“What languages do you speak?”
“English, Spanish/Castillian, and Catalan.”
The next question is either “What’s Catalan?” or “Why/how did you learn Catalan?” (neither of which ever really surprise me). How I answer the first question should be obvious at this point (it’s the language spoken in Catalonia, etc) but how I answer the second has changed a bit with time.
At the root of my interest in Catalonia is something simple: football. I’m a Barça fan and the club has literally turned my life upside down. I wouldn’t have half the friends I have now, or have gone to a quarter of the events that I have in the past four years, or have taken half the classes I did last semester, or be writing this blog post if it wasn’t for Barça. (I would have saved a lot of money because I wouldn’t have dropped hundreds on jerseys, but that’s besides the point.) I was kind of a slump when I encountered the beautiful game and in a sense, Barça gave me life.
I became determined to scheme up something to give something back to Barça, to thank it for that. The scheme I originally came up with was learning Catalan (as time went by the scheme eventually snowballed into this project). When I came to Columbia and found out that not only do they offer the language but that the professor was the biggest sweetheart on the planet/Columbia’s secret gem/literally the best person on earth, I knew it was meant for me to learn the language. Okay, that’s a bit dramatic. Not the part about Elsa but the second part. In my head it was as if everything fell into place and so I enrolled second semester. By that point, the answer to “why did you learn Catalan” became a motley of “because I love Barça,” “because the professor is fantastic,” “because language classes are so much fun,” “because why the hell not,” and “because I wanted to.” That’s the answer that still stands today and while I was in Barcelona I sprinkled in a little of “because I wanted to visit Barcelona and get the most out of my stay.”
The past few days, I’ve been thinking about that second question a lot. I’ve also been thinking a lot about a documentary about the Catalan language that pops up on my Twitter timeline every so often. It’s called Són bojos, aquests Catalans?! It’s about this German girl who decides to learn Catalan instead of Spanish because she’s dating a Catalan guy and is moving to Catalonia. She gets there and takes a little road trip to see exactly how useful her new language skills are. She’s riding around in this van that is reminiscent of the Mystery Machine, talking to all sorts of people and going to all sorts of places. I first watched the documentary in 2013 and thought it was interesting, gave it a thumbs up. When I took my Catalan Cultures class, again with the wonderful Elsa (TAKE ONE OF HER CLASSES COLUMBIA STUDENTS TAKE ONE OF HER CLASSES), I watched it again for a homework assignment.
To give a little more context about the purpose of the film, here’s its summation as provided by the director, David Valls:
The Catalan language is spoken by about 10 million people. This makes it the ninth most spoken language in the European Union and within the 100 most widely spoken languages in the world. It is a medium size language, comparable in number of speakers with languages such as Czech, Swedish, Bulgarian, and it has more speakers than Danish, Estonian, etc.. Despite these objective facts, what
it happens to Catalan that it does not happen with these other languages? Why [is] Catalan is not in a similar situation such as other languages with a similar amount of speakers? Why [isn’t] its use it isnot normalized? Why [do] we assume [its behaviors] as normal linguistic behaviors [when they] are not? Why [do] Catalan speakers often code switch to Spanish? What are the actual uses of Catalan? What difficulties are there?
As a viewer, there’s two ways to look at the film. The first: you can think of the film as illuminating the obstacles that the Catalan language still faces, as the director’s summary leads one to do. The documentary shows that Catalan isn’t used in the courts, on food or medicine labels, or in machinery user-guides. It explains that universities have different sections for classes (sections taught in Castilian and others in Catalan) and the presence of the language in radio, publishing, television and even in other regions of Spain. It’s informative and exposes truths that people like me all the way over here in America wouldn’t have known otherwise. If you look at it this way, then the film won’t (or at least shouldn’t) discourage you from learning the language. Sure it faces obstacles, but that’s okay.
The second: you can think of the film as legitimizing the lack of a need for foreigners to learn the language. Here’s an entire documentary about foreigner that takes time out of her life to learn a language, heads over the only place the language is spoken, and then realizes that she was probably better off learning Castillian because the whole Catalan thing isn’t as important as her boyfriend made seem. She lucked out because she got her story turned into a movie, but clearly, that won’t be happening to you — she covered all the bases and the world doesn’t need two movies about the same irrelevant language. Why learn a language that faces obstacles when you could stick to Castillian and survive just as well, if not better?
I didn’t realize this second way until watching the movie a second time. Please note: realizing and adopting the second way are not the same thing. I realized it but vehemently disagree with it and here’s why:
- I was already a month into my Catalan course to know that the language was 1. beautiful, 2. fun, and 3. a hidden gem (much like the Catalan professor at Columbia TAKE HER CLASSES TAKE THEM). Plus, ain’t nobody gonna convince me a month into doing something that all my efforts were pointless.
- There’s something, I dunno, just plain obvious about the importance of learning a nation’s language before you visit it. This point is mainly for all my monolingual Americans who plan on stamping up their passport without cracking open a book about the places they want to see. Don’t be the ignorant American who hops off the plane and forces everyone they encounter to speak English because you can’t communicate in any other way. That’s just plain disrespectful and inconsiderate. Additionally, as my coworker recently pointed out, If you’re one of those Americans who demands that those who come to America learn to speak English, you should realize that you have the same responsibility when you go abroad. No one is asking you to be completely fluent in the language, but make an effort to learn and use it. You don’t even have to learn it before you get there — you can learn it while you’re there. This, to me, is part of being a decent traveler and a huge part of respecting other people’s cultures. (Some of you may chime out with the “well, newsflash you Ivy League brat: some of us don’t have the money to take language classes!” To you I say, get to a library and use the Internet or borrow a book. If you have the money to travel abroad, you most likely have money to at least do that.
- When you go Barcelona and speak Catalan, new opportunities open up.It’s a conversation starter because not many foreigners speak the language. You’ll most likely be much more intriguing and you can finally become friends with the locals and see what the real city is like. Some people may open up faster and decide to take you under their wing and show you around themselves. You’ll be able to read the menu without having to bug the waiter to translate it for you. You’ll avoid ordering things that you know you won’t like or that you’re allergic to. You’ll be able to navigate the supermarket a lot faster and understand those cute signs that line the streets asking people to keep the noise level low at night. You also open up the door to a whole world of fantastic music. (There is a small chance that speaking Catalan may run you into some trouble but I’ll explain that tomorrow and it was literally a one in a million event that ended up flattering me instead of insulting me in the long run.)
My point is if you end up watching that documentary and regarding it in the second way, think the whole thing over again. Learning Catalan is a good thing. It’s a little weird, sure, but do it. It’s worth it — it’s fun, it’s different, and ultimately, it is useful.
BIANCA GUERRERO http://biancaincatalonia.wordpress.com/2014/08/04/que-no-no-son-bojos/