Friday, February 8, 2013

To learn Spanish in Barcelona or not? My personal opinion/experience.

This was a question I asked both myself and others time after time again. 

When I first started thinking about moving to Spain, the pictures that immediately flashed before my eyes were from Barcelona. I had never been there (well, I’d never been to mainland Spain at all, just to Mallorca) but I thought Barcelona looked SO beautiful. 

And if I were to say the three main reasons for my attraction to Barcelona it would be Gaudí and all his wonderful architectural gems, (such as La Sagrada FamiliaCasa Milá/La Pedrera, and Parque Güell), Salvador Dalí and his brilliant surreal art (and his connection to the city and around Catalunya; the big museum in Figueres, his home in Port Lligat, and the beautiful coastal town he spent summers.), and the rumor of Barcelona being the Salsa Capital of Europe. (Salsa is one of the greatest passions in my life, but the salsa scene in Norway was rather sad, so this was a HUGE draw for me.)


But I knew there was a second language there, I just wasn't sure how it worked. I wanted to learn Spanish, but Cataluya (the region) is bilingual Spanish and Catalan. I thought maybe Catalan was just like a dialect and it wouldn't be a problem, but thankfully I knew some people from Spain who were able to help me out with my questions.

Catalan is NOT a dialect. It is a LANGUAGE. It has its own grammar, structure and although it resembles Spanish, it is also very different.

So is it wise to go there to learn Spanish? And if not, why not?
Well, these are the questions I had before moving to Spain, and now I have the right answers for me.

But first, I’ll rewind a little. After some talking to people who knew, and lots of thinking, I decided it was best to go to a part of Spain where Spanish was the language (sounds logical doesn't it?) so I went to Málaga. At the very beginning I didn’t understand much at all, but it was nice to read advertisement on posters and buses, to try to listen to the radio and even the TV (I watched Friends, dubbed. It was very strange!) and every now and then try to listen to peoples conversations while waiting to cross the streets(!). If only I could recognize and understand 2 words out of 20 I was super happy!

So I spent one month in Málaga, and it was a very nice city. But my feet got itchy and I couldn't forget about my urge to get to know Barcelona, so I decided to spend the next month there. After all, if it didn't work out I could always go back to Málaga or find myself yet another city.

What happened the first day in Barcelona though was that I fell head over heels in love with the city. It was everything I dreamt it to be and a lot more. So I stayed and got the answers to the questions I had earlier had about leaning Spanish there.

I was on a course (that was of very bad quality compared to the one in Málaga) but apart from that, I kept on trying to read small pieces in the free local newspapers, advertisements, posters in the streets and shop windows, and trying to listen in on conversations (ha!). But the problem was that it was all in Catalan, and I had no idea it was Catalan even. I didn't know enough Spanish to be completely sure what was in fact Spanish and what was Catalan. Very confusing.

I remember one time, a woman asked me inside the big Metro station at Plaza Catalunya, how to get to “Las Ramblas”, as in what exit to take. I knew the answer and felt very proud to be able to help someone with directions, in Spanish! I pointed and told her to use that sortida. It wasn’t until later it hit me that I had learned that exit in Spainsh was salida. So…what was sortida then? -Exit in Catalan.
Darn it, I had seen sortida so many times on the metro, that I thought it was exit in Spanish. And that is just one example. I had many of those. I didn't know if I was learning Spanish or Catalan outside the classroom, and let’s face it, it’s outside the classroom you really learn. You get the instructions in the classroom, but it’s out there in real life when you use it, that you actually learn it.

I believe it’s easier if you know Spanish before arriving there, and are able to separate what is Spanish and what is Catalan. I might have to acknowledge that everyone who warned me were right, that it is not ideal to learn Spanish from zero in Catalunya. Spanish is not an easy language to learn, and it doesn't make things easier to be in a place where the majority don't speak it around you. I believe it’s better to learn it in one of the autonomous communities who are not bilingual. It wasn't an option for me to go somewhere else at the time though, I had fallen in love with this wonderful city so if I had to keep learning the language in a harder way, well then that was how it was gonna be. And I did learn. 

I guess it depends on many factors, but I still think it's easier to learn it from scratch somewhere else.

Anyone have experiences or thoughts to share on this?

