Foreigners who arrive in Barcelona lacking in language skills often wonder if they should prioritise Spanish or Catalan. Since you can rely on practically all Catalans speaking Spanish, you might be tempted not to bother with Catalan, but here are some reasons why a making a little effort will be worth it.
Six reasons why you need to learn Catalan:
- Your spouse is Catalan:
If it’s love that brought you to Barcelona and your spouse is Catalan, you can stop reading now. You will learn Catalan. Family events will take place in Catalan and it will therefore be not only essential but generally a lot easier since you will have ample opportunity to practice.
- You’ve got kids at school:
Unless you are planning to stick to international schools, Catalan is going to be a big part of your life if you have young children at school or day care. Education in Catalunya is in Catalan – it’s something that was bitterly fought for and is fiercely defended. Ironically, it’s much easier to find your child a place in an English-speaking institution than a Spanish-speaking one here, something that surprises many newcomers.
The younger your children are when they arrive, the easier it will be for them, but even older children can be speaking quite fluently within a few months. Often kids have an easier time of it than their non-Catalan speaking parents! That’s because it’s you who will have to navigate the registration process, attend parents’ meetings, decipher notes sent from school and everything else. If you don’t know your pitets from your mitjons you will soon run into problems.
- You are going to live outside Barcelona:
It’s true that virtually all Catalans speak Spanish to native-speaker level. In daily interactions in Barcelona shops or cafes, locals won’t blink as they seamlessly switch from Catalan to Spanish (or English!) the moment they realise you’re a foreigner.
Barcelona is a cosmopolitan city with people from everywhere, so there’s every chance that people you interact with in the city won’t be native Catalan speakers anyway. But the further you go from Barcelona; the more Catalan predominates. If you live outside Barcelona, other than in ex-pat enclaves like Sant Cugat or Sitges, it will be much harder to fit in without a good grasp of Catalan.
- You will have more work options:
Depending on your industry, you may find that fluent Catalan is not always listed as a requirement for jobs in Barcelona (although outside of English teaching and call centre work, fluent Spanish almost certainly will be). However, if your colleagues are predominantly locals, office life is likely to take place mostly in Catalan. That means you may find yourself scratching your head over internal emails or being left out of water-cooler conversations, even if the majority of your job is conducted in Spanish. If you, as a foreigner, can get through a job interview in Catalan you are bound to impress. And if you are thinking of starting your own business aimed at locals, your customers will expect you to be able to communicate with them in their language (which, as you should have guessed by now, is not Spanish).
- People will just like you more:
Let’s face it, native English speakers don’t have the best reputation for learning foreign languages. In Barcelona, it’s possible to live in an English bubble without really ever getting to grips with Spanish, let alone Catalan. While speakers of other languages get up to speed with the local lingo(s) within a few months, we English-speakers often lag far behind. To be fair, we have our excuses. After all, it’s unlikely you will be handed a menu in Danish, or that the lady in the post office will want to practice her Russian with you. English, on the other hand, is everywhere.
But the other side of the coin is that, since so few foreigners make the effort, if you can interact with locals in Catalan you will be greeted with open arms wherever you go. You will have access to the culture in a way that’s impossible if you don’t speak the language. Even if full fluency eludes you, learning a little will make your life here easier and more enjoyable.
So, do you really need to learn Catalan?
In short, yes you probably do. If you had to choose, Spanish is still more important and useful for foreigners to know than Catalan is. But you don’t need to choose, and you should aim to pick up at least some Catalan. The more you learn, the richer your experience here will be.
How to start learning:
An easy way to get started is with Duolingo. It’s free app for your phone. It works like a game and quickly becomes addictive, but at least it’s more productive than looking at Facebook. Currently they only offer Catalan from Spanish, but if you’re Spanish is intermediate level or better you should be fine.
The Generalitat de Catalunya (Regional Government) also offers a number of learning options, some of which are free. A good one is Parla.cat where you can learn online, either self-managed for free, or with a tutor for a small charge.
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