Before I left the United States, one of my biggest worries about living in Barcelona was the perceived language barrier—not with Spanish, a language I’ve been studying since I was twelve, but with the wildcard language of Catalan. When I arrived, I was terrified to discover that all of the street signs are printed in Catalan and the news we watch at night is delivered in Catalan. Yet I’ve found that my host family and everyone I meet speaks Spanish (or, as I’ll refer to it in the rest of this post, Castilian) to me when they discover I need it. The Catalan on the street signs looks enough like Castilian to get by. On the second night we were here in Barcelona, my host parents changed the channel to the national news, delivered in Castilian.
What, then, is the place of Catalan in a place where Castilian does just as well? As I learned about Catalonian history and the long tradition of pride and independence, suffering through the agony of the repression under Franco, I guessed that there was some element of nationalistic and cultural pride that motivates people like my host father to intentionally speak to his one-year-old grandson in Catalan so that the little one grows up knowing it. What factors characterize this pride? Does speaking Catalan in Catalonia make a difference for an individual?
During most of the 20th century, beginning in 1939 under the dictatorship of Francisco Franco, the learning and speaking of Catalan was informal if not illegal. Public policies mandated the learning and use of Castilian as regional languages and cultures were repressed until the death of Franco in 1975. Both Spanish Constitution of 1978 and the 1979 Catalan Statute of Autonomy establish the legal framework for the use of Catalan in Catalonia. At the beginning of the 1980s, the Catalonian government created language policies called normalització that replaced Castilian with Catalan in schools, public administration, and public media, first with the 1983 Act for Linguistic Normalization and then with the Linguistic Policy Act in 1998.
As a foreign exchange student living in Barcelona for a little over three months, I’m in a unique position caught somewhere between tourist and resident. Some of my own experiences attempting to speak Castilian and being met with English have given me insight into the amplified frustration more permanent immigrants feel as they attempt to integrate. In some of my discussions with my language partner, a student at my host university who grew up in Catalonia speaking both Castilian and Catalan, we’ve talked about the ability of immigrants to integrate into Catalonia. It’s a difficult balance, we agreed, for individuals coming from other cultures to maintain their own culture yet contribute to a healthy, unified Catalonia. In the high value that Catalonians assign to the Catalan language, I see the aftereffect of many years of fear that it would disappear. Now, to truly “belong,” one has to show that they, too, are committed to making sure Catalonia and Catalan endures.
The world awaits…discover it.