Illustration by Kat Cameron
Arriving in Catalunya, it’s easy to see Catalan as nothing more than an inconvenience, even an obstruction to your Castilian skills. But for anyone wanting to fit in and understand Catalan culture, speaking Catalan is useful, if not vital. Luckily, you should soon find that a little goes a very long way; even memorising a few phrases is often enough to impress, and certainly makes you feel like less of a clueless guiri. But be warned, once you get the Catalan bug, it might be hard to shake off.
After all, the most ordinary of Catalan words are laden with mouth-filling, tongue-twisting pleasure, from the juicy papallona (butterfly) and farmaciola (first-aid kit) to the joyful sybillance of xiuxiuejar (to whisper). And who could fail to love the touchingly tender verb acaronar (to lovingly pull someone close, protect and caress them), virtually untranslatable in its subtlety and recently voted as Catalans’ favourite word in newspaper El Periódico de Catalunya.
OK, so maybe Catalan has its advantages, but learning any new language takes times and effort. So what are the best ways to get started? There’s always the Generalitat’s free basic courses, but timetables and places are limited, and besides, going back to school isn’t for everyone. We take a look at some alternative ways to get to grips with Catalan.
It might seem a bit of a slog to read in Catalan, but if you’re already comfortable reading in Castilian, why not try El Periódico de Catalunya, which publishes twin editions daily in Castilian and Catalan (as will La Vanguardia from next month). A couple of euros will buy you both versions, perfect for a leisurely few hours comparing the two languages while getting your fill of current affairs.
If fiction is more your thing, be sure to pick up a copy of All Angles, a brand new two-volume anthology of short stories published this month by Arola Editors. Each of the two books contains seven original short stories printed side by side in English and Catalan, making it easy to keep track of what’s going on even if your Catalan isn’t the best. More than two years in the making, the books arose from various creative writing groups around Catalunya. All of the authors are based here, some born-and-bred Catalans and others more recent arrivals, while each story is connected to the region through its themes or characters. Stories were written in English and translated into Catalan by a team of dedicated translators, who gave up their time for free. They even persuaded Catalan broadcasting legend and TV3’s Washington correspondent Antoni Bassas to provide the foreword. The first volume, ‘Big Magic’ (€15), is out this month to coincide with Sant Jordi, while the second should make the perfect stocking-filler come Christmas 2011.
Language Exchange/Time Bank
Most foreigners living in Barcelona have tried a language exchange at some point during their stay. After all, exchanges are easy to set up with workmates or friends, or by trawling through the thousands of online ads on Loquo or LingoBongo, but such casual exchanges are just as easy to neglect. So if your willpower is waning, you could try signing up for an official language exchange through Voluntariat per la Llengua. This offshoot of the Consorci Per la Normalització Lingüística (CPNL or Language Policy Association, which organises the Generalitat’s free Catalan classes) takes note of when you’re free and pairs you up with a volunteer. CPNL centres also organise regular group meet-ups and activities for voluntaris, such as discounted cinema tickets or countryside walks. The Voluntariat demands a minimum commitment of an hour a week over 10 weeks, although of course you can do more if you’re keen. Kicked off in 2002 by just 38 volunteers in Cornellà del Llobregat, in 2010 the scheme saw more than 10,000 pairs take part. Over the years, Catalan actors and politicians have rubbed shoulders with language learners in the 52,248 couples that have successfully participated.
If all that sounds a little too regimented, the flexibility of a Time Bank may hold more appeal. Celebrating 10 years in Barcelona this year, Banc del Temps was originally set up as a support system exclusively for women, but the idea quickly expanded into a project promoting the exchange of skills within communities. It was piloted in the Horta-Guinardó district, and that first centre has since been joined by Time Banks in Gràcia, Ciutat Vella and Raval, among others. We’ve all heard the old expression ‘time is money’, but in a Banc del Temps, an hour of your time really is currency. The basic idea is that of community volunteering, doing anything from taking a dog for a walk, tutoring a child in English or picking up prescriptions for an elderly person. But for every hour you give, you earn an hour’s credit, to be spent on whatever other people are offering—which could easily include Catalan classes. A neat way of doing your bit and getting back more than just a warm glow.
Internet and TV
If you prefer the idea of learning in the comfort of your own home, try the parla.cat website, backed by the Generalitat, Institut Ramon Llull and the CPNL. Available in Castilian, English, French and German, this colourful website offers free Catalan-learning resources. If you need some extra motivation, €90 will get you an online tutor to help you through the course. After you sign up, you can take a short test to assess your level, then you can choose a course and browse through the site’s catalogue of exercises to help you perfect your grammar, reading, writing and listening. Even better, visit Parla’s ‘virtual Rambla’, which offers a huge range of Catalan newspapers and radio stations online, music and video clips with transcriptions to follow, interactive games and a chat where you can practise your newfound skills with other learners.
And if all that still sounds like too much effort, why not put your laziness to good use with a bit of language practice as you lounge in front of the telly? Catalunya’s main television channels TV3 and 33 are known for high-quality documentaries and decent comedy—at least, compared to the rest of Spanish television’s mirthless slapstick. Watch out for the chaotic current affairs and entertainment round-up Alguna Pregunta Més? (‘Any More Questions?’), and the Spitting Image-style caricatures of the politics-themed Polònia and its sporting counterpart, Crackòvia. Catalan subtitles should be available on all programmes (and some even have English subtitles), and if it’s still too hard to follow, the digital TV signal means you can switch to original-language audio for any foreign shows. Watching The IT Crowd or The Inbetweeners in English with Catalan subtitles might seem like the easy option, but it will at least teach you a few choice items of vocabulary. You never know when a couple of Catalan swear words might come in handy!
Consorci Per la Normalització Lingüística—for details about the Generalitat’s Catalan courses, visit www.cpnl.cat
Voluntariat per la Llengua—sign up for an intercanvi at www.vxl.cat
Banc del Temps—find contact information about the different neighbourhood ‘banks’ on www.bcn.cat