Getting to know the Languages of Barcelona
Today Barcelona is both the capital of Catalonia as well as Spain’s second-largest city. This puts Barcelona in a rather unique position as a Spanish city. These days, the city receives a huge number of internal migrants from within Spain as well as immigrants from other Spanish-speaking countries. At the same time, Barcelona acts as an unofficial center of Catalan culture.
When you put all this together, it means that the topic of language in Barcelona can be a bit complex and very interesting.
So what languages are spoken in Barcelona?
To give you the full picture of the languages of Barcelona, let’s start with a wide view. Throughout the Comunidad Autónoma of Catalonia/Cataluña, there are two co-official languages - Spanish and Catalan. And as the region’s capital, it’s best to think of Barcelona as a bilingual city. Barcelona is still very popular for learning Spanish.
Barcelona - A Bilingual City
Today the majority of barcelonés are bilingual in both Catalan and Spanish. However, this multilingualism is not symmetrical between Spanish and Catalan. While about 98% of city residents can speak Spanish, roughly 60% of Barcelona’s population speaks Catalan. So while essentially all Catalan speakers know Spanish, the inverse isn’t true.
Among Catalan speakers, some people speak it as their mother tongue while others know it as a second language that they learned in school. Currently, instruction in the Catalan language is compulsory in all schools, both public and private. As such, the majority of younger people have at least an understanding of Catalan, even if they prefer to speak Spanish.
Today some people consider Spanish their mother tongue and others think of Catalan to be theirs. And some people also consider both to be their co-mother tongues. A person’s specific relationship with either language really depends on their family’s language dynamics and their upbringing. Families that come from outside of Catalonia are much more likely to speak Spanish at home and feel more comfortable with it over Catalan. And families with longer histories in Barcelona or Catalonia tend to use more Catalan. However, everyone is different and language preference can change depending on the situation, audience, or even the topic of conversation.
A Quick History of Catalan and Spanish
Catalan and Spanish have been separate languages for several centuries. Before Spain united into the form we know today, there were multiple kingdoms which often had their own languages. Spanish was the major language in the kingdom of Castille y Leon, which gives us the term Castellano. When Catalonia was part of the Kingdom of Aragon, the people of Barcelona were left to use Catalan as they wished. After the war of Spanish Succession, Catalan was discouraged by the national government of Spain while Spanish was promoted. During the Second Spanish Republic, the use of Catalan in the region rose significantly in the area. However, during the Franco era, Catalan was severely limited with outright bans being commonplace. For decades, Spanish was promoted as the sole language of Spain and until the 1980s it was the only language used in school and in all official communications.
Today, the use of Catalan is on the rise in a big way. This is helped by the use of Catalan in schools and local government. And today as you walk around the city, you’ll notice the presence of Catalan right away. Most street signs and public announcements are written in Catalan and sometimes in both Catalan and Spanish. So in Barcelona, you can expect labels like avinguda and carrer (avenue and street) to be more common than avenida and calle.
Other Languages Spoken in Barcelona
Barcelona is the second-largest city in Spain and as such, it has a huge international community with immigrant groups from around the world. As such, you’ll also hear plenty of other languages as well like Chinese and Tagalog.
Aside from Catalan and Spanish, the most common language spoken in Barcelona is English by a wide margin. This comes from Barcelona’s position as an international city with multinational companies, globally renowned schools, and world-famous travel destinations. With huge numbers of tourists visiting the city throughout the year, English is becoming increasingly common, especially in restaurants, bars, museums, and any place that’s frequented by out-of-towners. Since there are a growing number of international companies with offices in Barcelona, the use of English is becoming more common amongst people living in the city both for the long and short term.
Language in Barcelona is a complicated topic. Historically, it goes back to Spanish and Catalan with the city becoming more bilingual using both languages. At the same time, Barcelona’s position as an international city is making it more and more common to know three languages there.