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What is it like to learn Catalan?

Catalan News takes this question to academics and foreign speakers of the language

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19 September 2021 09:00 AM

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Cristina Tomàs White | Barcelona

“Objectively speaking, there aren’t any languages that are more difficult than others,” says Afra Pujol i Campeny, who teaches Catalan at the University of Cambridge. “When we have a baby learning a mother tongue, the baby doesn’t have more difficulty with language A or language B.”

But what about learning a language as an adult? Picking up a foreign language past early childhood is no easy feat, especially when there are so many other factors — resources, exposure, or time at one’s disposal, for example — at play. 

Take Catalan: despite being spoken by over 9 million people and understood by 11 million — more than other official EU languages such as Bulgarian, Danish, or Slovak — people sometimes put off learning it when they move to Catalonia, often due to its closeness to Spanish and other Romance languages or its perceived “utility” compared to other more widely spoken languages abroad. 

  • "If you speak French it will probably give you an advantage in terms of vocabulary, if you speak Spanish it will probably help in terms of verbal morphology"

    Afra Pujol i Campeny · Professor of Catalan at the University of Cambridge

But speaking Spanish or any other language derived from Latin can actually help when learning Catalan, at least with the basics, opening up a wide range of opportunities that would otherwise not be available. “Speaking languages that are directly in contact with Catalan, in the Romance linguistic continuum does mean that you already have grammatical structures,” Pujol i Campeny explains. “If you speak French it will probably give you an advantage in terms of vocabulary, if you speak Spanish it will probably help in terms of verbal morphology.”

Alice Corr, a linguist who teaches modern languages at the University of Birmingham, agrees, but warns that while speaking French or Spanish (or any other Romance language) can help you when you first set out, it can “also be a bit of a disadvantage because you might end up mixing up your languages.” This will undoubtedly ring true to polyglot Catalan News readers. 

Learning Catalan from English is probably a bit trickier, but by no means is it impossible. According to Pujol i Campeny, they have quite a bit of vocabulary in common. “In terms of building blocks, however, there we find very big differences,” she says. “The way in which words are built — the way in which sentences are built are quite different.”

Other things, like certain verb conjugations such as the passat perifràstic, one the most common way of speaking in the past tense, are likely to stand out to foreign learners of Catalan as it is not generally found in other languages. 

“You can make past tenses by taking the verb ‘to go’ and then using the infinitive,” Corr says. “So you would say something that literally would translate word for word into English something like ‘I go to sing’ and it actually means ‘I sang’.”

What do Catalan News readers think? 

We asked our readers to tell us about their experiences learning Catalan — this is what some of them had to say: 

Julian, Cambrils

Julian, from England, has lived in Cambrils, near Tarragona, for over 12 years now. Catalan, he says, “is basically what I have been immersed in” as it is the language his wife and family speak. In his opinion, Catalan is “an extremely difficult language to learn if you don’t have a basis in a Latin language.” 

Favorite word: Saltimbanqui, or circus acrobat: “It’s just a funny word —  saltimbanqui!”

James, Bristol

James, who is also English, started learning Catalan as a university student and lived in Barcelona and Andorra for a few months. “I think that you are opened to a broader range of experiences in Catalonia as someone who speaks Catalan,” he explains. 

Favorite word: Arrel, or root: “I think it really kind of feels like it is connected to a concept, the rootedness of the language.”

Catriona, Ulldecona

Catriona moved to Catalonia almost 10 years ago, and up until recently, she was an English teacher in Ulldecona, one of Catalonia’s southernmost towns. “Because you have two languages here, Catalan and Spanish, it feels to me that català is the language that needs to be protected, much like Irish,” she says. 

Favorite word: Entremaliat, or naughty: “One of the first words I really enjoyed was the word entremaliat because it was something I had to use quite frequently when I was describing my pupils.”

Richard, Belfast

Richard, much like Catriona, started learning Catalan around ten years ago. “I started learning Catalan back in 2011 when I took on a rather precarious internship in Barcelona,” he recalls. “I wanted to know what my coworkers were saying and what different things meant.” As an Irish speaker, he also found it important to learn: “Much like Irish, Catalan is a language of resistance,” he says. “It has been able put up with hundreds of years of persecution and that’s something to be proud of.”

Favorite word: Encanteri, spell. 

Gerry, Edinburgh 

Gerry, an Irishman who has lived in Scotland for the past two decades, began learning Catalan three years ago. “This followed my first trip to Catalonia in July 2018 when I just fell in love with the country and its people,” he explains. Nowadays, he regularly meets up with his friend Pep to practice the language.  

Favorite words: Anything with the letter ‘x’ (pronounced ‘sh’ in English). “Like la xicota maca amb la motxila xula” (‘the pretty girl with the cool backpack’). 

Wendy, Tarragona

Hailing from Indonesia, Wendy moved to Tarragona in 2016 and was determined to learn Catalan, the language spoken by her husband and his family. One thing she found quite amusing is its frequent and unashamed poo - yes, poo - references: “I listened many times to some words, for example, merda or caca de la vaca or cul i merda or even they have to involve poo for Christmas like caganers.”

Favorite word: Somiatruites. While its literal translation would be ‘omelette-dreamer’, it actually means ‘daydreamer’. 

Alison, Jacksonville

Alison, from Florida, moved to Barcelona as an exchange student in 1981. “It was a time of tremendous excitement about learning and studying the Catalan language for the first time after Franco’s death,” she recalls. “I learned most of my Catalan from shopkeepers and neighbors and I particularly remember one grandmother who wept when she heard me speaking and said ‘We were never allowed to study our own language’.”

Favorite word: L’horabaixa, which means dusk or twilight.

Todd, Barcelona

Todd, who is from Connecticut and lives in Barcelona, decided to start learning Catalan when he realized he couldn’t understand his girlfriend’s friends: “Every social event I went to with my Catalan girlfriend, everyone was speaking Catalan.”

Favorite word: Autobusos, or buses. “It’s just a fun word. It sounds funny to me and I really enjoy hearing it and saying it.”

Cecilie, Barcelona

Cecilie, who is from Denmark, started learning Catalan in 2011 at age 13. “I had some Spanish lessons before moving to Barcelona, but when we found out as I was going to school in Barcelona, I had to learn Catalan,” she says. “I had the best teacher to teach me Catalan. When I came home from school the first day, the first thing I told my mum was that I understood what they said to me.”

Favorite word: Amistat, which means friendship. 

Where to learn Catalan 

If any of these experiences have piqued your interest in the language, you’re in luck as there are plenty of resources for learners, such as parla.cat

If you live in Catalonia, the Consorci per a la Normalització Lingüística offers free lessons for beginners and higher levels at affordable rates, and there are also 311 different private language schools you can study Catalan at too. 

Want to meet someone to practice with? Not a problem — you can do find a language exchange partner through Voluntariat per la Llengua.

There are also a number of options for those of you who live abroad, including some 150 universities worldwide that teach Catalan language and culture, many of which are part of the Institut Ramon Lull network. 

Filling the Sink

Press play below to listen to our latest Filling the Sink podcast episode for more on learning Catalan as a foreign language

Listen on Apple Podcasts Listen on Google Podcasts Listen on Spotify

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  • Catalan language students in Andorra (by García Queralt F.)

  • Catalan language students in Andorra (by García Queralt F.)

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