Can you learn Spanish in Catalunya?

My first encounter with the Spanish language was through a study abroad program in college. I spent three months at a foreigner’s school in Guadalajara, Mexico. This was quite brave as French had been my linguistic endeavor in school and I didn’t know a bit of Spanish. Everyone I spoke with had to repeat themselves at least once. It seemed the only word I could correctly use was “que?”

Before I knew it, my three-month exchange program had timed out just as I was getting the hang of the language! Luckily, I was given a second chance to master the Spanish vernacular in Barcelona.


Photo credit

But just because Barcelona is in Spain doesn’t mean everybody speaks Spanish.

Have a look around the city. Go to the gas station, the supermarket, the bakery, the hair salon. Alarmingly for Spanish learners hoping for the benefits of full cultural immersion and a quick and easy language pick-up, the majority of the visual text here will not coincide with any Spanish book.

In Catalunya, there are two official languages.

I’ve been in Barcelona for almost two and a half years and now I can safely say that I’m pretty darn fluent. But even before I was using the imperfect subjunctive* correctly, I was being bombarded with Catalan. I remember going to coffee with my boss and some old friends of hers. Though they were fully aware that I didn’t understand Catalan, it was impossible for them to speak to each other in Spanish. My boss lept saying, “en Castellano!” But after a few sentences, the conversation would revert back to Catalan. There is definitely a feeling of discouragement as you are struggling to make progress in one language while simultaneously being reminded that even if you spoke that language perfectly, it still wouldn’t be enough to be allowed in all the social circles here. Photo credit

It was kind of an ordeal when I went to my boyfriend’s parents’ house for Christmas lunch last year. For one of the first times, their family was forced to interact in Spanish. It’s intense enough meeting the parents when everyone speaks the same language. Trying to make your best impression with a “foreign” one is even more complicated. I was freaking out deciphering whether to speak to his parents in “usted” (formal) or “tu” (informal), while they continued asking, “Are you sure you don’t understand any Catalan?”

My experience learning Spanish here in Barcelona has been challenging. I confuse Catalan words for Spanish ones subconsciously because Catalan is what visually surrounds me every day. Further, I still encounter the basic difficulties inherent in any language learning process. Not being able to express what a beautiful sunset you’re seeing for not knowing whether sunset is masculine or feminine is particularly frustrating. Or my personal speech problem: not being able to correctly pronounce my street name, “Villarroel,” due to inability with rolling “R’s” as they often do in Spanish.

My advice is as follows: if you want to learn Spanish in Spain fast and easy, go to Madrid. If you like a challenge and accept the herculean task of learning two languages at once, welcome to Catalunya!


Bilingual city

*Imperfect Subjunctive is a verb tense in Spanish. In English, it would be something like this: “If I were you, I’d finish those vegetables” (subjunctive) versus “If I was you, I’d finish those vegetables” (past simple). The former example, “If I were you,” and the subjunctive tense itself, are now outdated in modern American English, although they are still heard in British English.

This is a guest post by Kim Jordan. Kim is a 26 year-old Seattle native currently teaching dance and English in Barcelona, Spain. She graduated from the University of Washington with a major in Sociology and a minor in Dance. You can also find Kim on her blog.

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16 Comments

  • Loved this post!
    My mother’s family is from that neck of the woods and Catalan was spoken at home when she was a child. It is sadly lost now, but I can still remember my grandparents and great-aunts and uncles speaking in Catalan at family events. Although I don’t speak the language myself, I can understand some of it and read a restaurant menu, which came in handy when I was in BCN. This is probably why I felt at home there.

  • I’m always really impressed how many people in Barcelona can just switch languages so easily. I lived there for a few years, so I’m a bit ashamed that I cannot speak any Catalan, although I can more or less understand it.

    Thanks again Kim – great post!

  • Hi Kim! Yes, you can! ¡Sí, se puede! :) Congrats on your post! Hopefully, we’ll meet again soon in some fiesta :)

  • Steve

    “But just because Barcelona is in Spain doesn’t mean everybody speaks Spanish.” That’s a bit ridiculous to say as everyone in Catalonia does indeed speak Castellano.

