Sunday, 18 March 2007

Is it easy to learn Catalan?

Catalan is an Ibero-Roman language. In scientific research you will most likely learn that Spanish – or Castillano as it is usually being called here – and Catalan are not close enough for speakers of one language to understand the other, without any studies. Personally, I believe that if you speak Spanish and just accept to be exposed to Catalan, you will automatically develop an extensive understanding of the high degree of systematic difference between Catalan and Spanish grammar as well as vocabulary. Once you start to see the similarities, you will have it easier to identify and learn those words and structures which bear no resemblance at all.

Maybe it is because I live here in Catalonia, where both languages are being used, and not in a mono-lingual part of Spain, but I do think that a big part of the explanation to the lack of natural understanding between Spanish and Catalan is rather political than linguistic. Many Spanish speakers are happy to tell you how well they understand Portuguese and Italian without having studied the languages, but at the same time claim not to understand Catalan. This, to me, reveals that they see Catalan rather as an unnecessary statement of regionalism than merely as a language.

Unlike some tourists tend to believe, Catalan is the thriving, dominating language in North-Eastern Spain. If you listen to how local people speak, you might hear quite a lot of Spanish in the tourism and business areas of Barcelona, but not as soon as you come out in the rest of Catalonia. Vilanova is a good example. In our local supermarkets my family is usually the exception when speaking Spanish to the staff – the people in front of us as well as those behind us will be speaking Catalan. In spite of the many national Spanish speaking radio channels, broadcasting in Catalan totally dominates ether media so it take more energy to turn away from than tune in to Catalan radio or TV.

With this in mind, it is surprising how many people come to Barcelona to study Spanish. Among foreigners in Catalonia there is an evil joke that Spanish is such a popular language that the courses are expensive and always full while courses in Catalan have to be given for free. Well, this is not so strange since outside North-Eastern Spain the value of learning Catalan is limited. Here, however, knowledge of Catalan is needed if you want to integrate into society and as foreigners who have decided to live here, let us be grateful that the Catalan authorities are so generous. There are several dictionaries available for free on the Internet and many centres with special sections for self-studies of the language. In Vilanova, for example, there are two libraries of this kind.

However, if your spare time is limited and you try to learn Catalan through everyday interaction with local people, this is not easy at all. That is at least my experience. People here are social and helpful, so when you try to address them in Catalan, as soon as you make your first mistake in a sentence or need to replace a word with the Spanish alternative, you can be sure that the person you talk to will change for Spanish. Although the intention is good, this efficiently hampers opportunities to practise Catalan in daily life.

It is a bit of a contradiction that I found it easy to learn Spanish here in Catalonia through that method. Since few people here speak English, Spanish is the natural choice when speaking to foreigners and local people do not mind having to use their second language when communicating with you. Luckily enough this issue has been identified by the generalitat, so there are in fact a program matching foreigners interested in speaking Catalan with local volunteers who are strict in not answering in Spanish.

Still, what I would ask for is for Catalans to be more patient with us foreigners when we try to speak the language. Almost all of us master Spanish better than we speak your language, so when we try to do so, it can be assumed that it is with an intention to learn rather than by necessity. Since you are usually proud of your language, help building the knowledge of it with us new speakers.

Finally, in order not to be misunderstood, let me point out that I only speak for people who want to speak Catalan. Whenever the answer is given in Catalan when a foreigner or fellow Spanish citizen addresses you in Spanish, do understand that you will not come across as someone who is promoting his language, but rather as a rude person trying to avoid communication. That label certainly does not improve the outside world’s picture of Catalonia.


Monica said...

Hi there! It is so relieving to see some other foreigner (and not married to a local!) not being totally against the catalan language! Very interesting point, the one on the ability among spaniards to understand italian or portugese but not catalan... I have also experienced how some catalans speak spanish to me even though I speak catalan well (this especially happens in Corte Inglés!) - but I think it is that they find it so hard to believe that foreigners try to learn and speak their language, as so many other spaniards having lived here maybe 30 years or so, don´t even try... (it is fantastic for integration when catalans realise that you have made the effort to learn, they get really touched!) By the way - kan jag länka till din blog när jag får tid över och fixar till min och lägger in länkar?
Molta sort amb el català!

