What's the point in learning Catalan?

Catalan News talks to a number of Catalan-speaking foreign residents who share their thoughts on learning the language

A person looks at an online course of Catalan grammar (by Violeta Gumà)
A person looks at an online course of Catalan grammar (by Violeta Gumà) / Neil Stokes & Cristina Tomàs White

Neil Stokes & Cristina Tomàs White | Barcelona

February 21, 2020 01:23 PM

This article is the third in our series of the Catalan lanaguage celebrating International Mother Language Day. You can find the first, on the history and current day standings of the language, here. You can find the second, on Catalan idioms, here

If you go to live in another country that has a different language than your own, it is a reasonable assumption to expect that you will to some extent end up learning the local lingo as a natural part of integrating into the life and culture of your new home.

Even for those with a gift for languages, taking on board a whole body of vocabulary and grammar, assimilating it all so you can reproduce it accurately in speaking and writing, while coping with accents and idiosyncratic expressions is a tall order indeed.

And that undertaking, which some would even characterize as a duty, is further complicated when there are two languages to learn, as is the case in Catalonia, which has two official languages: Catalan and Spanish.

"Maybe the most difficult part is to keep trying because you are not encouraged to do it. I mean, people around you speak Spanish, so you don't have the incentive to keep trying to speak Catalan," says Xiomara Villa, who made the decision to learn the language.

While someone from northern Europe, for example, might feel they have to choose which language to learn and so prioritize Spanish, in Xiomara's case she is from Colombia and so Spanish is her native language, which can act as a reason for giving Catalan a miss.

"I felt I was missing out"

Yet, there are other reasons apart from convenience when deciding to learn Catalan, as Xiomara points out: "I was surrounded by people whose mother tongue was Catalan and I had this feeling that if I didn't learn it I was missing something about society and people."

Most people will be unhappy with existing on society's fringes, and languages can be the ideal entrée. That seems to be the case for Xiomara, who says she finds people are "more receptive" when she speaks Catalan, and she feels they treat her in "a different way".

Apart from pointing out social advantages, such as "you get subtle things like jokes," Xiomara says choosing to speak Catalan "really changes the way you relate to people and the way you communicate with people and the way you establish personal relationships."

That impression is shared by Bruce Jiménez, who is from Ecuador and who has lived in Catalonia for two years. "Catalan has helped me make more friends," he says, adding: "It's a way of getting into society, and every day you experience Catalan in this city [Barcelona]."

Choosing to learn Catalan as a way of adapting to life in Catalonia seems to be one of the main reasons why many foreigners take the plunge. Such is the case of Belford Navarrete, also from Ecuador, who says: "I was told it was a better way of integrating into society."

Luis M Miranda, an architect from Dominican Republic who has been in Catalonia for three years, also makes this point, saying "it's also a matter of adapting, of arriving somewhere and adapting to live alongside the people from there."

Luis also says that Catalonia "is one of the few places in Spain that has its own language and where the people speak it." While acknowledging this is true in Galicia and Valencia, "not everywhere is so passionate about speaking their own language," he says.

"I want to learn Catalan history, culture, and cooking!"

Serhii Prokhorenko, who is from Ukraine and who has lived in Catalonia for over four years, mentions another reason for his decision to learn the language: "I want to learn it so as to know more about Catalan history and culture, and Catalan cooking!"

Serhii also points to a phenomenon that many foreigners learning Catalan come across when they try to use the language with native speakers: their habit of changing from Catalan into Spanish as soon as they detect that the person addressing them is foreign.

To illustrate his point, Serhii gives an example: "I have two dogs, and every day when I come across other dog owners they speak to me in Catalan and I try to answer them in Catalan but they change to Spanish. Let's see if I can improve," he says.

While Serhii seems content to blame the change from Catalan to Spanish on his level, he is far from alone in noticing the phenomenon. If foreigners want to make the effort to learn Catalan, then native speakers may also want to consider giving them to opportunity to do so.