32 comments:

  1. Hello. Found out somewhere that Spanish is the third most spoken language in the world. So I thought of studying it also for a time. Then I visited Barcelona, and I pefectly understood what you meant. It will be really hard because there are two languages spoken in the city. So good luck! :)

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    1. Yes I think Spanish is the third most spoken language in the world. It was harder as a beginner in Barcelona, but although it might have taken me longer I have learned :)

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  2. Whoa! I do not think I could handle trying to learn a language where there are more than one spoken! I am so impressed that you are able to decipher such slight differences in language! What an amazing experience to be able to learn a language while living somewhere. I think that is a major reason why I am not very good at speaking spanish, only reading/writing.

    btw, I loved loved loved that video you sent me! Fantastic, motivating, inspiring! Thanks chickadee :)

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    1. The whole bilingual city-thing (or country) is confusing to me, like - when to use Catalan when everyone speaks Spanish too? I have done a course in Catalan though, but it became difficult knowing when to use it when I was so much stronger in Spanish, and everyone knows Spanish anyway... Very tempting to just keep going in the one you are most confident in? It was for me anyway.

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  3. Wow, this is really interesting! I had absolutely no idea that there were two languages that co-exist there. Thanks for sharing!

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    1. Thanks for reading :) Yep, it's quite confusing actually!

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  4. I remember your post `its the milk' it was very funny!

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    1. Maybe it's time to write about another funny expression, I have learnt so many!

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  5. Your language skills are impressive! Fiji has three official languages, I enjoy learning different ones and Patrick reckons I pick them up pretty quickly. When we were in Timor I picked up Tetun and I really really want to learn Spanish, and hopefully I'll get to do it in Spain! Much love xoxo

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    1. I don't know if they are very impressive, my language skills that is. I am a slow learner and a perfectionist, and Spanish has taken me a long time to feel comfortable speaking. It was as if the more I learnt, the more difficult it became to speak freely. The grammar felt immense! (And still do sometimes) But living in the country certainly helps A LOT :)

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  6. I just wrote a long email and lost it! I'll try to do it again.
    Really good post! An important subject and one that is close to my heart.
    I too arrived here not knowing anything about Catalan and I tried to learn Spanish in Barcelona. I am pleasantly surprised that you felt surrounded by Catalan - Barcelona is famous for being so Spanishised and there are many people who won't answer you in Catalan!
    I think people arrive and go through phases - first is to think Catalan is a dialect and not so important to learn. Then they decide that it is equal and that you can just chose to learn what you want - and if you chose Spanish then it's ok because every speaks it anyway. Then when you stay longer you either continue with step two but knowing that really you are avoiding a huge elephant in the room or......you get down to learning Catalan and being part of the community you live in.
    I realise now how much pressure there is from central Spain to use Spanish as the MAIN language. I think people like you and I arrived in ignorance because there is a deliberate policy of belittling and marginalising Catalan in the outer world. The Spanish government is incredibly threatened by Catalunya and so does all possible to tell the world it is only a small region with strange and exotic customs and a funny language.
    Learning both languages here is incredibly difficult. It is what I have been trying to do and I still get my tongue is a twirl when I change over. Catalan words spill out when I try to speak Spanish (which is a language I love by the way. It is the language of tango for me!) I have the sortida/salida problem all the time. I was only saying yesterday that there should be some research into people learning both - foreign people I mean as of course Catalan people have done that for years and they are amazing how they change midsentence, usually as a sensitive response to someone who doesn't speak Catalan.

    Well, I hope your spanish is now coming on in leaps and bounds. Do you miss Barcelona? I would - I also fell in love at first sight.

    Take care, love Kate

    PS did you know you repeated one paragraph twice in the post? I only say it as I think you might get quite a few visits to this one! x

