2 Apr 2012

Two Languages

The Spanish Flag
Just over five years ago I stepped off the Aerobus (see previous post) into Plaza Catalunya. I had been diligently studying for this moment for the previous year what with my Spanish CDs, my headphones and my still unresolved dilemma about when to use ser or estar (‘To be or to be’ – Shakespeare’s unsuccessful first draft, I believe). Thanks to my preparation I expected to be able to engage with the city’s inhabitants on an equal footing and was looking forward to stimulating discussions on the arts, politics and how hot it was.
And then people began to speak. I couldn’t understand a word!
Could I really be that stupid that after a whole year of study I was as ignorant as when I started? Nice Mr Chomsky has told us the brain’s aptitude for learning new languages declines with age but this was ridiculous. My aptitude seemed not so much to have declined as to have committed suicide. Not a word. There had to be an explanation. And there was…
Catalan. (Or Català if you’re actually speaking it)
Turns out the citizens of Barcelona speak two languages.
Who knew?
The Catalan Flag
Well, actually, pretty much everyone. Except me. I didn’t know it was possible for pretty much a whole city to speak more than one language. I come from the North-west of England where the understanding of one is still considered an achievement.
So without further ado here are some important things you need to know about language in Barcelona. 

Catalan is NOT a dialect of Spanish. Nor is it a different accent. Nor is it Spanish with all the endings chopped off. I cannot emphasise this enough. It is a language, pure and simple. More people speak Catalan than speak Danish, though admittedly they have yet to make a TV series as good as The Killing. 

Gratuitous Danish Flag
If you really, really want a person from Barcelona to take an instant dislike to you then asking or implying that Catalan is not a ‘proper’ language is one of the best ways to go about it.
Nor is Spanish actually Spanish in Barcelona. It is Castellano – one of four main languages in Spain, the others being Gallego (the language in Galicia), Euskadi (the language in the Basque country) and the aforementioned Catalan. Unlike suggesting Catalan is a dialect, nobody will really mind if you say ‘Hablo un poco de español’ (I speak a little Spanish) rather than ‘Hablo un poco de castellano’ but it’s just a little politer and on this blog we’re all in favour of manners.
If you do feel like experimenting with a tiny bit of Catalan just to show you know about it and are not as culturally ignorant as, er…me… you can do it simply by using it as a greeting and a farewell – maybe the farewell is the better idea because the greeting may get any exchange off on the wrong foot. But anyway I leave it to your own discretion.

Very basic Catalan Vocabulary:
Bon Dia (pronounced as though you are offering an incendiary device to a loved one) – Good morning.
Adéu (pronounced as though you were answering the question what’s another word for twenty four hours? And then just as you’d finished answering you had a sudden stabbing pain in your lower back.) – Goodbye

And for when you’re really flying:
Molt Bé (pronounced as though you were answering the question: where do gangster’s mistresses go on holiday?) – Very Good.

That exhausts my Catalan so you’re on your own from now on.
Catalonia is now strongly promoting the increased use of Catalan after it was suppressed by Franco, requiring it to be the primary language used in schools and in public services. This policy is politically controversial in Spain. However, in my experience the suggestion that Catalans will refuse to speak Castellano to foreigners which I’ve heard a few times is a complete myth. So if you have some Castellano it won’t be wasted.
Which brings me back to my first day in Barcelona. It was of course with tremendous relief that when people started speaking Castellano I was able to understand every word.
Not so much.
I couldn’t understand any Castellano either.
Those CDs were rubbish.

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