What is Catalan and how widely is it spoken?

Catalan isn’t a dialect of Spanish, it is a separate language which in many respects is as close to French as it is to Spanish. The Catalan government has spent a lot of money trying to increase the number of people who speak Catalan. Not surprisingly, some students have written to us asking whether Catalan could interfere with their Spanish studies. The answer is generally “no”.

Our centres in Barcelona teach Spanish, not Catalan and our host families will also speak Spanish (not Catalan) to them. Students may overhear some conversations in Catalan, but they are equally likely to overhear conversations in English, French, Arabic or Italian – Barcelona is a very cosmopolitan city!

According to a recent survey, over 67% of the people in Barcelona consider Spanish to be their first language. In small towns and villages Catalan is more widely spoken but in Barcelona, because of a long history of immigration from other parts of Spain, the dominant language is very definitely Spanish. Five of the seven television channels currently available broadcast in Spanish, and all the leading newspapers – including those published in Barcelona – are also written in Spanish. What’s more, everyone in Barcelona automatically uses Spanish to speak to foreign students as they don’t expect them to know any Catalan, so there is very little danger of students being asked to understand anything other than Spanish while they are here.

The only issue is that many signs (including street signs and many shop fronts and the occasional menu) are written in Catalan (most menus and advertisements are in Spanish or are bilingual) and students may find this confusing. Reading signs is a valuable part of the learning process (especially for beginners and elementary students) , and those with an intermediate level or above will tend to be able to distinguish between Spanish and Catalan signs. Those with a lower level, though, should be aware that, in this area and only in this area, they will be slightly disadvantaged when comparing Barcelona with other destinations.

Finally, it is also worth bearing in mind that all Catalans are totally bilingual and that they speak Spanish without any noticeable accent. So what the Spanish students will hear in Barcelona is in fact much closer to normal or “correct” Castilian Spanish than the Spanish they would hear in some other regions of Spain where Spanish is often spoken with a very strong regional accent.

More about Spanish courses in Barcelona

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