Cat Got Your Tongue? The joys and struggles of learning Catalan

Around a year ago, as part of a Catalan class trip, we visited a bakery in the neighbourhood of Clot, Barcelona. It’s a bakery that’s renowned for its exquisite chocolate work. The owner addressed us, and if truth be told I wasn’t paying much attention to his explanation on the different types of moulds they use (my eyes were distracted by the stream of warm liquid chocolate pouring out of one of the machines in the corner).

That is, until he shared his views on speaking Catalan.

“I refuse to talk in Spanish,” he said. We, the students, stared at him and waited for clarification. “If a supplier calls me and speaks to me in Spanish, I’ll reply in Catalan.”

“But you can speak Spanish, right?” A student asked.

“Sure,” he said, smoothing down his chocolate-stained apron, “but I never switch to it. Even if I’m speaking to a customer who's speaking in Spanish, I’ll stick to Catalan.”

A fair few students’ mouths were open at that point, and it had nothing to do with the triple-layer praline cake that had just rolled past us on a trolley.

The worst job in the world

The worst job in the world

We couldn’t understand why a businessman would jeopardise his own company by alienating his customers like that. Surely it was better to switch to the language of the interlocutor and make them feel at ease, especially considering that their custom depended on their buying experience?

At the time, like my classmates, I found it hard to swallow. In fact, he came across a little arrogant.

A year on and I wish there were more people like him.

Learning Catalan in Barcelona is an absolute joy as much as it is a struggle. On the one hand, you’re so exposed to the language. Almost every notice, road sign, advertisement, shop hoarding, website is in Catalan or at the very least Catalan and Spanish. On the other hand, the ‘default’ speaking mode in general is Spanish. It means that you’re constantly aware of Catalan without being fully immersed in it.

It’s a bit like biting into a milk chocolate sweet before discovering it’s actually a hard toffee; the expectation of being able to finish it off in a few bites, before being met with a jaw-aching, chewy challenge.

Even so, if you’ve moved to Catalonia and you plan to be here for some time—learn Catalan.

 

“There aren’t any resources”

The argument I hear most often is that there aren’t enough resources to be able to learn Catalan effectively. That’s rubbish. The Consorci per a la normalització lingüística (CPNL) offer basic Catalan classes for practically nothing (you have to pay a minimal admin fee and buy the books). That’s an academic year’s worth of education for free. Even the levels beyond that are ridiculously cheap. I’ve just finish paying off the elemental level (the equivalent of B1 under the CEFR European framework) and it cost me around €120. I consider that a bargain for the amount of face-to-face classroom hours received. You may be entitled to further reductions depending on your situation.

Some of the many resources out there for students of Catalan

Some of the many resources out there for students of Catalan

On top of that, there are other resources. I’ve been meeting up with a Catalan language partner—his name is Miquel—for around a year now. The cost? Whatever a cup of coffee costs in your local bar (and in my case not even that; the cheeky so-and-so makes sure he races to the till at the end of the session to pay the bill before I get a chance to offer).

These sessions are now the highlight of my week. We meet religiously every Thursday morning to talk politics, sport, culture, politics, technology, travel, and a bit more politics. The sessions are organised by Voluntariat per la llengua (vxl) all over the city. Register with your name, contact details, and the area in which you live. They’ll contact you within a couple of weeks and link you up with a volunteer who lives nearby. They make it absolutely clear that it’s not a language exchange: total Catalan from start to finish.

To me, these sessions aren’t just mutually beneficial transactions. OK, so my motivation at first was to be able to accelerate through the levels a bit quicker. For Miquel the motivation was to ensure Catalan is promoted as a language in order to preserve and bolster national identity. But we’ve become good friends. What started as an hour has gradually morphed into two. I’ve learned an incredible amount from Miquel, things that I never would have been aware of if I had chosen to focus on Spanish and Spanish only. I know what makes F.C. Barça més que un club, why Catalans feel they’re getting a raw deal when it comes to key trading transport links, and why the tradition of burying a can of sardines in February is far from the weirdest Catalan tradition.

Aside from getting free access to official language certification and conversation partners, there are also good online resources, such as parla.cat. There are dedicated online Catalan dictionaries, Catalan-only news sites,  a free catch-up service from the region’s public broadcaster, and even access to comic books in Catalan. Admittedly more widely-used language platforms need to catch up a bit. Duolingo, for example, has a Catalan module, but it’s currently limited to the basics. That’s set to change as the user community contributes more and more.

