You don’t speak Catalan. And you’ve lived here how long?

One of the most frustrating debates I have with other expats (never Spaniards) in Barcelona is the one about Catalan school teaching. I know various Poles, Brits and Germans who bang on about Catalan being a stupid/dead/useless language and how they’d rather have their (real or imagined) kids educated in Castilian Spanish. Not one of these people speaks any Catalan. And they’ve been here for years.*

Of course, that’s each individual’s prerogative. Speak whatever language you like. But if you’ve been here for a few years and you don’t speak a word of it, something’s wrong. You know why? It’s not that hard.

If you speak Spanish, Italian or French, you should be able to pick up some Catalan in weeks. I’m not talking about nivell C, but you should be able to understand a school teacher if you’ve been here for a few years. You just should. If you don’t, you’re either incapable or unwilling. What’s it to be?

I’m happy to talk about language policy etc, with someone who can speak Catalan (like Trevor at kalebeul). But if you’ve made no effort to learn it – and it’s just NOT THAT DIFFICULT – then your opinion means nothing to me. Make the effort, then you’re entitled to your opinion.


*It is surely a coincidence that many of these people are given to a weird sort of anti-immigrant casual racism which is as unpleasant as it is illogical. Guys, you are immigrants. So am I. Do you lack all self knowledge?!


24 thoughts on “You don’t speak Catalan. And you’ve lived here how long?

  1. Hey Tom,

    I’m not saying I don’t agree with you (in fact, I do :P). But just want to clarify. You mentioned in one of your Tweets some time ago an article and commented that you disagreed with Angela Merkel’s claims of their relaxed immigration stance had failed because immigrants didn’t want to integrate into their society, learn the language and so on. How is that different from this? I maybe misunderstood you back then, but then I’d like to know.

    I personally think that if you go to a foreign country to live you HAVE to adapt to their habits and language. That doesn’t mean you will lose your roots and own culture, both are usually compatible, if not in public probably in a more familiar environment. But you should make at least the effort. Otherwise, why are you there?

    I’m moving to the UK shortly. I’ve read there’s Spanish “ghettos” (sorry but, LOL) around London, but I’m not going to be in one of them. Of course, one of my goals is to improve my English accent, so it would be pointless, wouldn’t it? But even if I was going somewhere else, it would be awkward not to be able to communicate with most people normally (amongst other things, you’d never know when they are insulting you :P).

  2. Hi Aby. Merkel said that multiculturalism had ‘failed’. I’m saying that people should speak some Catalan before they criticise Catalonia’s language policies. I think people should be allowed to hold on to their own culture, beliefs and traditions. These things basically never interfere with a host country.

    But learning the local language of administration, whether you like it or not, is important. Fail to do so and you’re excluded from sorts of opportunities and debates. That’s all.

    1. Thanks for the reply 🙂

      So you say that you disagree with her defeatist (is that a word?) attitude to the problem and the focus on culture. I don’t think anyone can forbid you to hold on your culture (unless it somehow conflicts with the local laws). But yes, proper means of communication are important. Thanks for clearing it up.

      I was looking at Australian immigration procedures the other day (someone suggested me to move there instead of the UK) and it seems you lose many points for a VISA if you don’t have a certain level of English. It makes sense, doesn’t it? At least to me it does.

      But then when our government tries to enforce the use of Catalan in some way they get bashed constantly. I suppose it has to do with the relationship between Spanish and Catalan (the typical “if I can speak Spanish why do I need Catalan?”), but I don’t think we even require a certain level of Spanish for non-EU citizens to get to this country, do we?

  3. See, I grew up in a “Catalan country” – Mallorca – And spoke English at school and English and Castellano at home. Whilst we did watch catalan TV, and I do understand Mallorquin and Catalan to a certain extent, it *is* possible to grow up in this sort of place being unable to speak the language. Hell, I speak French, a language I learnt at chool, better than I speak Catalan.

    That being said, I think I would be culturally richer if I could speak the language here.

