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Bona sort or bona drag - the Catalan conundrum

Por: | 16 de enero de 2012


There comes a time in the life of every foreigner who lives in Catalonia when he or she must decide whether to confront the Catalan language head on or run scared from the curiously “x” filled beast.

It’s probably fair to say that for anyone living in a big town or city you’re unlikely to ever need Catalan, in the strictest sense of the word: people may prefer you to speak it but you’ll still be able to buy your daily bread, order a drink, chat to the locals and even deal with Catalan bureaucracy without speaking a word of Catalan.

What’s more, if you speak Spanish or French you will most likely be able to get the gist of spoken and written Catalan, even if the subtleties escape you.

On the other hand – and without wanting to fan the Catalan independence debate - there should be no doubt to even the most casual visitor to Catalonia that Catalan is the number one language here.

This, I must be honest, surprised me, as there simply isn’t an equivalent in Britain. The UK might have five native languages – English, Welsh, Scottish Gaelic, Scots and Cornish – but even the most widespread of these, Welsh, only has around 600,000 native speakers.  Catalan, by contrast, has 11.5m, far more than the population of Catalonia itself.

So while Glasgow’s main train station may well have its Scottish Gaelic name on the welcome signs (Glaschu in case you’re interested), this seems more of a heritage exercise – albeit a very noble one – than a part of every-day life.

In Catalonia, Catalan is a living, breathing language that people speak simply because, well, that’s what they speak, rather than through a desire to preserve a particular culture or through wilful obstinacy.

Nevertheless, for the average monolingual English speaker, the ease with which Catalans flick from Catalan to Spanish can be quite fascinating.

For most British people a second language is something that has to be learned in school through rote and repetition or picked up painfully using text books. Speaking a second language typically requires intense mental effort in a culture that – sadly –doesn’t see the value in multilingualism.

For most Catalans, however, speaking Spanish seems to take no effort at all. So much so, in fact, that many of them couldn’t even tell you when they learned Spanish. It was just sort of there, on the TV or in the playground and somehow seeped in.

Many is the time I’ve seen a conversation among Catalans flip from Spanish to Catalan as I leave the room, then back to Spanish as I return, with little more than the flicker of an eyelid. I’ve seen Catalans talk to other Catalans in Catalan and Catalans talk to other Catalans in Spanish in much the same circumstances and they can’t really tell you why.

Indeed, for many Catalans, the Spanish language seems to operate in a weird shadow zone somewhere in between mother tongue and foreign language but somehow not quite either.

For a Brit, struggling with a table of irregular verbs and baffling tenses, it’s a hugely impressive sight. For anyone with even a passing interest in linguistics, it goes to show what a bafflingly complex thing language is, far beyond the simple use of words and grammar to convey set meanings.

In the end, I’m sure I could go on living in Barcelona for many years without learning a word of Catalan. Catalan people are, in my experience, eminently practical and if they need to speak Spanish or English they will.

But they are also justifiably proud of their language and culture - and not without reason: in an ever-shrinking world, where one language drops out of existence every two weeks and where English is omnipotent, the Catalan language stands as a symbol for thriving linguistic and cultural diversity.

So that’s why I’ll be knuckling down for my first Catalan lesson this very Wednesday. Wish me good luck, buena suerte or even bona sort. Quite frankly I’ll need it.

Photo: Alexandra Sans Masso

Hay 10 Comentarios

It is very fascinating, You’re a very professional blogger. I’ve joined your feed and look ahead to in search of more of your excellent post.

Well this kind of information is really worth searching for, good information for readers and a value for you as will definitely show the quality of the writer. It’s good to have these kinds of articles around to keep the information flow steady. Helping those who really can make things right in the future, good work!

I live in a small village in Catalunya and - as I'm learning Spanish but surrounded by Catalan - I'm absorbing both Spanish and Catalan words (eg obert/abierto, dilluns/lunes, molt be/muy bien). Rather than making me into a linguistic genius it means that I'm usually pretty confused about how to put a sentence together.

Although I'm concentrating on learning Spanish at the moment, it's crucial to have at least some understanding of Catalan as most official communications are in Catalan, as well as conversations in the bar and the hairdresser.

Sadly, many foreigners who live in Catalunya not only run scared from Catalan, but Spanish too, believing that it's going to be impossible to learn Catalan (full of x's as Ben points out) and there's no point in learning Spanish as the locals don't want to speak it anyway.

I'm going to persevere with the Spanish - our neighbours, contrary to popular opinion, are only too happy to chat in whichever language we all find easiest - and perhaps one day move on to Catalan - if I'm feeling brave!

Sorry, I can´t find "alarmistic" in the dictionary. Is that catalán?

