The Issue With Learning the Catalan Language in Barcelona

The Issue With Learning the Catalan Language in Barcelona

“Hola, parles Català?” I asked.

The middle aged woman responded by giving me a sneering look as if the mere question had insulted her.

“Català???  NO!  SPANISH!!!” she explained with fiery indignation.

Catalan Translations for Barcelona

In Barcelona, outside the main street of La Ramblas, I decided that I wanted to find opportunities to practice speaking Catalan.  I did not notice that the overall aura of the city had changed from where the touristic main street was to where I had ventured off to.  I hadn’t realized that the lights were much more dim than they were several blocks earlier.  The community appeared a lot less vibrant and it was during this time, in this section of Barcelona, that I felt it proper to ask where the nearest bank was.  I wanted to withdraw money.  Mostly every person I approached was very kind with their response to me, but every time we finished speaking, I was directed to a broken ATM machine.  It was only until I saw a middle-aged woman who looked rather skeptical of me that I had found that I had pretty much offended her by inquiring about whether or not she knew Catalan.

Coming from San Sebastián, I asked my friend who was undergoing a travel study in Spain at the time what language they speak in Barcelona.  In San Sebastián they spoke a number of different dialects, and although I kept approaching people with what little Spanish I had, many replied by notifying me that they spoke Basque but they spoke a bit of English too.  When I asked my friend if they spoke Spanish in Barcelona, he told me, ‘They don’t speak Spanish in Barcelona.  They speak Catalan.’  I don’t know whether or not his intention was to exaggerate the use of Catalan in Barcelona, but I found it quite rare to meet people who spoke Catalan and only Catalan.  Even so, I decided that Barcelona being a primary place in Spain where usage of the Catalan language is still beating, I felt that it would be an opportune time to learn the Catalonian language.

I first started learning Catalan by writing the top phrases I needed to survive in every foreign country in a notebook.  I then brought that notebook down to the hostel lobby in search of a Catalan speaker.  To my luck, the receptionist who worked the desk wasn’t only happy to indulge in my interest in learning her language, but she was pretty ecstatic about it.  While she occasionally helped patrons check in, she would help fill out my notebook with common phrases and even allow me to record her voice through an app on my phone.  Not only did she identify as Catalan, she also spoke Spanish and English.  I had ended up finding that this was the case for a lot of people I approached wanting to speak to them in Catalan.  The girl behind a bar that I went to, spoke Catalan along with Spanish and English.  The boy selling Argentinian empanadas at the empanada place who spoke Catalan also notified me that he spoke Spanish and English.  I was beginning to feel my interest in learning Catalan dwindle and realize that learning French had been much more easier being that people were less interested in speaking English with me and more interested in the fact that I was attempting to speak their language without butchering it.

After being confronted by the middle-aged woman in Barcelona, it occurred to me that there must have been a sort of friction between those who spoke Catalan and those who spoke Spanish.  I hadn’t realized that there was a polarity between the two languages and those who spoke them.  Even as a university student studying History at the time, my education in history extended to the rise of Queen Isabella, Columbus finding the New World, and the Spanish Inquisition.  I had no knowledge of the treatment of the Catalonians by the Spanish and vice versa.  I did not know that centuries before in 1714, the fall of Barcelona to the Spanish King Philip V, Catalonia was subjected to the laws of the Crown of Castille when before then they had their own institutions and laws.  I did not know that a Catalan nationalist party emerged back in 1901.  I did not know that in more recent times, in 2010, that the Spanish Constitutional Court reduced Catalonian autonomy, reducing their status as a nation.  I didn’t know a lot about Catalonian history and how it affected Barcelona and much of Spain.

Just recently in early October, Catalan had won the right to statehood.  This has caused a lot of publicity due to it passing but also to the treatment of Catalonians by police officers during election day.  During a time of rising nationalism all over the Western World, referendums like Brexit and the rise of nationalist parties such as Germany’s AfD and Marine Le Pen’s National Front in France are causing a stir, leaving people to question the future of the EU and also its relation to the United States.  Catalan winning the right to statehood may introduce a reemergence of Catalonian culture, one free and unrestrained from Spanish ideologies.  More people may be encouraged to learn Catalan.  If that happens, it may be possible that there would be a backlash by Spanish native speakers who feel threatened by this new rising culture.

As for the learning of the Catalan language, it is still a beautiful language which nowhere nearly gets to be spoken as much as Spanish does.  I don’t like things going away.  However, it was still difficult to learn the language given that many Catalan speakers were multi-lingual and that there was always a possibility that when asking if someone spoke Catalan that that person may feel insulted.  It would be constructive to understand that there is a deep and profound history of these underlying feelings.

Arc de Triomf in Barcelona
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