Erik Wirdheim said...

Hi Monica,

The blog receives it fist comment ever and it comes from you - my role model for Catalan among foreigners!

I would be an honour for me if Casa Junyent would link to Wirdheim in Vilanova.


Anonymous said...

Hi, I´d like to introduce you to my blog. Pop up as often as you feel like.

Spanish Salamanca

Tonet said...

Dear Wirdheim:

Welcome to my homeland, which left behind some years ago (Igualada). I find your observations sharp and refreshing, so thanks for writing.

Could you re-post or clarify some of the ideas contained in your last paragraph here? I don't think they come out that clearly? The whole idea about who is rude in what circumstance.

Greetings from Belgium!

Erik Wirdheim said...

Dear Tonet,

Welcome to Wirdheim in Vilanova. Since you are from Igualada, you might have found me through the Penedesfera. Is that correct?

What I am trying to say in the last paragraph is that, no, I do not consider it correct for Catalans to answer in Catalan if a stranger approaches them in Spanish. It happened to us every now and then during our first year here and, in my eyes, is a quite unfriendly way to promote a language. Swedes, for example, do not answer foreigners in Swedish, when we are asked something in English.

Catalans who want to promote Catalan should rather encourage fellow Catalans to always speak Catalan to those foreigners who want to learn their language (i per què no ho feu?), than to make a point with those foreigners who have not yet learned it.

Having said that, I consider it an obligation for any foreigner who plans to STAY in Catalonia to learn the language, but that is a separate issue.

For those who come here on short term contracts (let us say 2 years or less), personally, I would recommend them to focus on Castellano.

Since you live in Belgium I guess that you understand what I mean - long term French and Dutch, but during your first years, it is probably more fruitful to study the dominating language of the region where you live.


Tonet said...

Good morning:

Yes, I happily bumped into your blogs in the context of this Penedesfera... I actually live in Brussels, where you have two equalised languages (French and Dutch) one of which is real-time hard to practise, cause it has disappeared from virtually everything bar streetnames and some cultural, administrative stronghold-ish microspots.

I might then say: the dominant language is thus French, but Brussels also works in English, in Spanish, in Italian (even Arabic or Turkish) and I do not know whether it is just a matter of numbers or pure cultural neutrality(anyway resulting in a real possibility to live in a language other than those official), both issues not deprived of importance.

The thing is, when it comes to speaking Catalan in Catalonia (and I do totally agree with the underlying pro-communicative approach of your speech), there are a couple of pitfalls of which I am unsure whether your fellow nouvinguts (=newly arrived) bear in mind, namely:
-Compared diacronic status of both languages (both UNequally official, think of the "llengua pròpia" concept) has been very detrimental to situations and speakers in Catalan, and this for a long time
-The logics of interposition; "per què no ho feu?" is an embedded mechanism that has to do with historical reasons all other than language or politeness-driven; I know it sucks when you try to learn, but this will change in the years to come, as Catalans gradually get rid of some of the pressures and complexes now strongly conditioning their attitude towards this pivotal bit of themselves
-Bilingual conversations are frequent, so most of people in .Cat fail (and logically so, cause verbal exchanges tend to be very short among strangers) to realise that the interlocutor has never before been exposed to Catalan (or Spanish, for that matter)
-And last (and I shall stop here, cause brevity is the soul of wit and I am already two villages past it), the "not changing language"-issue is not less rude coming from a Spaniard or a Swede than it is from a Catalan: you will agree that equal collective rights apply to us as well (having never given up the public vocation of our linguistic heritage)

At any rate, I am very happy that you find such a nice town as Vilanova as suitable for your life projects; so would I, dude! I have friends in there, too

Em fas enveja sana, xiquet!

Peace and joy

Tonet said...

Oops! You have really written a lot about the issue... I shall read some more before embarking on anything else for now...

Bryce said...

I like what you have to say about Catalan. You might find this site to be a good resource:

Català wiki browser