[Note from Patrick Cox: Here's a blog post from our Barcelona-based Europe correspondent Gerry Hadden. It's a great companion piece to his report featured in the podcast above.]
When my partner Anne and I moved to Barcelona eight years ago, we decided we would send our (future) kids to local schools. Schools that teach almost exclusively in the Catalan language. I didn’t speak a word of Catalan and neither did Anne.
We could have opted for one of two French Lycees in town. We could have chosen one of several American or British schools. That way, their education would have been in one of two languages we both speak.
But we went local because we wanted to become a part of our community. We wanted our kids to belong here. At “foreign” language schools, you’re always an expat. You don’t know the kids in your neighborhood. And your friends at school inevitably move away after a few years, when their parents’ bosses transfer them elsewhere.
That’s not the way either of us grew up, and we didn’t want that for our children. We’re also polyglots (I majored in German in college) with a “the more languages the merrier” philosophy. Our kids are now on the road to speaking, naturally, without blinking an eye, four languages.
Eight years on, however, their dad still doesn’t speak Catalan. For some Catalans, that’s an offense. They feel snubbed. How dare I not embrace the language – the most important and cherished aspect of Catalan identity?
But the majority of our Catalan friends couldn’t care less. Many have even congratulated us for having mastered that other official language in Catalonia: Spanish.As foreigners living in Catalonia, we’re caught in the cross-fire of a divided society. Some Catalans wish Spain would just go away. Others can’t understand such preference for Catalan over Spanish.
This debate is sometimes tedious. Often it is outright hateful, with the vitriol spewing from both sides.
In the meantime, as I say, I haven’t learned it. I can read it, and understand most of it, but I don’t speak it. Haven’t made much effort. The reason isn’t political. It has more to do with water than with politics or philosophy or identity.
Water seeks the easiest route on its journey to wherever it’s going. Language is the same. People learn foreign languages for one of just two reasons, and the first follows the water principal. The second is what happens to water when it spills into a geyser.
Reason One: Necessity. You learn Catalan or Mandarin or Tagalog because you have no choice. You have moved to a country where no one speaks your native language and you have to eat. You can’t go to market, point at produce and nod forever. Also, you have to work. You have to make friends.
In Catalonia I can do all those things without speaking Catalan. Like water, I take the easiest route. Everyone speaks Spanish. Whether they like it or not. Only once in a very long while will a Catalan simply refuse to talk to me in Spanish. This reality drives some Catalans crazy – and it’s led to public campaigns to encourage Catalans not to switch to Spanish in conversations with folks like me. But that hasn’t really worked, because ultimately people realize it’s rude to answer someone who’s speaking to you in a language you know – by using a language they don’t.
Reason Two: Love. Love makes water go in any direction it wants. It can shoot it hundreds of feet into the air, against gravity – even turn it into a gas if it feels like it. I fell in love with someone who happens to be French. Which is why, over these eight years in Catalonia, my French has gotten pretty good, while my level of Catalan has barely budged.