catalan in barcelona

A City of Two Languages: Catalan In Barcelona

Barcelona, as the capital of Catalonia, is a city of two languages: Catalan and Spanish. Barcelona’s mix of nationalities means you’ll mainly hear Spanish on the street. But you can’t ignore the presence of Catalan in Barcelona and its influence throughout the city.

Here I share my experiences of Barcelona’s bilingualism, and why I’ve recently started learning Catalan after living here for six years.


I have to admit this is a question I didn’t know the exact answer to before coming to Barcelona in 2012.

When I was travelling with some friends in Thailand in 2011, we met two boys from Bilbao. One of the girls I was with could speak some Spanish, but she said she couldn’t understand the boys when they spoke to each other. I said that they must be speaking Catalan. So, well, I knew that a language called Catalan existed, but I didn’t know where they spoke it. For anyone wondering, the boys were actually speaking Basque. Which, like Catalan, is one of the four official languages in Spain, alongside Galician and Spanish.

Thankfully I’m much more educated on the subject of Catalan now. I know, for example, that it’s a romance language spoken by nine million people in Catalonia, Valencia, the Balearic Islands, and parts of Sardinia. And it’s the official language of Andorra.

As a romance language, Catalan has a lot in common with other languages in the same family, such as Italian and French. And, contrary to what some people might believe, Catalan is not a dialect of Spanish. It is very much a language in its own right, despite similarities between the two languages.

catalan in barcelona


I’d never been to Barcelona before moving here, so my first insight into the city was from talking to one of the two girls I came here with. She was a friend of a friend who had visited Barcelona a few times while living in Madrid for a year. Although I’d never been to either city, I couldn’t understand how it was possible when she said she preferred Madrid; “But Barcelona has beaches!” I insisted. “Yeah but Madrid has swimming pools”, she answered. I should have known right there that we weren’t going to get on. “And another thing”, she added, rolling her eyes, “everyone speaks Catalan in Barcelona, they don’t even speak Spanish.”

Of course, she was wrong; while a lot of people speak Catalan in Barcelona, everyone speaks Spanish too. It’s rare to find a menu solely in Catalan in Barcelona, and transport announcements are usually in several languages. It did strike me, however, when I saw the signs at the airport that everything is in Catalan first, then English, then Spanish.

But, when it came to many of the new words I saw around me, such as sortida and salida above the exit, I didn’t always know which words were Spanish and which were Catalan. I just accepted that street names all began with Carrer, Avinguda, and Passeig. And although food packaging had Spanish and often Portuguese writing on it, shelf labels and receipts were often in Catalan.

As I got used to living in a bilingual city, I became curious how people learnt two languages at once. I assumed that when parents were teaching their children words, rather than saying one name for a car or a sheep, they would say two names. When I asked one of my students about this he laughed at the idea. He explained that parents usually speak either Catalan or Spanish at home, and their children learn the other at school. Children are educated in Catalan in Barcelona and the rest of Catalonia. They learn Spanish as an additional language in the same way they learn English. However, TV and other media outlets are predominantly in Spanish, so children pick up a lot of Spanish this way.

Over the years I’ve lived in Barcelona there has obviously been a well-documented political shift towards Catalan independence. Despite this, I’ve never felt pressured into learning Catalan in Barcelona. I’ve heard stories about waiters insisting on speaking Catalan and refusing to switch to Spanish. But as I’ve never experienced this treatment personally I’m not sure how true these stories are.

catalan in barcelona


When I first started learning Spanish, I couldn’t tell if someone was speaking Catalan or saying Spanish words I hadn’t learnt yet. It seems impossible now as they have such different sounds. But, while it was all Spanish in the classroom, outside in the real world, it was a mixture of both. It was hard to distinguish the words I might have learnt from the words I had no chance of understanding.

Gradually, my Spanish level improved and I was able to tell Spanish from Catalan. But, without trying, I began to understand more and more Catalan too.

Snippets of conversations, bar menus, signs, exercise classes, train announcements… There were lots of Catalan words floating around and somehow, some of them stuck. Catalan was still a puzzle but at least I’d started to collect some of the pieces.

However, a lot of this understanding just comes as a result of speaking another romance language, as I found when my husband Gastón and I went on a road trip through Portugal. Younger Portuguese people preferred to speak to me in English. But older people spoke to us in Portuguese and we replied in Spanish. Amazingly, we all understood each other.

Last year when we went to Venice it was a similar story. Gastón and I wanted to find out about the boats running to Murano and Burano. We asked the ticket seller if she spoke Spanish or English, and she said no, only Italian. Without much choice, we asked our questions in Spanish and she replied in Italian. Again, we  all understood each other. It’s as if your knowledge of one language helps you build bridges to other languages in the same family.

catalan in barcelona


Over time, despite never learning Catalan, I’ve come to understand more and more of the language. And, although I have to reply in Spanish, I can follow a fair amount of what people say when they speak to me in Catalan.

As Such, I’ve come full circle; before I couldn’t tell the difference between Spanish and Catalan. now, learning one has helped me build an understanding of the other.

I put off learning Catalan before because my focus was always to improve my Spanish first. I thought that learning another language would confuse me. And I also didn’t want to put unnecessary pressure on myself after feeling like a failure for so long when I couldn’t speak Spanish.

My decision to start learning Catalan this year isn’t motivated by anything in particular. I haven’t decided to learn it out of frustration about not understanding. My reasons for learning Catalan come from a less emotive place than my desire to learn Spanish. This time, it’s more about curiosity, a general interest in languages, and just wanting to learn something new.

The course runs from the 5th of March to the 20th of June and covers the three basic levels. It’s 135 hours in total – two hours a day for five days a week. Yes, it’s intensive, but it’s a free course and I can walk to class so it suits me perfectly. I plan to write another post sharing my experiences of learning Catalan after I’ve been to more classes. But so far, I can confirm that my teacher Josep is lovely and I’m really enjoying it.

What’s your experience of Barcelona’s bilingualism? And are you planning on learning Catalan in Barcelona? Let me know by commenting below.

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