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Navigating the Language Labyrinth in Catalunya: To Learn Spanish or Catalan?

Navigating the Language Labyrinth in Catalunya: To Learn Spanish or Catalan?


Moving to a new country is a thrilling adventure, brimming with opportunities and challenges. For those who have relocated to Catalunya, the question of language often becomes a central focus. Catalunya’s unique bilingual landscape—where both Spanish and Catalan hold significant roles—can leave newcomers feeling overwhelmed. Disregarding the political ramifications of this bilingualism, we will delve into the practical and emotional aspects of learning either language. We will also explore the particular challenges faced by different age groups and offer strategies to overcome the common fears associated with language learning.

The Bilingual Dilemma: Spanish or Catalan?

Catalunya’s linguistic duality presents a fascinating yet perplexing choice for internationals: should one learn Spanish or Catalan? While Spanish is spoken widely across Spain and much of Latin America, Catalan is deeply rooted in the local culture and is an integral part of everyday life in Catalunya. The decision often hinges on personal and professional goals, social integration, and the specific region within Catalunya.

Spanish: The Global Language

Learning Spanish offers the advantage of connecting with a broader global community. As the second most spoken language in the world by native speakers, Spanish opens doors to numerous countries and cultures. For those whose work or social circles extend beyond Catalunya, mastering Spanish can be immensely beneficial.

Catalan: The Local Gem

On the other hand, Catalan is the heart and soul of Catalunya. It is the language of local government, all schools barring international schools, and a significant part of the social fabric. Learning Catalan can foster a deeper connection with the local community and demonstrate respect for the region’s unique cultural heritage. For those planning to immerse themselves fully in Catalan life, especially in smaller towns and rural areas, Catalan can be invaluable.

Overcoming the Fear Factor

The prospect of learning a new language can be daunting, especially for adults who may fear making mistakes, appearing foolish, or feeling too old to learn effectively. These fears can be particularly pronounced among early retirees who lack the structured environment of a workplace to encourage language learning. This group can feel especially vulnerable when faced with the challenges of aging and health in a foreign country.

Common Fears and How to Address Them

  1. Fear of Making Mistakes: It’s natural to fear making errors when speaking a new language. However, mistakes are an essential part of the learning process. Embrace them as opportunities to improve. Remember, locals often appreciate the effort and are usually supportive and encouraging.

  2. Feeling Too Old to Learn: Age is not a barrier to learning a new language. Research has shown that adults can be just as successful as younger learners, especially when they have strong motivation and utilize effective learning strategies.

  3. Overwhelm: The sheer volume of vocabulary and grammar rules can be overwhelming. Breaking down the learning process into manageable chunks and setting realistic goals can help. Language apps, online courses, and local language schools can provide structured learning paths.

Tailoring Language Learning to Different Age Groups

Language learning is not a one-size-fits-all endeavor. Different age groups have distinct learning needs and preferences. Language schools could benefit from tailoring their offerings to meet these varied requirements.

Teaching Younger Adults

Younger adults, typically in their 20s and 30s, often have more flexible schedules and may be more tech-savvy. They can benefit from immersive, fast-paced courses that incorporate digital tools and social activities.

Teaching Older Adults

Older adults, particularly those in their 50s and 60s, may prefer a slower pace and more traditional learning methods. They might appreciate a supportive classroom environment with opportunities for practice and repetition. Offering specialized courses for retirees that focus on practical language use in daily life can also be highly beneficial.

The Impact of Language Skills on Social Integration

Language proficiency is crucial for building a social network in a new country. In the Oxford Research Expat Survey 2020, of 1,954 expats in Denmark, the top regret was not learning the local language. Moreover, 51% of respondents believed that better language skills would have extended their stay. This highlights the vital role of language in fostering social connections and overall satisfaction with life abroad.


Building a Social Network

Language skills are tightly correlated with the ability to form meaningful social connections. In the same survey, 45% of expats indicated that a better social network would have made them stay longer. Learning the local language can help internationals connect with neighbours, join local clubs or groups, and participate more fully in community events.

The Commitment to Language Learning

Achieving fluency in a new language requires discipline and dedication. Experts estimate that it takes around 1,000 hours of study to see significant results. This long-term commitment can be challenging to maintain alongside other responsibilities such as work, social life, and navigating bureaucratic systems in a new country.

Setting Realistic Goals

Setting realistic, achievable goals is crucial for maintaining motivation. Whether it’s dedicating a specific amount of time each day to study or focusing on learning vocabulary related to daily activities, small, consistent efforts can lead to substantial progress over time.

The Role of Regrets

Regrets about not learning the local language are common among internationals. However, it’s important to remember that it’s never too late to start. Reflecting on these regrets can provide valuable insights and motivate action. When you’re ready to take the plunge, plan how you want to reach your language goals and take the first step.

Practical Tips for Language Learning

  1. Immerse Yourself: Surround yourself with the language as much as possible. Listen to local radio stations, watch TV shows, and read newspapers or books in the target language.

  2. Practice Speaking: Practice speaking with locals or fellow learners. Language exchange programs and conversation groups can provide valuable practice opportunities.

  3. Use Technology: Leverage language learning apps and online resources. These tools can provide structured lessons, interactive exercises, and opportunities to practice speaking and listening.

  4. Join a Class: Enrol in a language course. Whether it’s an intensive program or a weekly class, formal instruction can provide a solid foundation and help keep you accountable.

  5. Be Patient and Persistent: Language learning is a marathon, not a sprint. Be patient with yourself and stay persistent. Celebrate small victories along the way to stay motivated.

Embrace the Journey

Learning a new language is a challenging yet rewarding journey. For internationals in Catalunya, the decision to learn Spanish or Catalan can significantly impact their experience and integration into the local community. Despite the fears and challenges, the long-term benefits of language proficiency—enhanced social connections, deeper cultural understanding, and greater personal fulfilment—make the effort worthwhile.

Language learning is a deeply personal experience, shaped by individual goals, motivations, and circumstances. Whether you’re a young professional seeking career opportunities, a retiree looking to connect with the local community, or somewhere in between, embracing the journey of language learning can enrich your life in profound ways.

So, when you find yourself at the crossroads of choosing between Spanish and Catalan, remember that both paths offer unique rewards. The key is to start, stay committed, and enjoy the process. It’s never too late to learn, and the journey itself is as valuable as the destination.

If you need some support dealing with all the struggles of making life work in Spain, get in touch, our team of therapists at Therapy in Barcelona are here to assist you on your journey in a foreign culture. 

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