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What Spanish is spoken in Barcelona - Catalan Vs Castilian?

If you want to study Spanish in Barcelona, you’ll probably have questions about Castilian Spanish Vs. Catalan language. With many articles floating around the internet, it’s not always easy to determine whether Barcelona is the right place to study Spanish. In fact, all the information may seem a little overwhelming. So, let’s deconstruct the myths, and find out the facts.

What is “Catalonia”?

The whole of Spain is divided into 17 different autonomous communities or regions. Each of these comes under Spanish political and administrative rule, and together these regions form the Spanish nation. Each community also has its own regional government. Catalonia is one of Spain’s 17 autonomous communities, situated on the northeastern part of the Iberian Peninsula, on the Mediterranean coast.

Where does Barcelona fit in?

Barcelona is the capital city of the Catalonian region.

What is the “Catalan language”?

Catalan is a language spoken in three regions of Spain: Catalonia, Valencia and the Balearic Islands. Outside Spain, it is the official language of Andorra. It is also spoken in some parts of France and Italy.

Is Catalan a form of Castilian Spanish?

No. Catalan is a language in its own right. It does not derive from Spanish, or even from French, even though many people say that Catalan sounds like a mixture of both. Catalan evolved directly from common Latin. This of course explains Catalan’s similarities of vocabulary and grammar with French, Spanish and even Italian, because all of these languages fall under the so-called Romance languages, which branched out from Latin.

So what is “Castilian Spanish” then?

“Castilian Spanish” simply refers to a standard kind of Spanish language, or more precisely, the purest kind of Spanish accent. Saying that somebody speaks Castilian Spanish, is a little bit like saying that an English speaker speaks “Oxford English”. In other words, the person speaks the language in its “best”, “purest”, “proper” or “original” form.

The term “Castilian” actually refers to the province of Castile in central Spain. It is said that the Spanish language in its most original form comes from there. In Spain, Castilian Spanish is called castellano, and the term is often used synonymously with “Spanish language”.

For foreign students, the Castilian Spanish accent is the easiest kind to understand. This is because every letter and sound in Castilian Spanish is carefully pronounced, as opposed to, for example, Andalusian Spanish, where letters or even whole syllables are sometimes dropped, making it hard for beginners to understand the regional native accent. This is why you’ll usually be taught Castilian Spanish in your Spanish classes.

So which is spoken in Barcelona - Catalan or Castilian Spanish?

Both. In Barcelona, 98% of the population speaks Castilian Spanish. About 50-60% of Barcelona’s total population speaks Catalan. Some of the Catalan speakers speak it as a first language, and Castilian Spanish to them is considered a “second language”. Some Catalan speakers consider Spanish their first language, and Catalan the second. In a very small number of cases, Catalan speakers speak no other languages at all, not even Spanish.

But I’ve heard that everything in Barcelona is written in Catalan?

Because the region of Catalonia has two official languages, you will see Catalan alongside Spanish on road signs, in shop advertisements and in the media. Historically, Catalan language has had a tough time; it was completely banned for political reasons on two occasions, but luckily today Catalonia’s regional government recognises its cultural and literary value. Through education and active promotion Catalan people are encouraged to speak the language in order to keep it alive.

Having said all that, Spanish is also an official language in Catalonia, because, of course, the region is part of Spain. Therefore you’ll find road signs and other important public information always provided in two languages and most people in Catalonia speak Castilian Spanish anyway. In Barcelona, Spanish and Catalan newspapers, books, television channels, art and culture also exist side by side, so that people can choose the language they prefer.

Is there a conflict between Spanish and Catalonian speakers?

There is an on-going heated debate happening in Catalonia, because some political agencies and certain factions of the population would like to separate Catalonia from Spain, in order to establish the region as a separate, independent country. Catalan language plays a part in this discussion; sometimes the language is used to make a point, to prove that Catalonia has its own cultural identity.

Sometimes Barcelona suffers from an unfair reputation, whereby people say that the Catalan’s do not welcome Spanish speakers at all. As a blanket generalisation this is not true. The fact remains that a vast number of Catalans identify themselves as being Spanish, many feel proud to be both Spanish and Catalan at the same time and equally many believe that Catalonia is an integral part of the whole country.

In those cases where people feel strongly about Catalan independence, most are only interested in a pacific, democratic debate, albeit it sometimes a passionate one. Either way, studying in Barcelona will not only teach you new Spanish language skills, but also give you an invaluable insight into both Spanish and Catalan culture, politics and history.

So is it possible to learn Castilian Spanish in Barcelona?

Absolutely. To remind you of the facts, 98% of Barcelona’s population speaks Spanish, even if they also speak Catalan as a first or second language. Road signs, media and public information are always supplied in both Spanish and Catalan. You’ll always have far more options in terms of Spanish speaking or bilingual people, and places to visit, than those that present Catalan as the only communication option. And if you were to encounter a person or an establishment where only Catalan is spoken, the odds are that Spanish will still be at least understood.

Should I study Catalan too, alongside Spanish?

Yes, if you want to. However, it is always advisable to study one language at a time, especially if you are a beginner, because otherwise you could get very confused between the two. If learning Spanish is your main aim, keep that on the top of your list for now. Later on, when you get to a more proficient standard, and especially if you’re considering living and working in Barcelona, learning at least some Catalan on top of Spanish is probably a good idea.

I’m thinking of spending a long time in Barcelona. Which is better, Spanish or Catalan?

“Better” can only be defined according to what you ultimately need the language for. If you are marrying a Catalan person, and their family only speaks Catalan, you might want to make that your top priority! If you’re offered a job in Barcelona, and your new boss wants you to learn Catalan, you should obviously do it. However, Catalonia being in Spain, you’ll definitely need Spanish also.

Additionally, the fact remains, that Spain is the third-most spoken language in the world, used by approximately 406 million people globally through Spain and Latin America, while Catalan is a language spoken by about 7 million people in a relatively small western-European area. So unless you personal or professional needs dictate it, in the long term, Spanish may be the more useful language, especially if you’re planning to travel, study or work in Spanish-speaking countries, or get involved with Spanish-speaking business or communities in your own country.