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    1. Hi Kate, thank you for your thoughts. (And thank you for letting me know about the repeated paragraph, that was very nice of you, thank you!) I felt surrounded by Catalan in the beginning, as I lived with a Catalan, who watched TV all the time in Catalan, who spoke on the phone and with visitors in Catalan, and in the area around where we lived I heard a lot of catalan, in the bar next door etc. etc. (I moved away from there after just a few months, it was not a nice place to live- not for the Catalan!! Many other reasons.)
      But Barcelona is certainly full of foreigners and also people from South America and other parts of Spain, and you note such a difference once going to a pueblo outside of Bcn. I guess you living in Granollers, and with a Catalan you've learnt more about the whole 'conflict'/'situation' than I have.
      I admire you learning both languages. I tried, but I lost my motivation, since I always felt stronger in Spanish, and since everyone knew Spanish I wouldn't know what language to use. I would feel incredibly uncomfortable using Catalan to someone who didn't speak it (in shops for instance which could be a good place to practice) - just as I felt uncomfortable myself every time someone spoke to me in Catalan, and kept going although I expressed as politely as I could that I didn't speak the language. If I were to stay there, I guess it's best to learn it well.
      Now it's all Spanish, and it's nice as I don't get into those uncomfortable situations! But I do miss Barcelona.(A lot!) I love both cities, but for such different reasons.
      By the way- you mention Spanish being the language of Tango, it's the same for me with Spanish being the language of Salsa, and it's a beautiful language!
      Good luck with everything and cuidate mucho.
      xx

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  7. While I understand your confusion about signs (basically, they're all written in Catalan), I agree with Kate in the status of Spanish as the main language spoken in the streets of Barcelona and its metropolitan area. Your personal circumstances upon arriving to Barcelona might have led you to think Catalan was all around you, but as a local I can assure you that you'd have to move outside the metropolitan area, far away from Barcelona proper, to feel immersed in Catalan. In fact, in my neighbourhood you're hard pressed to find anyone speaking the language in the street at all. This is due to social and historical reasons. It also has to do with politics, but more from a historical point view, and nowadays I honestly think it's a mistake to state there is "pressure from central Spain to use Spanish as the main language".

    Toni

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    1. Hi there Toni. Thank you for your opinion. I am afraid it wasn't just my personal circumstances that led me to think I was surrounded by Catalan. Where I lived at the end of my time in Barcelona was also a barrio where I didn't hear Spanish being spoken as the first language except for in the Frutería which was owned by foreigners. The other shops, the people living there and in my building spoke Catalan before Spanish. Maybe as a local, you don't notice it as much as a foreigner trying to learn the language, who doesn't know the language at all? I guess this can also differ a lot from barrio to barrio?

      I didn't mean I was immersed in Catalan, simply that Barcelona being bilingual didn't make it easier to learn Spanish there, as there would always be a mix of both and a confusion as to which language I was learning.

      Unfortunately I don't feel I have enough knowledge about the politics and history to talk about why things are the way they are, but I have certainly noticed it's a hot topic :)

      In the end, the idea behind this post was simply to give my opinion of how it was to come to Barcelona as a foreigner trying to learn Spanish there, with very little previous knowledge. (And how the city being bilingual made it more challenging)

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    2. It can change indeed from barrio to barrio. Areas with high Spanish immigration in the 50's and 60's (and there's a few of those in the metropolitan area) are basically Spanish-speaking.

      Toni

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    3. I totally understand your opinion about the matter and your preference for other places to learn Spanish. In any case, as a local interested in these issues, I have a good perspective on the language balance, and I insist on claiming that Spanish is the main language around here. If I heard Catalan more often I would certainly notice. I'm not saying there aren't some districts, like the one where you lived, where it's more common to hear Catalan. The causes of the current language balance are indeed too complex to explain in a few lines.

      Toni

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    4. I am not trying to tell anyone facts about the Catalan vs Spanish speaking population of Barcelona, simply how it felt for ME to be a foreigner learning a new language, and how confusing it can be when there are two languages there. And the languages being so similar makes it more complicated as it's not so easy to know which language which word belongs to.

      If we compare to Belgium for example, a bilingual country. French and Flemish are so different that it's easy to differentiate which language is which. This is not the case with Catalan / Spanish.

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  8. I think it takes an incredible amount of courage to do make the leap that you did into a new culture, language and place.

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  9. It's really interesting right? I knew this region wanted independence from Spain (from Emily's posts), but i didn't know signs around the city were in Catalan! ahhh! I saw Sortida everywhere ;)

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    1. Confusing when you don't know! It took me some time to realize that 'Carrer' was the same as 'Calle' in Spanish haha. (Street)

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  10. I agree that it's not ideal for learning Spanish (but as you and I are living proof, it can be done). What I love though, is that you kind of get two languages for the price of one! I would never have learned Catalan anywhere else (obviously), but I really value being sort of able to speak it.

    Language mixing is a major issue though. Sometimes I have words from both in the same sentence. It doesn't matter if you're in Barecelona, everyone understands anyway, but I was noticing it in Tenerife a few weeks ago, and kicking myself...

