Studying Spanish in Barcelona – Catalan versus Spanish?

Should I study Spanish in Barcelona, Spain?Barcelona Image
Is it true that Spanish is not spoken in Barcelona?
Do I need to speak Catalan to study in Barcelona?
Is it is difficult to study Spanish in Barcelona?

……whoa whoa whoa!

Barcelona is a beautiful, vibrant city in North-Eastern Spain. Its renowned landmarks, like Sagrada Familia, La Rambla and Guell Park, to name a few, lend themselves to the ever growing global popularity of the city.

You are more likely to find some locals who speak a little bit of at least one foreign language in Barcelona than in any other part of Spain. What’s more, even in light of the economic crisis, there are still professional opportunities to be had in Barcelona.

And let us not forget that with movies like Vicky Christina Barcelona and Auberge Espagnol….many have a romanticized perception of the city, that is not so far from the truth.


So what exactly is the issue?

You would like to know the best place to study Spanish in Spain and you desire to live in Barcelona but you have your doubts.

Rumour has it that Spanish is not the only official language of Barcelona and you wonder if you would you really be able to learn Spanish in a city in Spain where majority of people speak another (first) language…?

The answer? Yes, you will able to learn Spanish in Barcelona.
But, in some ways, it could be a little tricky – depending.



  • Barcelona is the Capital of Catalonia and the second largest city in Spain after Madrid.
  • Official Language(s): Catalan and Spanish.
  • Almost all natives to Barcelona, especially the younger generation, are bilingual i.e. understand and speak both Catalan and Spanish.


Potential Challenges

  • catalan signAlmost 100% of Signs, Menus, Product Labels and Websites  will be in Catalan, or in Catalan and Spanish.
  • There will be a Social/Cultural barrier to cross if you do not speak Catalan as locals speak to each other in the language.
    • On the other hand, locals usually speak in Spanish to foreigners, and will love you if you try to learn their Catalan.
  • A lot of media outlets (television, radio) are broadcast in Catalan, and also in Spanish.


I could say that Barcelona might not be the right city for you to learn Spanish if you fall into one of the following categories:

  • You are someone who appreciates, or even needs, total immersion learning i.e.  constant exposure to Spanish in order to pick up the language.
  • You are a visual learner and retain what you see and observe of your surroundings.
  • You are a complete Spanish beginner.
  • Your native language is Portuguese, Italian, French or Italian.

In Barcelona, as previously stated, almost everything is labelled in Catalan (with or without Spanish), and the locals tend to interact with each other in Catalan. If you learn by absorbing the stimuli  surrounding you in your environment i.e. memorizing words from signs, picking up expressions and phrases from passers by etc., you could possibly find yourself learning Catalan instead of Spanish and not even realize it.

This could be particularly inconvenient for you if you are an absolute beginner in Spanish who will not be able to make the distinction between Catalan and Spanish. And also potentially risky if you are a native speaker of Portuguese, Italian or French, as you could find it potentially easier to understand Catalan than Spanish  (as linguistically, it could be argued that in some instances, Catalan is closer to these languages than to Spanish) and hence, rely more on Catalan to function in Barcelona than focus more on your Spanish learning.


Negative Experiences of Students who Studies in Barcelona

Below are some examples of what could potentially occur.
These accounts encompass students who went to Barcelona on various programs (direct study at universities, ERASMUS and other exchange and academic programs etc.) and not just exclusively to study Spanish.

  • Some courses at the universities were taught in Catalan.
    • Despite complaints from said foreign students.
    • Even with the knowledge that there would be foreign students in the class.
  • Foreign students found it difficult to make social connections with local students who would only interact in Catalan and not Spanish.
  • Certain host families would only watch television channels in Catalan which was a direct breach of the terms of agreement of hosting foreign students.
  • At the end of their stay in Barcelona, a number of students found that their Spanish was mixed with Catalan words and could not effectively make themselves understood by Spanish-speaking communities outside of Barcelona.
    • They had, unbeknownst to them, learned to speak Catalan while thinking that that they were learning Spanish.


Catalan is a beautiful language in its own right, but relative to Spanish, it is only spoken in certain regions of certain Western European countries by minority ethnic groups.

If your primary purpose is to learn Spanish in Spain, then you should perhaps consider that majority of locals in the choice is yoursBarcelona speak Spanish but Spaniards living in Barcelona do not necessarily speak Catalan, and neither does the rest of the global Hispanic population.

  • You could choose to go to another city in Spain, or a city in a Latin-American country where the only official language is Spanish.
  • Or you could choose to go to Barcelona and be aware of the potential challenges that the co-official language of Catalan might pose.


The choice is yours.

No matter where you go, in order to succeed in your Spanish language learning, you would have to be dedicated to your studies, and open to take in the whole cultural and linguistic experience.





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