I am going on a city trip to Barcelona, and as usual, I want to learn a few local words so that I can ask directions or order my drinks that way.

My question, though: should I learn Spanish or Catalan, or simply stick to the "neutral" English? I have heard that the situation in Catalonia is a bit tense, and people could feel offended when they are approached in the wrong language.

Perhaps I am worrying too much though. Any thoughts?

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    Spanish is more useful generally throughout the world, but you probably already know that. Catalan speakers are very proud of their language and will love it if you try to speak it. They all understand Spanish perfectly as well, and at the beginner level they are very similar. At a more advanced level Catalan is actually has more in common with Italian than Spanish but for survival phrases that won't concern you. – hippietrail Nov 4 '14 at 10:34
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    @hippietrail Italian and French, I would say. ;) – JoErNanO Nov 4 '14 at 10:38
  • @JoErNanO: I was going to say Italian and French but because the French pronunciation is so different to all of Catalan, Italian, and Spanish, I thought that might mislead people. But yeah as far as grammar and vocab it's certainly true. – hippietrail Nov 4 '14 at 10:41
  • 200 years ago, the entire region constituted a Dialect Continuum. You could travel east around the Mediterranean coast of Spain, observing that each town you passed through spoke in a slightly more French manner. Once you passed the border, you would find that the locals' French became gradually less Spanish-like and more Italian-like the further you went. – Robert Columbia Sep 10 '19 at 20:00

In general people speak both languages. And because they can tell you are a tourist from the way you breathe :) they will not expect you to speak Spanish, nor Catalan. Having said this, you should always learn a few common words in the local language, such as greetings and please/thank you, as it shows you are making an effort. You said you are already planning on doing this, so why not add the extra effort and learn them in both Catalan and Spanish?

One rule of thumb could be using Spanish when asking for directions, when talking to the Guardia Civil/Mossos d'Esquadra (national/local police), and in any other situations in which you can't assume the person is a pure-bred Catalan. On the other hand, when you go to the market, when you enter local shops or local restaurants, you can attempt a bon dia and gràcies.

Regarding the tense situation you mention I would not worry about it. The situation might be tense between the Catalan government and the Spanish government. Since you belong to neither, nobody will expect you to be involved. I would say you might be over-thinking this too much.

On a personal note, I stick to Spanish when I tour Spain. The reason is simple: that's the language I know. I never had anyone get offended at me for speaking Spanish to them, not in Catalunya, not in Euskadi, nowhere. I always assumed it was because, as I said, they can tell I am tourist and generally appreciate it when I make the effort.

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    Very well explained. Yes, it is definitelly about the effort on recognizing local's culture. Maybe it is just a gràcies or a si us plau (please), but it will make a good feeling in locals: you are there to visit the place, but also to know about local's culture. – fedorqui Nov 4 '14 at 10:29
  • Just to add some more info: I'm from Barcelona, lived my entire life here, I know both spanish and catalan, I dislike catalan and I don't talk it, yet I have no problems whatsoever. I studied here, in Barcelona, and even though I studied everything in catalan, answering in pure spanish was no problem. TL;DR: learn either spanish or catalan, doesn't matter, both are fine! – rev Nov 4 '14 at 19:00
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    Or, to put it simpler, I guess that addressing a Spanish in Catalan would be much worse than addressing a Catalan in Spanish. – o0'. Nov 4 '14 at 23:32

I live in Terrassa, Catalunya, and I was born in Barcelona.

While the political situation might be "tense" I would not worry about it. For those who don't know what's going on, next Sunday a "participation process" is likely to ask catalans whether they want independence from Spain. Spain wants to block this process after blocking attempts for a referendum and a poll.

You can use both Spanish and Catalan. Being a tourist, in general any local language will be appreciated, and even you will surprise locals in a good way if you can communicate in Catalan. In Barcelona downtown usage of English shouldn't be a problem, but keep in mind that local residents are starting to worry about the cons of mass tourism and some refuse to help tourists.

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    It's true - in tourist season I found Barcelona local to be very very snobby toward us foreign backpackers, except for the guy in the bookshop where I went to buy books in Catalan (-: I bet the locals are a lot friendlier in the off season and I've had great times with Catalans I've met travelling in other parts of the world. – hippietrail Nov 4 '14 at 10:39

I'm a regular visitor to Catalonia and have learned Catalan, but I can say that from my dealings with Catalan people (apart from the mass-tourism areas) they are friendly and tolerant and very happy to hear a foreigner making an effort, but if they see you are having trouble with the language they will automatically switch to Spanish, or English if they can. They certainly won't be offended if you talk to them in Spanish.


I am Catalan. You can speak in Spanish or Catalan. No one will feel offended for it. We all speak both languages, and the fact that you are a foreigner will for sure easy out your attempts in any language. As for sympathy certainly trying to speak in Catalan will do the trick. We are not castilian, and do not let people mislead you into think is the same Castilian than Catalan. We are very proud of our roots, and we are offended if they are confused or brought down.