TV3, Catalonia's national broadcaster

TV3, Catalonia's national broadcaster

 

“Spanish is a priority”

The second argument against learning Catalan: there’s simply no point in learning it. Even in Barcelona, the capital of Catalonia, 98% of the population speak Spanish compared to approximately 60% that speak Catalan. Moreover, if you’re one to think global—perhaps you’ll take on Machu Picchu one day—Spanish is your gateway language. An estimated 400 million people speak it across 21 countries, compared to 7 million people spread over the three-four countries that speak Catalan. If you’re crunching the numbers, it’s hard to argue against learning Spanish over Catalan.

So I’m not going to. What I will say is this: your life will be enriched by learning the language of the community in which you’re based.

A world map showing where Spanish is spoken (darker red for higher use)

A world map showing where Spanish is spoken (darker red for higher use)

Key sectors need you to speak Catalan as a basic requirement. When I moved to Barcelona, my first intention was to find work in the social sector supporting people who needed help. Being able to understand, speak, read and write is unsurprisingly necessary for that, as it is for medical professions, education, commerce, retail...the list goes on. Catalonia’s economy is in extremely good shape (as of September 2016 it accounted for 18.9% of Spain’s GDP), and regional success is built on the back of lively local trade. Communication is a crucial part of that trade.

If you’re in Catalonia to study, most University courses are taught in Catalan. Got kids? They’ll spend the majority of their week being exposed to it via the school system. The language forms the backbone of society here, and that backbone will only grow stronger as time goes on.

Torre Agbar and Glòries: Barcelona's hub for design, technology and commerce. 

Torre Agbar and Glòries: Barcelona's hub for design, technology and commerce. 

On a personal level, I get a kick out of pulling off a conversation in Catalan. And yes, I recognise this is a very superficial reason to throw into the mix. But it’s true. Three weeks ago, I called the doctor to cancel an appointment. I usually panic, hesitate, mumble something incomprehensible and switch to Spanish. But this time, for the first time, I stuck to Catalan. And it was fine. The receptionist, weirdly, didn’t scream down the phone and insult me for using the wrong pronoun, or for mixing up my Spanish-Catalan. She, bizarrely, didn’t send the surgeon over with a sharp implement to gouge out my tongue. Instead, she complemented me on my Catalan. Thankfully, it wasn’t a video call otherwise she would have seen me doing an awkward jolly jig across my living room in utter jubilation.

 

“Spanish is easier than Catalan”

Define ‘easy’. Both evolved from Latin and fall under the umbrella of ‘romance’ languages. Many people point to the fact that Spanish is ‘pronounce-how-it’s-written’; the sounds of individual vowels, for example, are never (for the most part) altered depending on which vowels or consonants they sit next to.

But does that necessarily make it ‘easier’ for a native English speaker? I’m not so sure. It’s hard to adapt from one system to another, regardless of relative simplicity; just because you’re an expert chess player it doesn’t mean you’ll be incredible at checkers first time round. I’ve heard English speakers that really struggle with Spanish pronunciation.

Catalan, like English, has a wider variety of vowel sounds. There are diphthongs and triphthongs to wrap your tongue around, and vowels are pronounced differently depending on whether they are fortas (strong) or febles (weak). The pronunciation system is less alien to an English tongue, and therefore it’s easier to make the leap.

Catalan: dips and trips aplenty

Catalan: dips and trips aplenty

 

“Lots of other people don’t speak Catalan. It’s awkward.”

It’s a paradox that finding opportunities to speak Catalan in Catalonia is sometimes hard.

Speaking another language is an exercise in self-consciousness (I blogged about this a couple of months ago). This is extended even further when most people within a society are bilingual. What are they going to think of me if I choose one language over the other? What if I make them uncomfortable by speaking in Catalan and they, like me, aren’t from here?

The best piece of advice I ever got on this was, simply: keep calm and speak Catalan. You’re in a new country. You’ve learned the language of that country. Speak the language. People will respond how they want to respond, be it in Catalan or Spanish, and the choice they make won’t be a reflection of some invisible civil language war being fought between the two.

Even this dog barks in Catalan

Even this dog barks in Catalan

Going back to the baker. This is why we need more people to at least open conversations in Catalan. It encourages people like me to speak the language, and in turn encourages the language to flourish.

Just moved here? Have a toffee. It’ll be worth it.