Perhaps they just don’t want to speak Catalan and will be prejudiced against me?”

It took a while for me to realise the naïvity of my questions. It’s the region’s official language, if anyone should feel pressured to improve then it’s the cashier who doesn’t speak Catalan. It’s completely normal for me to use Catalan in Catalonia, so do they – when they talk to their families, for example. Yet Spanish seems more convenient for them in a work environment. Just think about it, the main language of instruction at universities is Catalan. At the University of Barcelona, where my conference was held, I saw absolutely no public signs written in Spanish. The younger generation are in fact more and more willing to speak Catalan in all sorts of environments as the education system is encouraging them to do so. So why should I, as a tourist, feel bad about “forcing” Catalans to switch to their local language?

On another note, here’s something else to consider: I was a tourist in Barcelona. I don’t really speak Catalan, I’m just trying my best to communicate in it. Perhaps this has something to do with the fact that people often responded to me in Spanish? Indeed. As almost all Catalan-speakers in Catalonia are also native (or at least fluent) Spanish-speakers, there is a misconception that nobody in their right mind would start learning Catalan before Spanish. So minus the couple of hardline unionists I may have come across who didn’t appreciate my attempts to speak Catalan (I know about one for sure), the rest were likely to have been trying to “help” me by switching to Spanish. Well, their goodwill resulted in even more of a language barrier – I couldn’t even say excuse me in Spanish, let alone understand their long explanation of why I can’t order the dish I’d set my eyes on.

But as my friends at the conference told me, I wasn’t the first one ever to make observations about how difficult it would be to live in Barcelona with fluent Catalan, but no Spanish. I later had the privilege to meet Alina, who learnt to speak fluent (very fluent) Catalan in her native Germany, and then drove across the Catalan-speaking regions as the protagonist of a documentary to highlight just how important Spanish is in everyday life. I found some of her experiences to be quite shocking actually, especially considering that the locals don’t realise that they don’t have the appropriate conditions to live a monolingual life in Catalan. Alina was among the very very few Catalan-speakers who saw the reality of it. So here’s the trailer, do have a look because it’s brilliant. And here’s the link to the full documentary, subtitled in various languages. Watch it.

Now that I’m back in England and spend my little free time watching Catalan-language videos in YouTube, I’ve realised just how prevalent this misconception is in Catalonia. Remember Plataforma per la Llengua, the language rights organisation which created #CatalApp? I talked about them in my previous article. I’ve recently come across a fairly old but still hilarious comedy scene from Plataforma, which highlights the importance of not making assumptions about newcomers’ competence in Catalan.

The scene shows a man called Manel joining Barcelona’s ‘Catalans Anonymous’ support group, where he explains that he’d recently been asked for the time by an immigrant, and that he accidentally switched to Spanish in order to respond to him. As the man breaks out in tears, the group’s leader asks, “It turned out he understood Catalan perfectly, right?” “Yes, he did,” screams Manel. The man is then challenged to tell the time to a newcomer, by which he eventually overcomes his fear and replies: “Dos quarts de set!” [half past six]. The scene ends with a funny cliffhanger which I won’t explain. Just have a look, you’ll understand it!

So what did I learn from all these experiences? Did it put me off learning Catalan because it’s a “useless language”? No, not at all. I love and appreciate the language and the culture it brings with itself. I also hope that my inexplicable interest in this minoritised language helps to ensure more and more people around the world find out about Catalan. It’s a language of 10 million people, spoken in 4 European states, the most-learned ‘mid-sized’ language in Europe, and more popular than 11 of the EU’s official languages.* I’m always proud to say that I’m learning Catalan and encourage others to do their research.

Overall, I’m not disappointed. I had an amazing time in Barcelona and got to practise a lot of Catalan. I’m not at all discouraged. If anything, I just feel more motivated to take up Spanish later on in life.

Fins després,


* Statistics are from InformeCAT 2015 by Plataforma Per la Llengua.


8 thoughts on “I don’t speak Spanish. Catalan, please?

  1. Gràcies.
    Una observació: millor “a reveure” que “fins després”. / It’s better to say “a reveure” than “fins després” if you are not supposing you will meet someone immediately after.


    1. Bé, això depèn d’on estigues. Al País Valencià no solem dir mai «a reveure», la gent ni tan sols sap que «reveure» existeix. «Fins després» està molt ben dit 👍🏼


  2. Hola, no fa gaire temps vaig tenir una companya de pis finesa que va viure una experiència semblant a la teva, encara que va viure a Barcelona una mica més de temps, uns quants mesos. Ella va aprendre català i no castellà i es trobà que molta gent al veure que era de fora automàticament li parlava en castellà.
    Per una altra banda va tenir una vivència molt particular ja que va anar a Madrid i allí va fer el que els catalans no ens atreviriem a fer mai: va parlar català. I va comprar unes Nike en català, a Madrid. Va entrar a la botiga i li va dir al dependent “jo només sé parlar català” i ell va anar a dintre i va sortir amb una senyora (ella creu que era de les oficines i no pas una dependenta) que la va atendre.


  3. A really interesting article. I live and work in Barcelona and have the same experiences. I decided to learn Catalan and this is still in progress. I am far from proficient. I understand some spanish words but not enough to construct a sentence or converse. Where I struggle in Catalan natives do switch to Spanish thinking it may help. It does not for me, but to be fair they are used to foreigners learning Spanish first so it makes sense to do this. I consider myself as a local and I am fully inmersed in everything Catalan. Although I am not currently learning Spanish, you will find that although speaking on Catalan you will develop some understanding of Spanish to coincide with it.


  4. El teu article m’ha fet moltíssima il·lusió!! Quan et trobes amb algú de fora tant interessat en la nostra cultura i llengua realment t’omple el cor d’alegria.
    Me n’alegro molt que hagis gaudit de la teva visita a Barcelona, sempre seràs benvingut. Si tens la oportunitat, pots visitar altres llocs lluny de la capital on l’ús del català és molt major que el del castellà per fer una inmersió total.
    Seguiré el teu blog amb interès. Una abraçada! 🙂
    P.D: If you ever need anything related to catalan or our culture, feel free to mail me!


  5. My father being a political refugee, I grew up in London, speaking English, Catalan, Swedish (my mother was Swedish) and French (I went to French school), but no Spanish. On our return to Barcelona on Franco’s demise, dealing with the (very Franquist) police authorities without having Spanish was a quite notable experience… things have, to a certain extent, improved, but not as much as one might have hoped.


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