Pablo Pariente de Torre
Miquel Hudin (L) with his intercanvi partner, Jordi
A year ago I set out to learn Catalan for both personal and professional reasons. Being married to a Catalan, I had been speaking Castilian with her family and friends ever since moving to Spain and it generally worked, but as Castilian is a second language for most Catalans, all conversations seemed a bit artificial and with the family dog, impossible. Then, of course, professionally, when visiting and writing about the wines of Catalunya, I’d found that about 98 percent of the winery owners were native Catalan speakers. So putting aside the whole issue of Catalan independence, Castilian being ‘more useful’, and knowing my fluency would never be that of a native speaker, I made the decision to learn Catalan in order to not be a tourist in the place that I call home.
I can understand why many choose not to learn Catalan, especially if you are only planning to stay in Catalunya for a short time and even more so if you are a native English speaker. But jumping off the Catalan language cliff, you will find that your descent is nicely cushioned by local institutions and Catalan people who are extremely grateful and encouraging that you’ve taken an interest in their language.
There are several options for studies, but the Consorci per a la Normalització Lingüística (CPNL) lays out the way quite well and is the group I started with. There is the Introductory class for learning the rudiments of the language if you’ve never had any exposure to it. Then you get in to the more advanced Bàsic (B) Level classes and eventually move onwards to complete fluency that qualifies you to work in government jobs (see below for info about the different levels and corresponding certificates on offer). But, before they let you register for any classes, you have to take a placement exam.
I floundered badly on both the verbal and written parts of this exam. Of course, that’s the point, in that they want to see how much you do and don’t understand of the language to know what’s the best fit for you. Despite hearing a lot of Catalan (and just hearing the language casually does not mean you understand it, despite popular belief), I ultimately placed in the middle of the B Level, but the woman giving the test recommended that I started at the first class given that I was missing core language components such as knowing the difference between all the damnable present and immediately past tenses that exist in Latin-based languages.
When and where to start the classes wasn’t a problem as they offer a multitude of classes at all times of the day, in multiple areas of Barcelona (as well as other municipalities in Catalunya) with a new cycle starting every week or so. Even moving into the B2 and B3 classes where there is a 50 percent attrition rate from B1 (many people think that attending just B1 gives them ‘certification’ and stop when they find out there are two more to gain the A2 certificate), they still have plenty of classes available for a myriad of schedules.
Rarely are the good things in life actually free but these classes cost essentially nothing. I say ‘essentially’ because while the Introductory and B Level classes are free to attend, there is a book to buy for each one that is about €12. For me, that’s incredibly affordable for what is either an eight-week regular or four-week intense course. The Elemental Level (E) courses that follow the B Level have a cost of €35 for each eight-week course (or four-week intensive class), which again seems like a veritable bargain.
What can you expect from these classes? This falls in to the age-old adage that you get as much from the courses as you put in. Learning any secondary language as an adult is not easy. It’s been proven that we learn languages best when children. Obviously it’s not impossible to learn them later in life, but you’ll have to put in a lot of work to make it happen and that’s one of the encouraging aspects of the classes in that you’re surrounded by a group of people with a vested interest in learning Catalan, as well as the local Catalans regularly telling you that you speak the language well no matter what level you’re at.
The students in these classes are from every continent and make for a very international student body. Given that Spain has been (at least prior to 2008) a magnet for immigration from Spanish-speaking countries, the dominant group tend to be people from South and Central America. But tossed in to this are others from Asia, Africa and every country in Europe. It’s also important to point out that despite the ardent message from the ‘This is Spain, we speak Spanish here’ group, at least 20 percent of all my classes were comprised of non-Catalan-speaking Spaniards. In every class, I was the only native English speaker, which was unsurprising given the perceived world dominance of my mother tongue.
Beyond the classes, though, if you aren’t getting a lot of exposure to Catalan outside the classroom, the CPNL has supplemental programmes because they know that as a new speaker of a language, it’s easy to have a great deal of shame in speaking poorly which makes it hard to engage with others—especially when most people in the classes can easily switch back to Castilian. In addition to various get-togethers, the CPNL also has the ‘Voluntariat per la llengua’ programme wherein native Catalan speakers are paired with students to have a one-on-one conversation for an hour and help them work through the language without feeling the pressure of the teacher asking them a question in front of the rest of the class. Despite having a lot of exposure through family and work, I took advantage of this as well and met up with a cheerful fellow named Jordi from Barceloneta. Over various meetings at the new Mercat del Born and local cafés, we chatted about everyday aspects of life and it helped a great deal to make my conversations more fluid.
Ultimately, taking on the goal of learning a language requires a lot of work. But, beyond the personal satisfaction of understanding the lyrics of Gossos’ ‘Corren’, the rewards of being able to speak it will come on many levels as the Catalans will see you as someone who isn’t just passing through on a budget flight but plans to stay here for a while.
Consorci per a la Normalització Lingüistica: www.cpnl.cat