Un comentario para cuchillero: I think your vision of the catalan issue -if I have understood it properly- is quite alarmistic. I've lived for years and the most tricky linguistic situations are gone; as the blogger says, most of the catalan-speakers speak it normally without any major problem, or without any need to make it a symbol or anything. They just speak it. An the Catalan you think is a mixed-up or corrupt version of the "pure" or "original" is Catalan too, just the alive version of that nonexistent pure one.

Have you been living in Catalonia for long? It seems to me that's not the case, maybe I'm wrong though. As a catalan myself I can tell you another story. Catalan language was preserved and confined in the past to rural areas as Castilian or Spanish was prevailing by force and not persuasion for ages. Once "devolution" happened the task of reviving our language was the obssesive core motto for the catalan administration. The effort has been taken so far and so seriously hard that many second generation natives were truely pushed out of the fringes. And virtually they are accounting for more than half of the population feeling themselves sometimes treated in a quite similar way as for those catalans before democracy. Anyway, Britons and other nationals, letting apart Spaniards, fare better and are well respected. Don´t get fooled, most of these Catalan speakers do actually speak Spanish at home with their children, the higher the class the more frequent. You aren't aware yet as a foreigner but most of the times, what you take as Catalan is actually a poor mix-up shadow of what it should be, never mind the written skills which are generally appalling. Keep me a secret please; recent published but not broadly circulated official research shows that despite the huge investment and effort poured in the system for years, the prevailing language in schoolyard is Castillian. Et desitjo lo millor amb el teu projecte d'aprendre català però ja t'avanço, que no es gens facil.

Bravo. I salute your linguistic bravery.

Hola Ben,
Felicidades por el artículo.
Me encantaróa leer uno sobre tus experiencias gastrónomicas en Barcelona.
abrazo desde NY

Hello Marcial,

"Bona drag" is the title of a Morrissey album, which itself is a play on words, referencing Polari, an old gay slang language.

Also drag = bore, so it´s all an elaborate play on words.

Does that make any sense at all?

Great post, but I still don't know what's "bona drag"...
Anyhow, as a Catalan, I think this post is an excellent summary of the linguistic issue in Catalonia. Congrats, and good luck with the lessons!

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Authors (Bloggers)

Chris Finnigan is a freelance journalist based in Barcelona. He writes for Barcelona Metropolitan and is a book reviewer and reader for The Barcelona Review. He is a graduate of the London School of Economics. You can find him on twitter @chrisjfinnigan

Ben Cardew is a freelance journalist, translator and teacher, now resident in Barcelona after growing up gracefully in Scotland via Norwich. He writes for The Guardian, the NME and The Quietus, among others, on everything from music to digital media. You can find him on Twitter @bencardew

Fiona Flores Watson is a freelance journalist, guide and translator who has lived in Seville since 2003, and has been a writer and editor for more than 20 years. She writes for the Guardian, Telegraph and Sunday Times Travel Magazine. Originally from Essex, Fiona is also Consulting Editor of and has her own blog, Scribbler in Seville. She has been contributing to Trans-Iberian since 2014 and tweets at @Seville_Writer

Jeff Brodsky is a freelance writer. He arrived in Barcelona in 2013 via an admittedly indirect route, living in Chicago, Arizona, Seville, Amsterdam, North Carolina and Madrid. Despite not having stepped foot in Seville for over five years, he still speaks Spanish with an Andalusian accent. Jeff’s writing has been published in newspapers and magazines in America and Europe.

Koren Helbig is an Australian freelance journalist and blogger enjoying a life of near-eternal sunshine in Alicante. She writes for publications in Australia, the United States and the United Kingdom, focusing on stories exploring smart and positive approaches to social issues. She hangs out on Twitter at @KorenHelbig and keeps a selection of her favourite stories at

Julie Pybus lives in a small off-grid house on a hillside in Catalunya. She usually focuses on helping charities and social enterprises with their publications and websites, but has also written for The Guardian, Country Living and The Observer. Julie launched and runs a hyperlocal website which endeavors to increase understanding between the different nationalities in her area @JuliePybus

Paul Louis Archer is a freelance photographer, multimedia storyteller and artist educator. A cross-disciplinary worker, who endeavors to encompass the mediums of photography, audio design and writing. Born in Hertfordshire of an English father and Spanish mother. Based in the United Kingdom. @PaulLouisArcher

Vicki McLeod is a freelance writer and photographer. She has lived in Mallorca since 2004. Vicki writes about her beloved island for The Majorca Daily Bulletin, the only daily English language paper in Spain; produces regular columns for the Euro Weekly News, and articles for Vicki runs PR strategies for several businesses in Mallorca and London as well as working on her own blogs and projects. She and her husband, Oliver Neilson, supply photo and text content for private clients via @phoenixmediamlr. She tweets at @mcleod_vicki.

Born in Newcastle upon Tyne and based in Barcelona, Alx Phillips writes about contemporary art, dance and theatre in a way that human beings can understand. For more previews, reviews, interviews and extras, check:


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