Barcelona is a truly international city but it is also fiercely proud of its Catalan heritage. Both Spanish and Catalan is spoken in Barcelona which can make the language aspect interesting for visitors. The majority of people who live in Barcelona speak Spanish but not all speak or understand Catalan. Many class Catalan as the first language but Spanish is the most widely spoken. Most Catalan speakers will not be offended if you speak to them in Spanish. Catalans see their culture as being very distinct from Spanish with their own food, music, dance and celebrations. Visitors who truly wish to engage and interact with the Catalan culture are wise to learn some basic Catalan phrases as this can make a big difference in how you are accepted as a extranjero (foreigner).
Learning essential words and phrases in both languages will give you the best experience in Barcelona but you can still easily get by with just some basic Spanish. You might even want to brush up on your schoolbook French as some of the words in Catalan are similar. Visitors should be aware that street signs are usually in Catalan and anyone intending to hire a car and drive around Barcelona will be following road and transport signs in Catalan. Restaurant menus in popular tourist areas and the city centre are usually in multiple languages – Catalan, Spanish, English, French and German.
English, albeit basic, however, is widely spoken in the tourist areas and tourism sector. Despite this, it is helpful for any visitor to Barcelona to learn important words and some simple phrases. Think about the most common words you’ll use as a tourist:
- Transport related words - taxi, train, bus etc
- Emergency words – police, doctor, hospital etc
- Money – bank, ATM, bureau de change etc
As with any place really, you’ll have a much better visitor experience and receive better service if you make an effort to communicate in the mother tongue. Barcelonans are tolerant and easy-going towards tourists who are not able to converse in Spanish but being able to say polite phrases like please (por favor), and thank you (gracias) and, the bill please (la cuenta por favor) will go a long way.
It is easy to learn a few words and phrases and also learn as you go: You can use the internet prior to your trip to pick up the most common words you think you’ll need (avoid Google translate as it isn’t always correct); buy a handy pocket translator; buy a pocket phrase book; or download a very good translator app to your smartphone.