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Teaching the Catalan language abroad

Catalan is taught in over 100 universities around the world, including Harvard, UC Berkeley, and Cambridge


18 September 2021 10:40 AM


Cillian Shields | Barcelona

Catalan is a language that lives far beyond the borders of modern-day Catalonia. It is the 9th most spoken language in the European Union, with around 10 million speakers, more than several official languages of the EU such as Bulgarian, Danish or Slovak. 

It is spoken in Catalonia, of course, but also in the Balearic Islands, the region of Valencia, parts of Aragon that border Catalonia, Andorra, Perpignan and the surrounding area of southern France that once lay within Catalonia’s borders, as well as the city of L'Alguer on the Italian island of Sardinia

But beyond these areas where the locals speak the language, Catalan is also taught in over 100 universities worldwide, including some of the most prestigious and internationally recognizable, such as Harvard, UC Berkeley, and Cambridge University. 

Altogether, over 3,500 students take up Catalan courses around the globe each year. 

  • “For sentences in English, you always need to say who is doing an action, who is carrying out an action. In Catalan, you don’t need to say that"

    Afra Pujol i Campeny · Professor of Catalan at Cambridge University

Dr Afra Pujol i Campeny has spent years teaching Catalan as a lecturer in Cambridge, where she described the experience as like “giving the keys of [her] culture to people who were just opening the door and discovering a whole new world.” As well as lecturing in Catalan, Dr Pujol has a PhD in Catalan historical linguistics.

To learn a new language is to learn a new culture. In Dr Pujol’s first classes, she would show a slideshow presentation to her students with “different images of very Catalan things” that she knew would “baffle them.” 

Dr Pujol showed her students things like a “porró,” a caganer,” and a “tió.” Reactions were almost universal - they would get “very lost.” 

The lecturer made sure she would have fun introducing her heritage to students at Cambridge. “The atmosphere sometimes gets a bit awkward because there’s a picture of a man going number 2 in the middle of the street and they don’t know where to look,” she laughs. 

Why do people learn Catalan?

For Dr Pujol, there are four main reasons that students take up Catalan, and she believes most other lecturers would agree.

The first reason is perhaps the simplest - holidays. Dr Pujol explains that some students “perceived there was something amiss, they thought they were going to Spain and thought they would be able to use their Spanish.” After taking this experience home, they would enrol in Catalan classes. 

Then, some at Cambridge simply want to avoid literature papers, so pick up a new language instead. 

Another group is those who have already decided ahead of time that they wanted to do their year abroad in a Catalan-speaking city, “and they know that if they do Catalan their possibilities of finding something cool to do are better.”

Lastly, some of the students come from national minorities within the UK that have a “sensibility” towards minoritized languages. “They need not be native speakers of the minoritized language of their territory, but they do have an interest in what’s going on elsewhere and for languages that are still alive.”

Is Catalan difficult to learn?

So, how difficult or easy is Catalan to learn? 

For Dr Pujol, no language is inherently more difficult than another to learn “because the human brain is able to learn any language.” She gives the example of babies learning their mother tongue: “the baby doesn’t have more difficulty with language A or language B.” 

However, for argument’s sake, let’s take English as a base language to compare with Catalan. 

In terms of vocabulary, Dr Pujol explains that Catalan and English differ quite a lot as one (Catalan) is a Romance language derived from Latin, and the other (English) is of Germanic origin that underwent a “complex history of mixing with other languages.” 

Additionally, sentence structure can be quite different too. “For sentences in English,” Dr Pujol explains, “you always need to say who is doing an action, who is carrying out an action. In Catalan, you don’t need to say that. What we do is, instead of putting a word there expressing who is carrying out the action, we change the ending of the verb.” 

Catalan also has a set of particles that can substitute different elements in the sentence that can “combine in a million different ways creating different forms that are sometimes unpredictable that, even for native speakers, is a challenge.”

Evolution through time

Naturally, all languages evolve through time, as new concepts are developed that need new words to describe them, and how globalization has brought the world closer and made interaction with other cultures easier. Additionally, the development of new technologies has also had a profound impact on languages. The effects of both globalization and new technologies on languages is only in its infancy. 

Automatic translations can be a great tool for anybody trying to understand something in another language, but cannot be considered perfect, as Dr Pujol points out that they don’t necessarily find “idiomatic solutions” and the outputted text can often be unnatural and awkward sounding. 

“Then speakers of a language that receive the translation take it to be something standard,” Dr Pujol adds. 

For Catalan, the linguist gives the example of adverbs such as ‘probably.’ 

“Now, ‘probably’ (in Catalan) is used a lot more than it was 20 years ago, there are translations from English and ‘probably’ is making its way everywhere.” 

Before the use of the word ‘probablament’ became common in Catalan, people would say ‘it may be the case’ - or in Catalan, ‘pot ser.’ “But now, they use ‘probablament’ a lot more.”

Filling the sink

Press play below to listen to our latest Filling the Sink podcast episode for more on the Catalan language and what it is like to learn it and teach it.

Listen on Apple Podcasts Listen on Google Podcasts Listen on Spotify


  • Students in Brussels listen to a teacher during a Catalan class, January 2018 (by Blanca Blay)

  • Students in Brussels listen to a teacher during a Catalan class, January 2018 (by Blanca Blay)