“No hablo catala. Puedamos hablar en español?” Many times this request for Catalans to speak Spanish is met by a couple of minutes of Spanish followed by a couple of hours of incomprehensible Catalan or occasionally by an outright Catalan “no”. This can leave Spanish-speaking foreigners, isolated, unable to understand, first, the conversation and, second, why Spanish speakers won’t speak Spanish.
For many international people, explaining that they can’t speak in Catalan but could instead speak in Spanish, seems a completely reasonable suggestion. To start with, Catalan is spoken by an estimated 9 million people whereas 350 million speak Spanish as their first language: naturally, more people can speak Spanish as a second language. Secondly, from a foreigner’s perspective at least, Girona is in Spain and therefore it doesn’t seem wrong to ask a Spaniard if they could speak Spanish. But having lived in Girona for over six months now, I’m beginning to understand why some Catalans are reluctant to speak Spanish.
First, the choice to speak Catalan or Castilian (Spanish) is political. Throughout history, the Catalan language has come under attack time and again and consequently many Catalans feel a strong need to protect their language. Most recently, under Franco’s dictatorship (ending just 42 years ago), the Catalan language was banned in all public spaces. This means that all Catalans aged 50 or over are likely to remember a time when Catalan was banned, Catalonia was marginalised and children were beaten at school simply for using their mother tongue. When you look at it like this, my request that someone speak Spanish to me no longer seems quite so innocent.
It’s super political
Indeed, many Catalans would argue that this attack on the Catalan language continues today. In particular, the strong Catalan Independence movement considers protecting the Catalan language as crucial to protecting and strengthening Catalan identity. On top of this, the central Spanish government continues to put pressure on Catalonia to invest more education time on Spanish rather than Catalan: a linguistic attack which feels hauntingly familiar to many Catalans.
Not everyone is bilingual
In fact, it is said that by the time Catalans leave school, education data shows that their Spanish equals that of students elsewhere in Spain. However, this is not to say that all Catalans are comfortable or even fluent in Castilian. One reason that I think some Catalans won’t speak Spanish to you is simply that they feel unable. (However, this is normally only the case with those from extremely rural areas).
Conversely, having lived in a mix-pot of Catalan and Castilian, some Catalans are so comfortable with both languages that they are almost unaware of the difference. This is because Catalan-speakers are used to communicating perfectly through speaking Catalan and listening to Spanish replies. This is true in cafés, shops and, most importantly, families with Spanish immigrants. A child might grow up at a bilingual dinner table where the mother speaks Catalan, the father replies in Spanish and everyone understands. This means that Catalans often don’t realise how hard it is for Castilian-speaking foreigners to understand Catalan and also that Catalans may switch between the two without realising. Catalan – Castilian – Castilian – Catalan… You can see how the languages could begin to blur.
Bearing all of this in mind, asking a Catalan to speak in Spanish to me no longer seems so simple. I mean, imagine if a Catalan friend asked me to speak in American English because they had studied American English. (And y’all imagine that I was capable of speaking in an American accent and lingo too!) Firstly, I wouldn’t want to: I’m not American! The British define themselves as different to Americans just like some Catalans define themselves as different to Spaniards. Secondly, I would quickly switch back to the language I am most familiar with. And finally, I would forget how difficult British accents are if you’re not familiar with them. Or imagine, you asked a Kiwi to speak in an Australian accent. Or an Austrian to speak with a German accent… The list goes on. When you look at it this way, it seems completely normal and reasonable for a Catalan to speak in Catalan to foreigners.
Note: Please note that this article includes lots of generalisations and stereotypes. I have no wish to offend anyone but it is very difficult to talk about differences between people without generalising. Many Catalan people that I meet and many Catalan friends are incredibly patient with my poor Castilian, … or my English. It is as a result of conversations with many Catalans that I now understand the complexities of the Catalan-Castilian dynamic: I’m certainly still no expert.