  4. There’s a school of thought (matriculation open now) that says that if you get rid of most state services and benefits, both the language and the immigration problem (as well as state corruption) disappear: the only immigration you’ll get will be of people capable of looking after themselves (feckless locals will also bugger off somewhere else), while those who learn only Catalan may struggle, those who learn Spanish will be fine, and those who learn both will do very nicely, thankyou.

  5. Every language is acquired because of the necessity to communicate. (Except in those oustanding cases that it’s learned for pleasure.)

    If the necessity to learn Catalan does not arise because of the specific characteristics of the social context of the individual, you cannot criticise this person.

    I do think that each individual has the right to chose the language of education of their offspring, but there are limits to the alternatives the administration can offer. In any case, it’s totally ignorant to call Catalan “a stupid/dead/useless language”.

    This issue offers no more beef. It’s about the opinions of individuals, both of which there are many, so we can rant or admire endlessly without being able to draw any social or political conclusion which, in the end, is the only interesting level of debate.

  6. @Aby – I don’t think that if you move to a foreign country you HAVE to adapt to their habits and language but I do think that you HAVE to respect them. Big difference! Obviously, the more you are going to adapt, the better you will integrate yourself into the community.

    As an ex-pat of six years I am embarrassed to say that I can neither speak Catalan or Spanish fluently and will probably never be able to. I won’t offer up excuses as to why, just let it be known that I am not proud of the fact.

    However, I am enormously happy that if we choose to stay in Catalonia then my 4 year old son will be blessed with 3 languages. Not only that but he will have learnt valuable lessons in regionalism, nationalism, local culture, and respect for all nationalities no matter how minority they appear. How can this ever be a bad thing?

    The ex-pats that I hear complaining about Catalan being a dead language are usually the same ex-pats that can barely string a sentence together in Spanish, so yes their opinion is null and void. Also, they are indeed the Daily Mail reading xenophobic, anti Muslim, anti gay, anti eastern European arseholes who will continually gripe about the British economy whilst happily claiming every penny they can get (illegally) from the British state whilst working (illegally) in Spain/Catalonia.

    1. ”If you speak Spanish, Italian or French, you should be able to pick up some Catalan in weeks. I’m not talking about nivell C, but you should be able to understand a school teacher if you’ve been here for a few years. You just should. If you don’t, you’re either incapable or unwilling. What’s it to be?”

      There’s a difference between ”should” in a logical sense and ”should” as in ”ought to”.

      Yes logically speaking, someone who can speak Spanish/French/Italian etc should be able to understand some Catalan.

      But that doesn’t mean they should (ought to) learn it.

      Making a decision to learn a language is based on many considerations: time available and usefulness being two of the most important.

      I speak six languages and I understand some Catalan (due to knowledge of Spanish and French). But at the moment, I don’t need to make the investment of time and effort to bring my Catalan up to the same level as my Spanish, because Spanish is more useful to me personally.

      Still, an interesting topic- and you’re right to question someone’s right to undermine the Catalan language when s/he hasn’t even bothered to learn it.

    2. If you are planning on a long stay, I think you should try to learn the language at the very least. No one says you have to speak fluently, but at least be able to communicate at a decent level with the locals without forcing them out of their mother tongue. Learning a new language isn’t going to make you forget your own, so where’s the problem exactly?

      Adapting to local habits might be a bigger challenge, but I think it’s a good step towards integration, as you say. E.g. try having dinner at a restaurant around 5-6pm like in some northern countries, complicated if you get out of the tourist areas.

      Respect should be a no-brainer, if you don’t respect a country and its language, habits, etc., why live there at all?

      If I invite people in my house I will ask them to take off their shoes, because it’s what we do. If you try to ignore me, two things can happen: I can ignore you as well (don’t dare asking me for anything else, though) or I can kick you out because you’re not respecting the rules of my house. We have a saying for this in Spanish, does it also exist in English? “En casa ajena manda el dueño”.