For years we had a house in Catalunia. Nobody took insult in being addressed in English with some attempts at Spanish.
While further south than Barcelona, I seriously doubt the situation there is any different.

Just expect a lot of especially local political entities and companies to advertise in Catalan, so being able to read a few words of it (and it's not that hard to figure out if you know a bit of Spanish at that level) can be handy at times. But certainly not required.

It's not like Brussels or Liege where you may receive hostility or bad service in restaurants and shops if you're overheard speaking Dutch (and yes, I've had that happen there).

  • -1 about speculation on Brussels and Liege. Your assumption on Brussels or Liege is incorrect. The people telling you that they received hostility were maybe perceived as being loud or rude (now I am speculating). I am in both cities frequently and I have never ever had an issue regarding hostility. – user141 Nov 4 '14 at 10:29
  • I'm Belgian myself (Dutch speaking and working in Brussels) and I have to agree with @andra. That bit put me off a little bit, but otherwise it's a good answer. – Lee White Nov 4 '14 at 10:33
  • @andra I've been there, it's not speculation. Maybe it's not as widespread as my experience makes it seem to me, but it's there. – jwenting Nov 4 '14 at 11:29
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    @andra I have to agree with jwenting. I'm Dutch and visit both cities often for work. It really does happen, but it isn't as bad anymore as 10-15 years ago. In my experience they behave worse to Dutch people than to Flemish. That might explain Lee White's comment. I've often been in bars where they mentioned the price in such French that, after several repeats, I can not figure out how much to pay. Solution: I threaten to walk out without paying and say so in Dutch: Suddenly they can give me the price in Dutch. Last time that happened was last August in Liege. – Tonny Nov 4 '14 at 12:56
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    @tonny I am Dutch too, so that can't explain the difference in being treated the way your were treated "because your spoke Dutch". It could be your attitude that pissed them off, it could also be that you just had some interactions with rude people. You should not generalise this to all of Brussels or Liege. Also it is not that speaking Dutch in a Dutch bar will always guarantee the most pleasant and nice interactions. I don't like this answer because it is built on stereotypes and simply not fair. – user141 Nov 4 '14 at 13:27

As @JoErNanO said, I would learn both if possible. However, if your goal is to learn only few basic words like "thank you", "hello" and "goodbye", I would learn them in Catalan, since that shows that you learned them specially for that trip and people will be more thankful. That is specially true if you do a single day trip to a town or smaller city near Barcelona some day, since Catalan usage is usually greater in small towns.

In the other hand, if you want to learn a language in a deeper level, I would recommend you Spanish because it's more useful: it's spoken in South America, Spain and even in Catalonia there is more people who speak Spanish than Catalan.

About the "tense" situation, I would say it's not more tense in Barcelona than in any other democratic country before elections. There are people with different opinions about one topic (I suppose you're talking about the independence issue) but it doesn't translate in any kind of tension on the streets.

If you are interested in learning more about that, I would recommend you the articles on Wikipedia about languages in Catalonia and Catalan independence movement:


There are only some 7 million native Catalan speakers whereas Spanish is ranked second after Mandarin in number of native speakers 470 millions. Investment in learning some Castilian is not only more likely to yield a better long-term return (through application outside Barcelona) but is much more likely to be understood by a native Catalan speaker than vice versa.

An advantage of learning Castilian rather than Catalan was brought home to me when I visited Port Lligat where I met two printers from Barcelona, who were native Catalan speakers. Their Castilian had been learned in school and clearly not much exercised since. I guess it slowed them down slightly and simplified their vocabulary when conversing with me and the social interaction between us was far more than it would have been in either of our mother tongues.

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    +1 For the comment about the long-term return of learning a frequently used language. – JoErNanO Nov 4 '14 at 12:10
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    While the numeric argument is one of them, I don't think it is the rule of thumb. Following it, we would all learn Mandarin or English and wouldn't dare to learn Danish, Dutch, Norwegian... in all of these very-fluently-English-speaking countries. In this specific context, many Catalan speakers will appreciate more you addressing them in their language, despite they all also speak Spanish. And as JoErNanO said, few words are not that difficult to learn. – fedorqui Nov 4 '14 at 12:29
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    While the information is nice, this isn't really relevant to my question. I'm only interested in learning a couple of words and key phrases. I won't be spending two years on learning the language. :-) – Lee White Nov 4 '14 at 12:55

It's not mandatory to know any of them but the only problem is that most of spanish people don't know english, so it's good to have some basics of spanish (castellano). Good luck :)


I was last in Catalonia shortly after Franco's death, and at that time, people were frankly so stunned to hear an American (USA, that is) tourist conversant in Spanish I can't imagine what would have happened if I tried Catalan. I learned "please" and "thank you", for fun. Of course, this was back when only a handful of signs had become bilingual, much less monolingual in Catalan.

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