July 27, 2004

The languages of Barcelona

One thing I'm still trying to figure out is just what the place of la llengua catalana is around here. All signs, with very few exceptions, are in Catalan. Some are only in Catalan, some in Catalan, Spanish, and English; a very few are in Catalan and Spanish only. That indicates to me that, at least officially, Spanish is regarded as about the same as English: a language that a lot of visitors to the city will use, and so worth putting on signs.

When people talk, I definitely hear a fair number speaking in Spanish, not Catalan, even in the less touristy areas. There certainly is some Catalan too, but not as much as I'd guess from looking at the signage.

The thing that really gets me, though, is when people interact with me. I guess it's reasonable to speak to me in Spanish, since I'm obviously not a local and therefore probably can handle Spanish better than Catalan. But I'd think that if there really is this nationalistic feeling that Catalan is a full language, the local language, and just as good as Spanish, they'd want to try using it more, relying on Spanish (and English) more as fallback languages. I find it especially odd when I order something in Catalan, and almost inevitably, they confirm it in Spanish. (That, or they just write down the order or yell it back to the cook staff in Spanish.) Clearly, I need some sort of button to wear to indicate that Spanish isn't going to work for me any better than Catalan will, so you might as well try the latter. (Especially since my French will help me a lot more with Catalan than with Spanish!)

Posted by blahedo at 12:50pm on 27 Jul 2004
Catalan and Spanish have very interesting roles within Barcelona (and Catalunya as a whole). They have a lot of history and politics surrounding them, and it becomes more apparent when speaking with residents. There are a lot of completely bilingual families, and within those places the two languages are pretty equal. One guy I know told me that he regularly switches between the two with groups of friends, depending on who he is talking to. Other people are more "catalanista" and insistent on speaking only Catalan. Some people grew up during Franco's years and never had the opportunity to learn it. Like most bilingual communities, people are pretty accommodating. It is usually just a natural response to switch to Castilian when someone sounds non-native in Catalan. I have lived fairly far up in the city in a couple different neighborhoods (Gracia and Sant Gervasi), and both have mainly Catalan-speaking families (that is, they prefer Catalan to Castilian). Catalan is really used quite a bit; it is especially noticable when interacting on a business or education level (one example are the University of Barcelona's stats showing that about 70% of their filology department's classes are taught in Catalan). Fascinating topic. :) Posted by Rachel at 5:35pm on 6 Aug 2004
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