One of the “anomalies” expats settling in trendy Barcelona might find is the unforeseen presence of the Catalan language. By unforeseen, I’m not suggesting that it’s something “new” or anything like that. No, that same language would have been encountered by anyone coming to Catalonia in the last millenium or so. Don Quixot, for example.

It was what he must have heard in Barcelona, the city which seemingly brought him back to his senses. No. By unexpected, I mean a surprise for anyone expecting no “regional” language to have any real presence in a frontrunning European city in our day and age. I therefore include those who may see the language as a positive nuisance. But they’re probably the sort that see any language other than their own, in the same terms.

Catalan is widely acepted as a regional language

Whatever the case, Catalan, the language, has not done the world’s globalization urge the favour so many other minor lingos have: that of simply disappearing. To some, this would have been the decent thing to do in this age of logic-rule, hypercommodity and scarce sentimentality. That is certainly what happened, way back, to other “regionals” such as ghaelic in eastern Ireland and Scotland. Or indeed Provençal in southern France. The fact is that, as a non-state language, Catalan holds a surprisingly sound footing in this western Mediterranean country. So, uninquisitive young Americans may come to settle in fashionable Barcelona only to find that natives are not yapping Mexican, as they imagined, but lisping some quaint Pyrenean prattle they had not banked on encountering beneath altitudes of 2100m. What now of all that time invested in learning universal Castellano.

Spanish and catalan have the same base as have its people

The truth is that all castellano learnt will come in handy for those sensitive (and sensible) enough to learn Catalan. I say “handy” because both languages are based on Latin and have a good many words and grammatical features in common. I say “sensitive” because taking up Catalan to live in Catalonia is a question of sensitivity and manners –in the broader sense of the word– rather than one of obligation. But I also say “sensible” because to learn domestic Catalan is not only relatively easy, but also very beneficial from a social point of view. And more and more expats see this and respond.

But let’s start by taking a look at Catalan’s place in society, a situation some see as miraculous enough when the language’s history is regarded. However did a language with no state backing (indeed, with a good deal of state bashing ever manage to survive at all in a Europe where all languages worth their salt have for years had a State behind them?

Well it was a near thing. Bullied out of officialdom over the centuries, Catalan almost deceased in the nineteenth century when State control turned nasty and Spanish nationalism pushed Catalan out of a good many fields (schools, universities, law courts, local government etc.). Furthermore, how the dictatorships of the twentieth (1923-1930 and 1939-1975) failed to completely mop up Catalan, is another mystery. Across the border, Republican France all but suffocated Provençal and Catalan at that same period. catalunya-28524_640

Catalan is more vivid than ever despite some obstacles

But is that kind of threat over for Catalan-speakers south of the border today? I say no… While repression has become less sheer, its role as a minority language hammer has been superceded by other subtler artifacts: notably, market rule, Madrid control over immigration regulations and fierce media pressure. Primarily, pressure from Spanish, which disputes every inch of the common ground. To grasp the gravity and persistence of the phenomenon, suffice it to say that Catalan is banned from the Spanish Parliament (and the EUP).

Spain allows Catalan practically no ground for public display or cerimonial presence, outside Catalonia, a factor that leads many Spaniards to doubt the language is really used at all. Spaniards will generally only see public Catalans address microphones in Spanish. Furthermore, only a dwindling 10% of court cases are conducted in Catalan in Catalonia itself, since Justice (of sorts) is largely administered from Madrid. It is the State that sends the judges, many of whom know no Catalan and have no intention of doing so. Claimants and defendants declaring in court will often be tipped by their lawyers that speaking in Catalan might well “harm their chances”. Any governmental countering measures? I beg your pardon…

As the NGO Plataforma per la Llengua reveals, almost no week goes by without incidents involving the ill-treatment of citizens for using Catalan before police, magistrates, judges, State civil servants… However, the Internet has enabled many Catalans to get information and react. And what is the stance of the Spanish monarchy over this issue? To deny the phenomenon. As late as 2001, former king Juan Carlos had no qualms about proclaiming, at an important public event, that Spanish had “never been imposed” on anybody. Unfortunately for him, history books and elder people’s memories are there to indicate decisively otherwise.

