I first came into contact with Catalan after meeting Marta, who is now my wife, in Rome (see How I got here part II). Although her English was excellent, somehow when you fall in love with someone who speaks another language the natural thing seems to be to learn it. So almost the first thing I did when I got back to England was to buy a book for learning the language and I started working through it, a little at a time. It’s amazing what real motivation can do for your language learning, and there’s no stronger motivation than love. My learning improved still further when Marta sent me a full Catalan course, with cassettes, but it still took a while before I had the confidence to try using the language.
When I finally arrived in Catalonia to live, I was initially completely lost, able to understand very little anyone said to me. I managed to fix that only by listening very hard to other people’s conversations, watching a lot of television and deciding it didn’t matter if I made mistakes. Only in this way did I improve my understanding and gradually became more fluent.
People who know nothing about Catalan have some strange ideas about it. I certainly did. Some will tell you it’s a dialect of Spanish or a kind of mixture between Spanish and French. While it’s true that anyone who knows Spanish or French, or even Italian, will recognise elements of them in Catalan, it is most definitely its own language, as different from those three languages as they are from each other. Nor is it really any different from the language referred to as Valencian, however much some might swear the two are separate. In fact, there is probably less difference between Catalan and Valencian (or the version of Catalan spoken on the Balearic Islands of Mallorca, Menorca and Ibiza) than there is between the versions of English spoken north and south of the Scottish border. Any distinction is made purely for political reasons by those wishing to belittle the Catalan language.
Those who haven’t heard Catalan might wonder what it sounds like. Well, one of the mistakes I initially made was pronouncing Catalan a bit like French – at the time the only foreign language I knew – which to a native speaker sounds as if you are torturing it. As I soon discovered, Catalan has very few silent letters and its vowels are quite pure. But because it doesn’t share the propensity of Spanish or Italian to end the majority of words in a vowel, the overall effect of Catalan when you hear it is quite staccato. If you want to hear some, you can go to the Catalan television station website here.
Catalan is used all over the place in Catalonia. It isn’t one of those languages you see on road signs and never hear. The problem for me came in knowing when to use it. As a foreigner speaking Catalan, my problem was that anyone hearing me instantly assumed that if I’d bothered to learn Catalan at all, my Spanish must be very good, and switched instantly into that language. This was usually done with the best of intentions, because Catalans generally want to be understood by foreigners (tales of them deliberately speaking their own language to confuse and mock non-speakers are almost certainly apocryphal). But for me it was the worst thing that could happen. I’d just switched my brain into trying to tune into one language and here they were hitting me with another one. I was generally either left speechless or ended up speaking a hopeless muddle of Catalan and Spanish. So for a long time I stopped speaking Catalan when I went into shops or to had ask for anything, finding Spanish a much safer bet. Now, though, I can handle a mid-conversation language change, and I can even usually tell if the person switching is a Catalan trying to be polite or a Spanish-only speaker who simply doesn’t understand me.
That leads me the question of why anyone should bother to learn Catalan in the first place. After all, everyone in Catalonia speaks Spanish too, don’t they? Well, yes they do, but that doesn’t mean Catalan is redundant. Take my situation, for instance. My wife’s family are Catalan speakers. If necessary, they would have used Spanish to make things easier for me. But that would have meant them either having to change the language of their own conversations when I was there, or carrying on using Catalan among themselves, leaving me excluded. Either way, my relationship with them would have been completely different had I not learned to understand and speak their own language.
As a translator, too, apart from the work that being able to translate from Catalan has brought me, I’ve found it is a key to an inner world – not one deliberately concealed from outsiders, but a natural, normal community of people who speak the same language. To many of my customers, just being able to communicate with me in the language that comes most naturally to them is a bonus, and I’m convinced it has helped me build relationships with many of them. So even if I didn’t work with languages and enjoy language, I have no doubt that learning Catalan would have been a great benefit.
If you want to see the Catalan version of my website, you can go here. The next blog in this series will talk about Spanish.