I’ve recently been working in an office here in Barcelona with people who are all from Catalonia and under the age of 40. What this means is that they all grew up in the “return to democracy” period wherein Catalonia regained its right to bilingual education in the schools with Catalan are the primary language. Essentially, everyone grows up with with full fluency in both Catalan and Castilian, no matter where they came from originally whether it be somewhere else in Spain or another country altogether. There are countless detractors constantly opposing this. Some bored, pointless housewives with too much time and too many domestic servants even worked to get a court ruling to essentially try and obliterate Catalan instruction from classrooms. Growing up in a monolingual country, I consistently find this rational to be inane. While my editor in chief is language nerd, having grown up in this system has given her a path to full fluency in four languages and conversational ability in two or three more. Even those who aren’t language nerds will often be fluent in 3-4 languages.

But, all that aside, to witness the interactions of people who have full fluency in two languages is fascinating. All day long there is this constant shift between Catalan and Castilian. There is no real rhyme or reason to it. Two people will be talking in Catalan and then suddenly switch to Castilian and vice versa. Sometimes a word triggers it, but most of the time not. Some people in the office speak completely with one another in Castilian despite both having grown up here and being just as fluent in Catalan as Castilian. It’s a full on mind fuck to follow, but it is generally a Barcelona “thing” as going to the interior regions of Catalonia will have people typically only speaking in Catalan. Thankfully for everyone in the office, I’ve emphasized that my Catalan is stronger than my Castilian and they should speak to me in that and they do, but this brings up an interesting aspect to life in Catalonia as a foreigner.

Several years ago, long before I ever considered moving to Barcelona, I was at a friend’s house during the holidays. A friend of his popped over who was that very rare American in Catalonia who was truly fluent in Catalan. He had picked it up for translation work but he was always frustrated to speak it. I found this curious as, if you’re an American and you are fluent in Catalan, the people here are absolutely thrilled, so I didn’t understand his problem which was the fact that people always switched to Castilian on him. Admittedly, he was a bit of a twat and I didn’t care for him much, but still I refused to accept that people would speak to him in Castilian despite his talking to them in Catalan and that he was making it all up. Then of course, it happened to me.

At first I assumed it was because my level of ability with the language wasn’t very high. Catalans assumed, “Ah, foreigner, it’s nice you speak some Catalan but well, this is a bit painful, so let’s switch to Castilian which I assume you know as you’re here in Spain.” But, it continued and despite a growing ability with the language people from friends of my editor in chief to even my own mother in-law would constantly switch to Castilian for some damned reason despite the fact they knew that not only I could speak some degree of Catalan, but that my ability with the language was actually greater than that of Castilian.

For my father in-law, it’s never been a problem and most others are coming around to this fact about me in that they should speak Catalan. The family dog remains indifferent and would probably speak Turkish with me if it meant access to post-dinner treats and tennis ball hour. But for people I just meet, it’s still a problem although unlike this friend of a friend who seemed annoyed or discouraged, I see it for what it is: a program. This one works out to be:

if ($person == ‘catalan’ && $face != ‘quillo’) {
$language = ‘Catalan’;
} else {
$language = ‘Castilian’;

People who get upset about this I view in the same light as those who get upset at a traffic light for turning red. It is a set batch of routines that are extremely hard to break and in the case of Catalan speakers, are born of several centuries of their language being pissed upon. Then you toss on top of that the fact that probably 0.01% of the foreigners that come to Catalonia ever bother to learn to speak Catalan and you can understand why this whole program got started in the first place, essentially at the behest of others. It’s much different that the Castilian speakers who are known to toss down the whole, “this is Spain, we speak Spanish” thing because they speak nothing else.

There are however several keys things to get Catalans to break the habits and speak Catalan with you if you speak it. The first is insistence, especially in Barcelona where, as mentioned previously Castilian and Catalan are like the waters of two rivers meeting in a turbid confluence. Tell people, “Speak Catalan with me.” and they will, unless of course they can’t in which case they won’t like you, but you probably won’t like them anyways if you’ve taken the time to learn Catalan. Secondly, get a damned accent. I hear so many expats living in Spain who speak a form of Castilian that sounds like an epileptic donkey having a seizure. It’s not that my ability with that language is terribly good, but I have an accent. Same goes for Catalan which I happen to have picked up a Girona province accent due to familial ties. I say shit wrong all the damned time, but the language sound is consistent and I feel that when I speak it, people can understand that I understand what they’re saying. This is a key point in learning a language in that you sorta have to fake it for people to go along with it. There’s nothing wrong with it unless of course you’re agreeing to a legal contract in which case, you may have just screwed yourself.