A few weeks ago, I wrote a basic introduction to Catalan, having never heard it spoken before. Now, after spending a week immersed in it, I have a few new impressions.
As I mentioned before, it's common to think of Catalan as a dialect of Spanish. In fact, I've though that myself. But I can say confidently that anyone who thinks that has never actually heard it spoken. It's definitely not Spanish.
If you made a triangle between Rome, Paris, and Madrid, Catalonia would be close to the center, and yes, linguistically Catalan is well-described as a blend of Italian, French, and Spanish. But it's also a little more than that. There are definitely some uniquely Catalonian traits.
Every language has a set of sounds that distinguish it - a sort of signature. The first thing I noticed about Catalan was that its set of sounds has an eastern European feel, with a lot of words ending on sh, definitely not a sound I expected to hear much in Spain - or really anywhere in western Europe.
I sat in a cafe one morning eating breakfast, and I noticed all the signs were only in Catalan. Because of my experience with other Vulgar Latin language, it didn't take me long to figure out what I was reading, and I was able to learn a lot about Catalan just by observation.
Cafè amb llet
Te amb llet
Aigua amb gas
Aigua sense gas*
Just looking at this small sample of items commonly found on menus, a person with absolutely no experience of Catalan, but who is familiar with other Vulgar Latin languages, can quickly and easily reason out some new vocabulary.
First, I figured out that amb means with. Next, I figured out that llet is similar to leche and latte and lait. So Cafè amb llet is coffee with milk, and Te amb llet is tea with milk.
And this is how my week in Barcelona went. I would see certain words over and over, and their meanings would start to become clear. Gradually, I reached a point where I would find myself understanding a lot of what I saw and heard, even without ever having studied the language. (Though learning the rules of the alphabet was helpful.) This is a great example of why immersion is the best way to learn.
After a few days, I decided I liked it enough to try to learn some. It's probably not necessary to be fluent in Catalan (unless I live there one day) but I want to know it just for myself, and for use on return trips. So I found a bookstore and bought two books: an introduction to Catalan written in Spanish, and a three-way Russian-Spanish-Catalan phrasebook/dictionary. If I'm going to learn some catalan, I'm going to do it in a way that strengthens those languages I already know. I'm not going to make a big effort of it, but I'll pull those books out when I'm bored or need a change of pace.
My overall impression of Catalan is that it's pretty cool. It's got enough style and character to make it an interesting member of the Romance language family. It's got more pizzazz than Spanish without being as complicated as French. It's got a lot of the character of Italian, but with its own unique personality.
If I could justify it, I would move to Barcelona right now and spend 3 months becoming fluent in Catalan. Of course as it turns out, my boss isn't nearly as excited by that idea as I am.
Want to see my favorite language resources and courses?
I listed them here.