    Also, as for being bothered by the fact that people have trouble maintaining conversations with you that don’t drift to Catalan, I don’t think you understand how incredibly hard it is to talk to someone in a different language than the one you’re familiar talking to them with. My Catalan wife and I met and started talking in English. Even though I’m now fluent in Spanish, we don’t change as it feels exceedingly strange and foreign. It is not an easy process. You could be in any setting and experience this though, not just Catalonia.

    Also, as for mixing up Catalan and Spanish, I really haven’t seen this as being much of an issue. Catalan words are quite distinct when both written and spoken although these days, in the streets of Barcelona, I hear a tremendous amount of Castellano speakers and not Catalan. Saying otherwise is nothing short of PP rhetoric as it’s simply not true that Castellano is in danger in Catalonia.

  • Thanks for taking the time to comment Steve, you’ve raised some interesting points here.

    First, I’ve lived in Catalonia too, and as I understand it there are people who are much more comfortable speaking Catalan than Castellano, to the point where they aren’t really fluent in Castellano. Maybe not in Barcelona, but in the rest of Catalonia yes. I may be wrong though – maybe someone else from Catalonia will correct / confirm this.

    By the way, I don’t think the author was trying to say for a minute that Castellano is in danger in Catalonia. Rather to explain to those who haven’t been to Barcelona that they will meet two languages there, not just Spanish. It does make things a bit more complicated for visitors / new residents, wouldn’t you agree? That’s the point we wanted to make with the article.

    Agree on how difficult it is to switch languages. I have the same situation as you do with my (Italian speaking) husband. We started speaking in English and then found it was just too difficult to change – if we speak Italian it feels almost as if it’s not us having the conversation.

  • My husband’s first language is English and mine is Spanish. Although when we met we spoke in English, we speak in both languages daily and now we got to a point where we switch from one to the other naturally.

    As for the article, I’d like to add that although I’ve never lived in Barcelona, as I said before I have Catalonian heritage and I know how fiercely proud they are of their culture, which I find refreshing. I’ve been to Barcelona and Granollers before and many people spoke to me first in Catalan and when they they saw my bewildered face, switched to Spanish just like that, no problem.

    Steve, Spanish is heard on the streets of BCN because there are people from all over Spain and Latin America, not just Catalan-speaking locals, as you may have already noticed if you live there. And the fact that Spanish is the national language of hey! Spain! has something to do with it too. Neither language is in danger and the article doesn’t hint at that at all., I found not a whiff of PP rhetoric.

  • Mondell

    Pardon my ignorance, but when two people said here “PP rhetoric” are you referring to Partido Popular?

    As a student of the Spanish language, I’ve always been baffled by Catalonia’s desire to separate from Spain. Often in football games I see “Cataluña no es España”. Los catalanes son independentistas.

    I mean, would it better serve Catalonia if they were part of a bigger economy rather than being a small independent country?

  • Hi Mondell. I was not sure about this either.. I think they are referring to People’s Party/Partido Popular. It seems this party has complained about Spanish being persecuted in Cataluna in the past (http://www.20minutos.es/noticia/87641/0/pp/catalan/lengua/)

    For your other comment, as I understand it some Catalans feel that Catalunya’s strong economy contributes more in taxes than it gains in benefits from being part of Spain. I’m not taking sides here, just trying to explain the other point of view :) I am not Catalan so I’m sure someone else can explain better than me…

  • @ Liz: I’m not Catalan either but that’s exactly what my grandfather (who is) says.

  • Kim Jordan

    I´m only just realizing that people have commented on my post.¨) To clear things up, as both Ana and Liz suggested, in no way am I worried that castellano is in danger nor do I think this was hardly expressed in my post.

    What I wanted to reiterate for foreigners thinking of visiting or living here in Barcelona is that it is and continues to be a bilingual city and yes, in my 3 years of experience living here I can safely say that I have definitely felt an inability to be accepted in many realms of Barcelona society due to the fact that I don´t speak and understand catalan. However, in no way am I saying that they should speak instead in castellano. I am expressing that it is my responsibility to learn catalan if I choose to stay in Barcelona and my post then is simply informing future barcelona residents of the fact that there are 2 official languages spoken in Catalunya.