Despite these ongoing negative aspects, it would be wrong to say recent decades have not meant improvement. The death of Franco indeed proved a turning point for the language’s position. Open prohibition and stigmatization were replaced by a certain dgeree of tolerance and legal loopholes did appear. Recovery was partially possible. A strong literary tradition and full language codification (completed in the 30s) enabled the language to spring back into semi-officialdom as a well developed tool.

To do so, it had to overcome impairments of every imaginable nature. On the one hand, Spain’s first democratic President (one Adolfo Suarez, ummm, former head of the Falangist Movement,…) still insisted that the language “could not be used” to teach science. Yet such attitudes waned because the social backing for the language’s recovery was huge. In answer to Suarez’s contempt for the Catalan language, my own grandfather, Emeritus Professor of Orthopaedics at Oxford, Josep Trueta, responded in a public letter. In the coming years, Madrid even made attempts at ensuring that, should a Catalan TV be created, it should have a hillbilly register with programmes for the yokels.

Catalan is an advantage to find work in Catalonia, but it is not necessary

Luckily, the moment to put Catalan back on the map of European’s workable languages was favourable. The newly recovered Catalan Parliament, one of the oldest in Europe, did create a magnificent TV (probably one of Europe’s best), now with various quality channels. It also built a fine schooling system based on the Catalan language, a system that has recently come under fire from Madrid, but that has also received praise and prizes from the UE and other international organizations.

The Catalans have also created a framework (despite Madrid’s recurrent obstacles) in which the Internet, the business world and public life, can be conducted in Catalan.. Thus, in 2014, two Catalan news webs passed the 2 million monthly single user mark, a figure oustanding for what bureaucrats call a “lesser-used language”. That same year it was made known that 1·4 million Catalans daily hear mainstream radio stations in Catalan, almost as many as in Spanish (for which wavelength availability is significantly wider). Those seeing the glass half full say that never so many have spoken Catalan. Those seeing it half empty worry that never so many newcomers had lived in Catalonia without speaking the language…

Catalan can be part of all languages

But how does all this affect expats? Let me start by saying that the language rarely seems to be seen as a “problem” by people. Does that have to do with the fact that Catalan is in no way obligatory (except in schools and for civil servants)? There is such a great mixture! Catalans often break into and out of their language in full conversation. According to a 2013 Catalan Government survey, despite the fact that Catalan is the majority language at the work place, English and Spanish are also fully present. You will find companies where board meetings are held in English, office goings-on in Catalan and manual work formalities in Spanish. Or Arab for that matter.

More and more expats are known to be learning the language, a phenomenon not so common years back. Many are helped by their kids, who, with special tuition, become more or less fluent in the language in their first school year. Official figures, never to be overtrusted, speak of over 36% of expats managing some Catalan. And 65% showing interest in improving their level. European expats, whether initially baffled or nay, are often much less hostile to the presence of Catalan than die-hard Spanish-speakers, some brought up in atmospheres –inside or outside Catalonia- that are traditionally hostile to difference. To give you an idea how this works, it’s worth taking a look at a you-tube video on in which a girl from Malaga explains how she was brought up to hate anything Catalan (3·5 million visits). So that’s also something rather sad one has to contend with…

Expats are interested to learn Catalan

Expats and non-Catalans settling in Barcelona and Catalonia in general, of course have the choice of learning Catalan or not. How many Brits live in France or Germany and never learn the language? I think that living in Catalonia, they will be wise to pick up both languages if they are to stay on in the country. Why? Let me transcribe a conversation I had last week with an English expat in the Costa Brava region. “For our first year here, Pat –my wife- and I got by on our pigeon-Spanish learnt on the Costa del Sol. We had been told Catalans were more European and reserved. Some friends of ours told us about some Catalan classes in the local village. Until then we hadn’t really thought it was important to learn it. But we went along to the classes, had a great time and made good friends there. And we see the huge difference it makes to address Catalans in Catalan. People open up to you and show you their appreciation. It has made a world of difference for us”. Catalan lessons for expats are available at the Consorci per a la Normalització Lingüística at Happy learning!

You too can partake of the adventure of learning Catalan, a survivor language that has blossomed and found its place in the modern Europe we share.

By Tony Strubell