The Culture and Complexity of Catalan

When people think Catalan, they immediately think about the independence movement, and the red and yellow striped flag with the star. But the culture and language is completely overlooked, and to some extent, Catalonia does have a feeling of a separate country. It’s language is widely used across the region for the most part, and there will be many situations where you will see no translation to Castilian Spanish. Many people feel really proud to speak their language and having lived in Catalonia for 5 years, I even had the privilege to learn it to a certain level.

Many people from Britain are very naïve to think that Catalan is a dialect of Spanish, and that if you speak French and Spanish you can pick up Catalan easily. Wrong!! Catalan has similarities to most of the other romance languages, but you can’t just wing it. When I sat down to have lunch for the first time with my first host family since moving to Catalonia, the conversation started flowing in Spanish, and then they flipped to Catalan. Immediately was lost, and it took a long time to pick up some of the repeated phrases they were saying.

It became apparent to me, that most households and friendship groups would speak Catalan to each other and even most services offer that option firsthand. 99% of them would happily speak Spanish to you if that’s all you speak, the other 1% would be rather stubborn, but many would encourage you to learn some important words or phrases. I got the impression that if I was to have a more comfortable life in every aspect, I would have to learn some of it eventually. There are also many residents on the other end of the spectrum however who don’t speak Catalan in their household, being from other parts of Spain, and in some extreme circumstances, refuse to learn or speak it.

If you’ve ever seen the film, Ocho Apellidos Catalanes, it shows the culture and language being forced upon you, and the domestic issues the region experiences regularly. To some extent, there is some truth to it, though for comedic value, it’s overdramatic. The accents are very accurate, and even Dani Rovira’s strong impression of the language, is one that I have heard in real-life situations. A typical village in the countryside will have few people who don’t speak Catalan as their first language, whereas in the Major cities, it’s a lot more diverse.

Even Barcelona retains a lot of it’s Catalan language and heritage around town, all be it less so in the Gothic Quarter. You will find that for the most part, Spanish is principally spoken around town and in most of it’s establishments, but you wouldn’t have to walk around too much to see Catalan. The names of places are the biggest giveaway, such as Plaça Catalunya instead of Plaza Cataluña, and Passeig de Gràcia instead of Paseo de Gracia. The less touristic the neighbourhood, the more likely Catalan is going to be used.

What surprised me when I moved, was how many different accents of this language exist. While there aren’t so many differences between somebody from Barcelona to Tarragona, Lleida and Girona are notably different. It’s said that Girona is the home of the Language, Barcelona is the most common accent, and Lleida the renegade. When I moved from Tarragona to Lleida, I noticed the differences almost straightaway. If you were to learn the language, Lleida might be the best place for you regarding conversation practice. The majority of the materials would be from Barcelona, and Girona is almost total immersion away from the beaches and for when you have reached a higher level.

Catalan is also not exclusively spoken in Catalonia, but it’s influence drops significantly in those regions. The southern most city in mainland France, Perpignan has Catalan Speakers, and the Sardinian city of L’alguer also has Catalan influence, but I’ve been told that most speakers are the older generations, and not so popular. Many of my students were left disappointed when they visited those areas and expected to fit in more with the locals. That idea was dismissed quite quickly as soon as they arrived.

There is however, an invisible buffer zone in Aragon called La Franja, where Catalan is also spoken. I visited various towns along this strip and discovered that was very hit and miss, and most people speak Spanish as their first language. One comarca however, was a little different, and that was the comarca of Matarraña in Teruel province. That changed my perspective of Aragon a little bit after spending a night there, as I thought the language and culture changed instantly as soon as I crossed the border. Definitely not the case.

Everything culturally connected to Catalonia was displayed via their language, and they are very content about that. All local festivals and regional holidays were as yu expect, but they do give information in Spanish at least, though I feel it’s more for tourism than anything else. They can’t cut the cord completely, nor can they do it in their education system. Some subjects are taught in Spanish, but truth be told, if you aren’t a native Catalan speaker, you are going to have a harder time. The system is designed that way, and it’s getting worse. Less Spanish people are crossing the border to study there, because they don’t speak Catalan.

My experience with this language has been one of fascination, and sadness. I’m fascinated by the accent, and that it’s accentuation is easier for a Brit than Spanish is, but saddened that it is sometimes used as a weapon subtly in various ways. Both are very important when living here, depending on what you’re doing. But I don’t like how it’s partially alienated people coming in, whether it be for work, study or sometimes socialising. As the language continues to gain momentum and become more important in Catalonia, so do the potential problems. Catalan, like it or loathe it, is here to Stay, if you’re just visiting, you don’t need it, but if you plan on moving to that region, I would start booking some classes…

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