  7. So, are Spaniards immigrants if they come to live in Catalonia? Do you want to tell them, or shall I?
    The point is, the obligation to speak Catalán is not social, it’s political. It’s fine and dandy, but Spanish is going to be a lot more useful in adult life for those who want to travel and work in their own country. Cajun French ain’t much good in New York

    1. Anyone who moves from one place to another is a migrant of sorts. No one would find that offensive unless there’s a political reason for them pretending that every corner of the Kingdom of Spain is exactly identical.

      As to “obligation”, I think you’ve got it wrong. The obligation is very much a societal one, if not a social one. For me, nearly all contact with doctors, officials, shopkeepers, bakers, waiters, in-laws, restaurants, hotels, some colleagues, is carried out in Catalan. You could argue that the doctors and officials bit is ‘political obligation’. But I’m sure you’d agree that much of the rest of my life, conducted away from the centre of Barcelona, is conducted in Catalan for social/societal reasons.

      As to the argument about the utility of one language or another in the future: I’m not saying that people should be banned from learning Castilian. I reckon you stand a pretty good chance of a pretty good future if you plan to live and work in Catalonia. And if that’s your plan, learn Catalan. If it’s your kids’ futures you’re planning, what possible reason would you have in denying them the opportunity of 2 languages rather than 1?

      1. The more languages the better. But Lenox has a point, doesn’t he?

        There is an intended political obligation to learn and use Catalan. In a bilingual society such a thing has the tendency to backfire, both on the political and on the social level.

  8. Its not really a problem for kids to learn both Catalan and Spanish,especially if they will live in Catalunya its completly crucial for them.

    1. It is very interesting what you are saying. You are not anymore referring to the same: “to learn both Catalan and Spanish” is what you called “completely crucial”. Now you only refer to Catalan.

      On the other hand, it does not seem to be true that most kids in Catalonia speak Catalan, if you mean mother tongue (which you should, because that’s the issue in this case). Moreover, what most kids in the whole region speak is a moot point, because no child communicates with all the other Catalan kids, but only with those in the neighbourhood. The majority or dominant language varies much with the neighbourhoods, to the extent that in some cases you can grow up speaking only Catalan, or only Spanish.

      Wait, only Spanish not because you’re obligated to speak it at school everywhere in Catalonia, with the exception of a few private ones.

      In the end, the only sure thing is that it is crucial for a child to learn and speak Catalan because this language is required at school. Spanish is not, or not more than English.

      Which brings the Spanish-speaking child into a situation in which they learn that Catalan is officially given a higher prestige than their native tongue. And in this there are seeds for possible conflicts within the child, of the child with their parents and of the parents with the administration.

      Usually one deals successfully with this, but I’d like to point out that the situation of Spanish-speaking children now is not much different to that of Catalan-speaking ones 40 years ago. Coercive means were much more all-encompassing and even brutal then, but as to the relation of the single child with his or her mother tongue and its social prestige, there is an unholy similarity.

      A reminder: 40 years ago Catalans claimed the right to speak and be educated in their mother tongue.

      1. Ok…

        “In the end, the only sure thing is that it is crucial for a child to learn and speak Catalan because this language is required at school. Spanish is not, or not more than English.”

        Source, please.

        1. I’m Catalan and have studied here all my life except one year I lived in the Canary Islands.

          Well, all mandatory education (primary and high school) was done in Catalan. And I only started studying Spanish when I was in 5th course (11 years old). The next year we started English. And we dedicated the same amount of hours per week to both. This was on private schools though, but I think public schools were similar back then.

          At university it was different, each teacher spoke their language of choice, though the majority spoke Catalan (this was at UAB).

          This might have changed over the years of course.

          1. PS: Thanks for the link. I understand that Catalan is not only the default language, but the “normal” one, which makes this law barely constitutional because it does not explicitly say “preferred”. Yet that’s the meaning of “normal” in this context.

            [14.2 e) looks like a bad joke in its reference to the parents associations.]

            And back to reality: Catalan has the same position as you describe from your own observations, and based on article 6.2 of the Estatut its use is now compulsory.

          2. If by ‘ironic’ you mean ‘an incredible amount of bollocks’, then, yes, your comment is very ironic indeed.

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