Spanish vs Catalan: Which language should you learn if you live in Barcelona?

Esme Fox
Esme Fox - [email protected]
Spanish vs Catalan: Which language should you learn if you live in Barcelona?
Kristina Spisakova/Pixabay

Foreigners moving to Barcelona often ask whether they should learn Spanish or Catalan in preparation for living in the city.


This can be a tough question to answer, particularly as there are lots of pros for learning both languages, and cons for learning one over the other. There are also lots of strong opinions among the local populations.

Both Catalan and Spanish (or Castellano as it is more often known) are official languages in Barcelona and many residents are bilingual, so ultimately, learning either of them will help you more than English will. 

Many foreigners in Barcelona tend to learn Spanish over Catalan, this may be because they have a base in Spanish already from learning it at school or simply because Spanish is a more widely spoken language.

According to El País, there are a total of 572 million Spanish speakers in the world, of these 477 million are native speakers. This means of course that learning Spanish won’t only help you with your life in Barcelona, but also on your holidays abroad or to different regions in Spain. Your knowledge will also help you if you chose to move to a different city in Spain in the future. 

The Municipal Register of Inhabitants states that, almost half of Barcelona residents were born abroad and one out of five is of foreign nationality. There are in fact, a total of 179 different nationalities living in the city. Because around half of the people in the city did not grow up speaking Catalan at home, Spanish is a good language to communicate with all the foreign-born residents you might meet in the city, as well as Spanish, who born outside of Catalonia.

READ ALSO: Ten colourful Catalan phrases you should learn right now 

Photo: jairojehuel/Pixabay


Learning Spanish will mean you can more easily make friends with Spanish speakers, or those that speak Spanish more than Catalan in social situations. Almost everyone in Barcelona speaks Spanish, so in any situation, whether it’s some admin process you have to go through or you’re asking for help in a shop, if you speak in Spanish, everyone will understand you. Most people will answer you in Spanish too, even if they would usually speak in Catalan.

But what about the other half? Yes, the other 50 percent of Barcelona residents most likely grew up speaking in Catalan. By not learning or speaking Catalan in Barcelona, there will be much of local life that you’ll be missing out on.

One of the most important arguments for learning Catalan over Spanish is from those who have children who attend local schools. Schools in Barcelona are taught mostly in Catalan, with maybe just one or two classes in Spanish, so in order to help your children in their academic careers, Catalan could be very useful, if not invaluable to both them and you.

Barcelona resident Eimear O’Neil says “If you have kids, I’d recommend learning Catalan specifically to help your kids with homework, as many of them struggle more with Catalan than with Spanish. Also, communication from the school, admin and teachers is all in Catalan”.

Speaking Catalan will also mean that you will fit into the local community better, and more quickly too. Many foreigners in Barcelona complain that they don’t have any Catalan friends or that Catalans are closed people who are hard to get to know, but if you make the effort to learn Catalan, you’ll find that it’s very easy to make Catalan friends.

Catalan flag. Photo: Photos_Marta/Pixabay 



Many cultural or theatrical events and festivals in Barcelona are only performed in Catalan, therefore if you want a more enriched cultural experience, then you should learn Catalan in order to understand these more. Venezuelan resident Karina Cova says “Spanish will get you by on a day to day basis, but you must lean Catalan in order to truly absorb and be involved in Catalan culture and society”.

Another part of life you might miss out on by not learning Catalan is your career. If you’re hoping to get a job in one of Barcelona’s many big international or Spanish companies, then of course Spanish will help more, as these companies often operate throughout Spain. However, many jobs in the city will require you to speak both Catalan and Spanish, so there will be lots of jobs you won’t be eligible to apply for, if you only speak Spanish. Also, if you’re looking for jobs such as a waiter, bar or shop work, Catalan will be very helpful. Many locals will only speak to you in Catalan and won’t be very happy if you ask them to repeat their order in Spanish.

Other areas where you'll need to know Catalan include residents' association meetings that might only be conducted in Catalan or filling out important forms that are only written in Catalan. 

Resident Sergio Montilla who grew up in Barcelona sums it up perfectly by saying: “I believe that everyone who experiences the culture that Barcelona offers in its pure state, should learn both Spanish and Catalan. In the end, Barcelona is characterised by its cultural offerings of music, theatre, festivals and history, which connect you to the city. If you study both languages ​​that are spoken here, you will end up loving what surrounds you and you will become more Barcelonian, ​​with a true sense of belonging".



Comments (2)

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editor_476358 2021/04/10 19:33
It's not just Catalan. This probably applies to all of Spain's languages (Basque, Galician, Valencian, Aranese, and even Asturian) That said, from a practical perspective, one really needs about 100-300 words in any of these languages to get by on a daily basis without insulting the locals, order food, and shop.
Anonymous 2020/10/14 23:30
Yep, learning both Catalan and Spanish seems a good idea even though I understand for non-Spaniards with limited language experience it may seem a daunting concept at first. That said, plenty of kids learn 2 languages at school (French and German or Spanish and German) and there are millions of Spaniards who are bilingual - speaking a regional language plus castillian Spanish. Multi-lingualism is so common around the world you obviously don´t have to be a genius to learn languages! I started learning Spanish in adult ed classes after work several years before I came to live in Spain. When I moved, aged 30, to Galicia in northwest Spain I picked up enough Galician to see me through the 20 years I have lived there, without going to formal classes. And now I am moving to Catalunya where my partner´s sister´s family live and accept that I´ll be learning catalan as well as using my Spanish. The more languages the better!

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