Barcelona: Spanish Isn’t The Only Language You’ll Be Speaking

Featured image: Robert Young


Sounds like a great Mediterranean city to stretch out on the coast and brush up on all that high school Spanish you learned, right?

Well, that playa you think you’ll be playing at between classes is actually called a platja. Yo soy turns into em dic….and buenas dias is actually the more sophisticated bon dia.

What is this new exciting language, that you must learn to thrive socially and in the classroom that your teachers in high school didn’t teach you?  Catalan. Though it seems similar to Spanish and even French, Italian and Portuguese, this language developed independently to its peninsular counterparts. Dubbed by a Parisian friend of mine as that “European Language”, this language is scary looking on the surface, but easier once you know the key roots that make it up.

Let’s give you new explorers of this city and the surrounding autonomous community a crash course with a bit of history mixed in.

A Very, Very Short Background on the Catalan Language

Catalan was the official language of the proud kingdom of Aragon. With the union of Isabelle I of Castile and Ferdinand II of Aragon (also fondly known as the Catholic Monarchs) in 1469, the Iberian Peninsula was united into the beginnings of the Spanish Empire where Spanish (Castellano) was becoming used more often. The decline and suppression of Catalan continued throughout the 16th and 17th century. Small literary resurgences popped up periodically, noteably the Renaixença in the 19th century. These evolved in the 20th century with the establishment of the Generalitat of Catalunya, a body that promoted the education and use of the region’s once great language. Unfortunately, the Franco dictatorship enacted a total ban of the Catalan language in 1940. The transition to democracy from 1978-1982 saw Catalan re-established as the official language of the region. Present day, schools are taught in Catalan and mass media, like the popular Catalunya Radio, are published in Catalan, http://www.ccma.cat/catradio/ (This site has amazingly helpful podcasts on culture, local news and language. Check it out).

Some Basic Catalan Phrases

Good Morning Bon Dia
Good Afternoon Bona Tarda
Good Night Bona Nit
Hello Hola
Goodbye Adéu
What is your name Com et dius?
I’m _____________________ (Jo) Soc la/el (la for a feminine name and el for a masculine name)
Pleased to meet you Encantat/ Molt de gust
Where are you from? D’on ets?
I’m from_______________ Sóc de___
How do you say ____ in Catalan? Com es diu ____ en Català?
I don’t understand No ho entenc
Do you speak English? Que parla anglès?
Please Si us plau
Thank you Gràcies/ Moltes Gràcies/Mercès
You’re Welcome De res

I find that, personally, Google translator’s pronunciation function is super helpful. Though the words look vaguely Spanish or French they are pronounced a bit differently from either. I wouldn’t type phrases into Google translate for translation because the grammar is a bit tricky and the computer doesn’t know to whom you are speaking and whether it is informal friend or a formal boss, teacher, or elder! Like everywhere else in Spain, showing respect to elders and authority figures is extremely important.

Below are some useful resources to take advantage of when learning any new language, but especially Catalan in Barcelona.

Make Friends! (By Far the Best Option)

By far the very best, easiest and definitely the most fun option to integrate into this vibrant culture and corresponding language is to make a local friend. We are all studying abroad to grow as individuals, make connections globally, and become well-rounded human beings. The best way to be forced to practice and speak is to go out to a bar, a picnic, flat warming party, or festival with a Catalan speaker! These friends care about you and want to see you succeed; this means they will patiently help you navigate the grammar, tenses and words. They encourage you to speak, correct you when you are wrong, and answer questions! They are also free of charge, if you exclude the occasional thank you meal or drink. They can introduce you to more friends, show you new, non-tourist trap places, and overall turn into life long friends in far away places that you can visit when you return.


No matter how long you spend in your room reading your laptop, you will not become fluent. That is the first big step, but you must move past only talking to yourself in your head. An intercambio is an exchange of sorts between students that takes place outside! The point of a language is to use it, outside, as a tool to communicate to other people. Getting out and having a café with a local student or walking around doing errands can work wonders. These are usually posted on the international student center information boards, web groups or organized by local coordinators. Be it a stranger or a friend from your university classes, these hour or longer meetings are crucial. Speaking is the hardest part of a new language, and being around a peer doing normal daily activities will get you on the quick road to being a normal function member of society. Immersion in this manner is fantastic and in return you help them with their English. Win-win situation.

Introductory Language Classes

These amazing, save-your-life courses are a wonderful resource. If you are studying for longer than a week in Catalunya, Andorra, Valencia or Sardina I would consider signing up for at least one. Many universities offer an introductory course; if not, one can be found from independent tutors. Look up the languages courses offered by the Universidad de Barcelona as there are tons. These give you the edge in regards to grammar and vocabulary. Confidence is key in learning a new language, and a class will give you the extra push to keep learning, speaking and integrating.

Self Taught via the Internet

If another class isn’t you style, then they are tons of websites with introductory grammar, pronouns, numbers, phrases, alphabet, and pronunciation suggestions. You can literally type “Basic Catalan Phrases/Grammar” for some pretty extensive and helpful websites. When I first arrived in the city and saw the three-language information signs in the airport I knew I was in for some solo reading time.

One Last Tip

Locals of this lovely region are highly nationalistic. The Catalan flag flies from windows, balconies, and are even stuck on license plates over the España EU designation. The pride of the Catalan people extends to their language so learning everyday phrases can make the difference between a fun day at a local beach or roaming lost on the artistic streets of Barri Gòtico.

If all of this seems a bit overwhelming, remember citizens here are almost assuredly bilingual. A question in Spanish will be answered sooner or later by a nice, helpful local. That being said, I would highly recommend getting proficient in conversational Catalan. The classes may be taught in it, but no one on the street wants to hear about the economic advantages that ancient Paris had over Italy. Well, that was my experience, anyway. I can write a mean essay about the chemistry of the Mediterranean Sea and spend an evening out at a bar with a friend chatting away in Catalan. That, ladies and gentlemen, is the way to truly experience the region and enjoy this amazing city during your year abroad!

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