The Catalan language question

I am a typical American with aspirations to the contrary. I was born in Northern California and I spent what I consider to be the first third of my life living there, growing up speaking English, living in a monolingual culture, only taking basic Spanish classes in high school, and then again in college. My bilingual abilities at the age of 22 existed merely on paper and would remain so for several years after.

As time rambled along and without any intentional direction, I met a Spaniard who decided to take me in and eventually marry me. We lived in San Francisco, speaking English with each other for several years, before deciding to move to Spain. Of course, she was from that “other” part of Spain known as Catalonia. Her family spoke Catalan at home and it was the only language that the family dog understood. Of course, as is the norm, all her family and friends, in addition to Catalan, also spoke Castilian (or, if you must, “Spanish”, but what is that actually?)

Over the years, we visited during holidays and, as I only had basic Castilian knowledge, a nascent ability with Croatian, and no understanding of Catalan, I quickly worked to re-learn Castilian the best I could. With no additional lessons, I’ve bumbled along over the years and gotten to a point where I can perform basic tasks in it and have some degree of conversations in the language.

So, upon settling in to Catalonia and setting up life, I kept at the Castilian and even worked on a wine guide for the northeastern region of Empordà, chatting with the winemakers in Castilian. This generally worked and I got about mainly upon the excuse of being an American which a) allowed the excuse of poor bilingual skills and b) meant that for some reason, being born in the “land of opportunity” automatically made me awesome.

But, it became quickly apparent that there was and is a huge problem in only speaking Castilian in Catalonia. Yes, you can live, work, and generally get by fine without speaking Catalan, but if you do this, you’re either a xarnego from another region who only hangs out with others with a similar mentality or you’re an expat who is never fully “here”.

So, the xarnego issue is irrelevant as they consider Catalonia just another part of Spain and see no reason to speak anything other than Castilian. There is no subjective aspect to this as it is a most blatant fact and not really worth discussing further. But, it’s the second group, the expat group, that is a mystery. These are people who moved here as they liked the culture of Catalonia, but then have no interest in learning Catalan as they speak, with varying degrees of fluency, Castilian.

There are two groups of expats in this camp. There are those who are just flat out lazy, like this one American I know who is married to a Catalan, has a child here, and has lived here illegally for six years without a residence permit. His wife even agreed to give up smoking and learn English if he learned Catalan (they speak Castilian at home) but, while she can fully communicate in English without a wisp of tobacco, he can say maybe two or three Catalan phrases. This is in addition to the fact that his Castilian speaking ability leaves much to be desired.

Then, there is the arrogant group of those who think they’re above Spain and above Catalonia, yet for some reason live here. Another American I know is completely and utterly fluent in Castilian and has lived in Catalonia for nearly a decade and a half. In all that time, he has never learned Catalan, has married a Catalan speaking wife (although they speak Spanish at home and she is also fluent in French, English, and Italian), has a business here that has made him well off, bought a very nice home in Barcelona, and now has a child here. Despite all of this, he is detached from life in Catalonia, hanging out only with other expats and he seems to view the Catalan independence question as one would view monkeys trying to liberate bananas from a tree.

These are but two examples of the countless expats who live in Catalonia and don’t speak Catalan. In conversing with mostly Catalans on a daily basis, especially once starting to write a wine guide for Priorat, I realized I didn’t want to be part of either of these groups, but a very small, third group of expats living in Catalonia who actually learn Catalan, essentially aspiring to what the American, Liz Castro or the British, Matthew Tree have accomplished.

Sure, I can easily keep speaking Castilian with my wife’s family and all the winemakers I meet, but in doing this you quickly realize that there is something wrong with it. While any Catalan is fully fluent in Castilian, it is a second language to them and as you talk to them about deeper issues than what’s on the menu that day, you see that there is a flatness to the conversation. It’s not that they can’t express themselves in Castilian, it’s that it’s unnatural and small details that come immediately to mind in Catalan, require a split second hesitation to find an equivalent in the other language. It creates a small, but quite difficult barrier and to the unknowing, it might make it seem as if Catalans are closed off to outsiders and unnaturally reserved.

This point was illustrated perfectly when I met an enjoyable Russian fellow from St. Petersburg at a winery in the small village of Gratallops the other week who was already fluent in English and Castilian when he moved to Spain, but as he decided that Catalonia was where he wanted to settle, he made the effort to learn Catalan fluently. As I’ve tried rather unsuccessfully to learn Russian, I know how far of a departure it is from the other languages he’s learned and I was curious why. His response was quite simple in that before he learned Catalan, he saw a group of girls giggling about something in Catalan and he couldn’t understand what it was. Despite the fact it was probably something incredibly dumb that they were laughing about, he felt like he was on the outside looking in at Catalonia and that’s not the reason he moved here.

Of course, any hardcore Spanish nationalist would declare it as bullshit that the girls were speaking in Catalan and demand that they speak in Castilian, but this is a national issue for Spain and its regions, not one for expats who move here to force upon the people who are from here. And, this is the reason that I’ve now set about to properly learn Catalan, taking the lessons from the Consorci per a la Normalització Lingüística that are initially free and then an extremely modest cost (30€ for a six week course) for the more advanced sessions. Because, I’ve come to realize that if you’re in Catalonia and don’t learn Catalan, then you’re not living here, but simply passing through.

11 Replies to “The Catalan language question”

  1. Thank you for understanding our deep soul . And, please note that in Catalonia if you speak catalan you are a Catalan even if born in Kuala Lumpur…or California.

  2. Appreciate your clear understanding. Hope you feel here as much at home as I did in California twenty years ago.

  3. Spanish: 450 million speakers across 21 countries and territories. Official language of the UN, EU, WTO etc.
    Catalan: 9 million speakers across 2 territories in 1 country. (At a push, 2 countries if you include minuscule Andorra).
    The facts speak for themselves.

  4. I can only assume someone from Ireland posing this argument would be a native English speaker thoroughly bothered by Irish and its less than two million speakers. So naturally, screw Slovenian with its two millions speakers or Norwegian with four million. In fact, we are we even having this conversation in English? With nearly 1.4 billion native Chinese speakers, we should switch to that as, the facts speak for themselves.

  5. Great article. I’ve seen a few ‘expats in Catalunya’ forums and I find the general tone really distasteful and condescending towards Catalans so this is a breath of fresh air. I’m a Scotsman with intermediate Castilian skills and very basic Catalan who’s recently moved to Catalunya, and I totally identify with this feeling of ‘not really being here’ and ‘just passing through’. I also really get what you said about the experience of speaking Castilian with Catalans, there are always subtle unintentional (or very occasionally open and rude) reminders that we’re not speaking their language.

    For me, at the moment I want to at least learn to understand Catalan well. If I’m here in the longer term I know I’d rather be fluent in Catalan rather than Castilian – regardless of the stats on number of speakers. It’s more important to me to feel at home where I am than the to think of all the other places I could feel at home; or to have intimacy with those close to me than to think of all the millions of others I could talk to.

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