  • michelle

    I’m an American living in Barcelona and it’s a challenge trying to learn castellano amidst catalan.

    After living in Granada for half a year, I was faced with the choice of moving to Barcelona or Salamanca to go to a private Spanish language school. My Spanish teachers in Granada told me that if Spanish was the priority then Barcelona would not be their first suggestion because catalan is widely used.

    However, they said that, of course my teachers in Barcelona would teach castellano and that people on the street would change to accommodate me when they heard me speaking. That definitely was the truth.

    Unfortunately, I don’t have the luxury of going to 4 hours of Spanish class, 5 days a weeks anymore so it’s me versus braving Barcelona! I have this quirky habit of reading signs aloud when I’m walking on the street so now I do this in catalan. I wish that things were written in castellano only because complete immersion is key for my personal learning.

    I would have to agree with my teachers’ suggestion, if you want to learn castellano then Barcelona may not be the best place. However, Barcelona is one of the world’s greatest cities so, if you’re thinking about moving here don’t let catalan make you waver in your decision-making!

    Peace/Pax/Pau.

  • if you want to take Spanish courses in Barcelona barcelonaplus.es is your agency.

  • Pablo

    mmm hello jaja the cat is under the table! bueno algo es algo jaja, me tengo que poner al dia con el ingles alguuun dia…

  • Anthony

    Well, I am yet another American living in Barcelona and I found this article quite fair and very interesting.
    Although I personally am fluent in both Catalan and Spanish, so this issue doesn’t affect me very much, I am baffled by the amount of people who come here totally clueless as to the linguistic situation of this area. More people need to spread the word about the fact that, although everyone in Catalonia speaks fluent Spanish, the vast majority of Catalans feel more comfortable speaking in Catalan.
    Even though most of us come to Spain to learn Spanish, I don’t think it’s very fair on our part to expect the people here to change their every day habits to accommodate our needs.
    That being said, I’d imagine learning Spanish in Barcelona would be comparable to learning English in Montréal or French in Antwerp. I for one have been here for five years and within two years I was already pretty much fluent in both, but then again, I plan on staying here long term. It doesn’t make much sense for someone who’s here for a relatively short amount of time to learn Catalan and I think for the most part, most Catalans are aware of that fact and respect it.
    I do recommend anyone who plans on permanently relocating here to learn Catalan. The social benefits are endless. The Catalan people treat you as one of them when you speak their language in a way that I don’t think anywhere else would.

    Cheers!

  • Claudi

    Anthony has nailed it. I’m a Catalan from Barcelona and I feel more comfortable when I speak in Catalan rather than in Spanish. Spain has failed in its attempt to be a multicultural country, and a proof of that is hiding its reality: many people abroad have no idea of what is the linguistic/cultural reality in Catalonia. This is not the place to talk about Catalan independentism, but it’s true what Anthony says: although Catalans have no problem to switch to Spanish when somebody does not understand us, we like foreigners to be sensible to our reality. Although we have no state, Catalonia is a nation with its own language and culture, and in the same manner someone who wants to live in USA must learn English, we think that someone coming to Catalonia should learn Catalan.
    As Anthony pointed out, social benefits of learning Catalan are endless, and there are famous foreigners that speak Catalan fluently and that we treat them as one of us. For example: Matthew Tree, a British writer in Catalan language (www.matthewtree.cat), or the Italian architect Benedetta Tagliabue (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Benedetta_Tagliabue).
    If you’re are curious about learning Catalan, a good resource to start from is http://www.parla.cat.

  • Ralph

    Very informative!

    I have to say though, this part:

    “*Imperfect Subjunctive is a verb tense in Spanish. In English, it would be something like this: “If I were you, I’d finish those vegetables” (subjunctive) versus “If I was you, I’d finish those vegetables” (past simple). The former example, “If I were you,” and the subjunctive tense itself, are now outdated in modern American English, although they are still heard in British English.”

    That’s not entirely accurate. I’m from the U.S., and I use this mood frequently. It’s not at all unknown; just not that common.