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    1. How great that you speak Catalan! I didn't make it further than to very beginners level with my first module of the course from Generalitat, it was confusing and I decided concentrating on learning Spanish well first. I admire the foreigners I know who have learned both!

      Haha, I imagine mixing languages can easily happen! Even the Catalans do :)

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  11. Statistics of main spoken language

    Greater barcelona catalan 31% spanish 52% 3.500.000 people

    Barcelona city catalan 44% spanish 46% 1.700.000 people


    Districts barcelona

    Ciutat Vella catalan 40% spanish 40%
    Eixample catalan 55% spanish 35%
    Gracia catalan 60% spanish 31%
    Horta-Guinardo catalan 35% spanish 55%
    Les Corts catalan 51% spanish 39%
    Nou Barris catalan 20% spanish 60%
    Sant Andreu catalan 33% spanish 52%
    Sant Martí catalan 34% spanish 50%
    Sants-Montjuic catalan 42% spanish 46%
    Sarriá-S.Gerv. catalan 57% spanish 34%

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    1. Hi Anonymous. I am not sure what you want to say with your comment, but thank you for adding some statistics anyway. I am simply writing about my own personal experience, and not pretending to be an expert of any kind though!

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  12. I'm from Barcelona and i speak catalan, for example like Picasso who lived in barcelona and Dali

    According to his wife Jacqueline "Picasso was proud of speaking catalan" I bet you didn't know this

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    1. Hi Anonymous. I wonder why you say "I bet you didn't know this" ? As in what do you imply with this comment?
      To me it is not very relevant if he spoke Catalan or not to be honest. I know he was born in Malaga but spent years in Catalunya and Paris and probably more places I don't know of. I don't know why the languages he spoke is relevant in this discussion, but I am sure you have your reasons.

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  13. I tell you this, because nobody from abroad who comes to barcelona, either for holidays or for staying,
    knows about this language and they tend to think that everybody speaks spanish but the reality is that
    the most of the people who speaks spanish at barcelona are immigrants or sons of these.
    For example my mother is from the south of Spain then i've got two mother tongues but i mainly speak catalan.

    Anyway also there are a lot of people who speak english and other languages at the city

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    1. You are very right. Most foreigners who hasn't spent time in Catalunya don't know about Catalan. Me included before doing research before moving to Spain. We see that the country's name is Spain, and we think Spanish is the official language (which it is) We also wouldn't call people from other parts of Spain "immigrants" to Catalunya, as we still see Spain as Spain. I know from all my experience in Catalunya that we see this very different than most native Catalans.

      But I can't help but insist that my motivation for this post simply is to state my personal experience learning Spanish in Barcelona and nothing else. Bona nit!

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    2. And my purpose is to destroy the remains of the Spanish Empire
      and liberate the basques and Catalans from the wicked Spanish Empire

      look at this http://www.funnyjunk.com/funny_gifs/23276/Spanish JAJAJAJAJA ;)

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  14. As someone who has been in Catalunya for 7 years, but in the south where the locals are far more nationalist than Barcelona, I have been terminally put off Catalan Nationalism by the attitudes of the locals.

    I met a nice girl in Barcelona a while ago, a guiri like me, she was at a party with 40 friends when a newcomer asked her how the locals were. She replied that they were lovely and friendly. The party conversations stopped, others interjected, no, they are not really, there were about 10 "locals" at the party, all it turned out were Spanish, not Catalan. In her 15 years here her real social experiences with Catalans were when one was dating a friend.

    I never really understood an Italian friend who said to me "why are you moving there, the Catalans are so boring" ... but that was before I moved here. Boring is not quite correct, but they are very into their own thing, socially and with family.

    For me, I do have a handful of Catalan friends, but I spend most of my time with Latinos, Italians, Germans, Norwegians, Spaniards and enjoy it despite Catalans and Catalanism.

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    1. Thank you for commenting, it's always interesting to hear the opinions of other foreigners. I have similar experiences to yours. I have two close Catalan friends, some acquaintances, but most of my friends in Catalunya were foreigners. I would have loved to have gotten to know more Catalans, but I felt they mostly weren't quite as interested in that as me :)
      And I see where you are coming from with your comment "I have been terminally put off Catalan Nationalism by the attitudes of the locals." ! Thank you for sharing your opinion!

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