Life in a polylingual society
Three months ago we arrived in Barcelona, and since then it’s been a bit of a whirlwind as I’ve been traveling a ton: three trips to Germany, three to London, one to the US, and two to Madrid (as an aside, congrats to Spain for getting high speed trains working between their major centers of population, they should send someone to the UK to explain). It’s all been a bit chaotic, especially when you add in the usual bureaucratic joy of getting set up in a new country; things like getting a bank account, tax number, etc, etc.
So far it’s good fun, but between all that and work on various projects, the one thing that has slipped off the todo list is a structured attempt at learning Spanish. But on the positive side this has given me the chance to reflect a bit more on my language learning strategy, which in turn has even opened the question of which language to learn.
Life in Barcelona, at least the realm I inhabit, is delightfully polylingual. In the shops everything is written in Catalan, about 50% of the time there is also Spanish, and sometimes (with increasing frequency as you enter the main tourist areas) there is also some form of English, often delightfully badly translated. With my children I speak only German, and they go to a German / Spanish / Catalan nursery. And the vast majority of my work is in English. Barcelona is home to a large and very diverse expat community with whom I speak English and German. So it’s a crazy mix, all day and with everyone.
My initial thought was of course to learn Spanish as it is a global language, but I am increasingly less certain. The Catalans are very into their language and identity (as well they should be - if they don’t speak Catalan, who else will?). My wife speaks reasonable Spanish, and many of her conversations in that language end with the other participate gently chiding her to learn Catalan. In our neighbourhood the vast majority of writing we see is in Catalan, you will read more written Spanish in California. The local state primary schools are all in Catalan, if you want your child to learn Spanish you need to send him/her to a private school. So in our day to day life there is definitely more momentum behind Catalan. As several people have been kind enough to insistingly inform me, Catalan is not a dialect or offshoot of Spanish, but rather a Latin-derived sibling the same way Portuguese, Italian and French are. I have no illusions that I will become a fluent Catalan (or Spanish) speaker, my goal is in a year’s time to just be able to get through the tasks of daily life.
Relatedly the last few weeks I’ve been reading Amitav Ghosh’s excellent Ibis trilogy, which is a captivating story while also being a delightful exploration of languages and pidgins set in India and China in the 1830s. You should read it.
So far I’m really enjoying the linguistic diversity of Barcelona. Life in London was very international, it is one of the most diverse places on earth,but it felt very different simply by virtue of being all in English (or perhaps that was my perception by virtue of being a native English speaker) Here it is much more of a mix, more akin to places I have visited in India, where having some level of ability in three-four languages is the norm across all classes of society. And those languages are mixed, sometimes even in the same conversation. Itis not just multilingual, but polylingual
So let me know, should I dive into espanol o catala first?