Posted by: pascoesabido | November 1, 2007

Learning Catalá

When you’re as directionless as I am, (metaphorically- and geographically- speaking), finishing university doesn’t quite provide the expanse of opportunity that’s expected. I had no idea what to do as a ‘career’, but was certain I didn’t want to end up in a graduate scheme where you wake up ten years later realising it’s done a runner with what you once considered a fun-packed life, leaving you instead with a mortgage and heavy debt. Or at least this was how I portrayed them to any friend even considering a graduate scheme: “the corporations will destroy your souuuuuuuuuul!!!”

Languages were the one real skill I possessed (aside from my degree – I don’t think working in John Lewis aged 17 really counts?) and the one that allowed me to travel, a.k.a. runaway until the perfect job apparated before me. Therefore I’ve dedicated this year to ‘perfecting my languages’, which unfortunately means leaving England. Tough life.

Barcelona seemed the perfect destination: a city brimming with culture, parties, young people, and a climate to make those still in Blighty shed a tear or two. However, every time I reeled off my ‘perfecting Spanish in Barcelona’ excuse, people guffed and uttered something about Catalan and not Spanish – I wasn’t listening. Although knowing they were probably right, I’ve never been one to easily admit defeat, and so proudly marched on to Barcelona with the vague idea of learning Catalan as scantily-clad justification. As I was heading in that general direction, I thought it rude not to make a small detour via Ibiza, making my arrival in Barcelona that bit more sketchy.

Although Catalan classes were not at the top of my ‘to do’ list when I arrived in Barcelona (occupied instead by ‘find hostel’, ‘find job’, ‘find flat because your too broke to stay in a hostel more than two nights’), once settled I went about hunting them down with my trusty steed, Google. I was originally unconvinced I would even need Catalan, as so many people had told me you could get by with just Spanish, but feeling like an idiot whilst watching the news sold me: even with the pictures to help, I’d confuse forest-fires with weather reports (look how hot it is!) and national-strikes with football games (large crowds and chanting?). Staring at the news presenters and willing them to talk English – or even Spanish – had little effect (apart from one occasion, but I wasn’t really compus mentus), whilst the constant suspicion that my Catalan housemates were rubbishing my fine English cooking right under my nose had to stop.

Among the various courses on offer, the free ones had an uncanny knack of catching my eye. Aprenem appeared to offer what I was looking for: a relaxed, grammar table-free way of learning Catalan; instead focusing on reading and speaking being taught by a native speaker; and free! As well as taking classes, you are also encouraged to ‘monitor’ other classes, as the important thing when learning languages is imitation, and who better to imitate than a native? You’d think that, but despite my best diction, I still draw a sea of blank faces from my group. All classes take place within public spaces around Barcelona, from a community centre in Drassanes to a library in La Pau, and even as far as La Terraza. Don’t ask me how to get there because rather predictably I went completely the wrong way and turned up hot, sweaty, and late. But we’re in Spain – who’s in a rush?

According to Sophia Blasco Castell, one of the all-female team of dedicated coordinators (Aprenem’s an unpaid labour of love), language is not only a tool of communication but provides an insight into the societal structure of those who use it, such as the Inuit’s hundreds of words for what we simply see as snow because of its importance. To me, Catalan is every Latin language mushed-up: it reads between French and Spanish, sounds Portuguese, and Italians are supposed to understand it perfectly. I, on the other hand, do not. However, progress is being made, and my group has now ditched the “this is a cat, that is a dog” for detective stories! I can now tell you my name, and if today is Monday the first, I’ll be able to give you the date. We’re only two classes in – think someone might have to remind me about the cats and dogs though.

The teaching side is slightly more bizarre, as I have no experience teaching English and have been given the advanced English class. Last Tuesday I attempted to explain a Guardian article on how biodegradable carrier bags enhance the sometimes shaky green credentials of Ocada’s Waitrose delivery service – what? Its obviously a case of trial and error, to see what people are capable of, of what I’m capable of, but luckily for all involved, the difficulty of the texts is being lowered. And I’m also realising my role: not to confuse people further.

Its still early days (all of two classes), but Aprenem have a good track record, while the positive attitude held by all seems to will people on. Three months will prove the litmus, but if my gobbledygook has turned into something more comprehensible, then all credit to the women behind it. They’ve also proved that age is no barrier to learning, as my Latina Abuela class-mate will testify.

For more information, visit their website:

Published in Barcelona Connect, November 2007


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