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Arts & Culture

Speaking the Catalan Language in Barcelona – Don’t They Speak Spanish?

two mouths with tongues out in spanish and catalan colours
Written by Emily Elwes

One thing that surprises most tourists when they are staying in Barcelona, is the fact that most locals tend to speak the Catalan language and not Spanish.

Not only is Spanish not the majority spoken language in Barcelona, but it is one of four languages used in the region and considered official languages of Catalonia.

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Consider brushing up on your Catalan and Occitan languages along with your Spanish, the next time you come to Catalonia.

In this article ShBarcelona will provide you with the basics of the language and a few historical facts.

What language is spoken in Barcelona: Catalan and its history


Barcelona is located in Catalonia, an autonomous community in Spain. Catalonia is actually a specific region that refers to the northeast portion of Spain as well as parts of the bordering areas of France and Andorra.

This area was once its own “Principality of Catalonia” with its own distinct borders, peoples, customs, Royal Court and language.

The development of the area with its own language and customs can be traced back to the seventh century with a definitive development of the Count of Barcelona by the ninth century.

protests with catalan and spanish flags

Photo via Pixabay

During the Francoist Dictatorship years, Catalan culture, including institutions and language, was repressed and banned from official use.

Since the transition to democracy starting in 1975, Catalonia has recovered politically and culturally to become an autonomously governed region of Spain and now has three official spoken languages, including Catalan, Spanish, and an Occitan dialect called Aranese, and one sign language, Catalan sign language.

Knowing the difference will help when needing to speak to a local in Barcelona.

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The Catalan language

Although many believe that Catalan as a language is a subset of Spanish, it is actually a Roman language derived from common Latin around the eastern Pyrenees in the ninth century.

In fact, the language shows more differentiation from Spanish and Portuguese, Ibero-Roman languages, than it does with Gallo-Roman languages of French, Italian, and Occitan.

letters in colors

Photo via Pixabay

In other words, Catalan is more closely related to the second group of languages than the first.

Although Catalan is spoken by most Catalonians, the majority within Barcelona speak Spanish or a plurality of both languages, whereas in the outlying areas of Catalonia more people speak Catalan.

Learning a few phrases in Catalan will ensure that you can get the basics no matter where you are. Catalan is also spoken in the Balearic Islands to the east of the mainland as well as Valencia.

Related article: Can You Work in Barcelona if You Don’t Speak Spanish?

Catalan phrases

Learning a few phrases of the local languages, especially if you will be living in the city for a while, will help you find the most important things when on vacation, such as washrooms, restaurants, shopping and alcoholic beverages.

Below the picture are a few of the most important phrases in Catalan.

language students

Photo via Pixabay

  • Hello                                                              Hola, Bon dia
  • Do you speak English?                         Que parla angles?
  • Excuse me                                                Dispensi! Perdoni!
  • Sorry                                                            Perdo! Em sap greu
  • Where’s the toilet?                                    On es el lavabo?
  • How much is this?                                    Quant costa aixo?
  • Nice to meet you.                                    Molt de gust.

There are many more phrases to learn when visiting this unique part of the world, since you may run into local Barcelonians that may speak Catalan and not Spanish.

Understanding how to get back to your holiday or student apartment in Barcelona from a Catalan speaker should be required knowledge.

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What do you think of the native language of Barcelona?
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About the author

Emily Elwes

Emily is a freelance content editor & manager living & working in Barcelona. She's passionate about food, drink, language and collaborative consumption.


  • There’s a typo in Balearic. Also, no one credible thinks Catalan is a “subset” of Spanish.

    But overall, nice write up; Thanks!

  • If specifically visiting Catalan nice to learn some of the language. However I’ve never experienced any problems speaking Spanish in Catalan or Basque country for that matter.
    I think when you’re a foreign tourist people appreciate the effort taken to learn Spanish in the first place and give a bit of leeway.
    I’ve heard from Spanish friends though that sometimes people in Catalan refuse to acknowledge understanding them when they try and talk with them in Spanish.
    Which is pretty understandable I think.

  • Castilian Spanish is used more than Catalan in Barcelona. Also, you don’t need to learn Catalan anywhere in Catalonia. Every single person speaks Spanish as well (correction: 99%. Deep Pyrinees excluded). If you’re from another country/region everyone will understand you don’t speak the local language. If you do, you will be greeted as a hero… and spoken to in Spanish 🙂

    I speak Catalan, by the way.

  • Absolutely everybody speaks Castellano or Spanish as it’s known outside Spain.

  • Barcelona is the capital of Catalonia and it‘s own language is Catalan. Even if Spanish is a co-official language, it is always nice and polite to try speaking catalan when visiting Barcelona as a tourist —and definetely important in order to live there.

  • I am American and speak fluent Catalan as I lived here as a child, but very little Spanish. You can imagine how shocked and confused people here are. But yes once they realize you’re a foreigner, 99% of people will automatically talk to you in Spanish.

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