Summer travels I: Barcelona’s language lessons

I mention my trip to Barcelona here because of the opportunity it afforded me to think about language. For 35 years, I have retained a smattering of schoolgirl French and Spanish that has seen me through travels in France, Portugal, Switzerland and Italy. Though Barcelona is part of Spain, Spanish is not its primary language. Barcelona, the capital of Catalonia, was the last stronghold of the Republican side during the Spanish Civil War and retains an abundance of regional pride. The people speak Catalan, and one of the region’s triumphs since Franco’s death in 1975 has been the establishment of Catalan as an official language. Public signs are written first in Catalan and secondarily in Castiliano, as the Catalan people refer to the language spoken in most of Spain.

It didn’t take long for me to see that Catalan lies somewhere between Spanish and French — naturally enough, as Catalonia, or Catalunya, as its inhabitants call it, borders the Pyrenees that divide Spain from France. Take, for example, the Catalan word for “you,” vostè. In Spanish, the word is usted; in French, it is vous. Vostè is a nice compromise, don’t you think? Catalan reads phonetically, like Spanish, and uses accents, like French. Questions have question marks only at the end, without the upside-down opening question mark of Spanish. The most common expression for “please” is si us plau, sometimes rendered sis plau and meaning “if it pleases you,” not far from the French s’il vous plaît.

I had failed to find a Catalan phrasebook before leaving the States. There were none on the big bookseller websites or on Google. A friend sent me a link to this useful online source, which I cut and pasted into Word, edited for the needs of my trip, shrank the font of and printed on seven sheets of paper, which I then folded to pocket size and stuck in my Barcelona folder. Naturally, it was missing when I arrived at the flat my husband and I had rented in the Eixample (pronounced eye-ZHAMP-la) section of Barcelona.

Within a few blocks of our apartment, I found a large chain bookstore, the functional equivalent of Barnes & Noble, and there a helpful clerk led me to Communicát en Anglès, a phrasebook for Catalan speakers traveling to the United States or the United Kingdom, with notations on the different American and British meanings of words such as biscuit and lift. I bought it not so much to speak Catalan but to help me to translate what I saw as I traveled around.  When, however, I decided I absolutely had to get my too-long hair cut one sultry afternoon, I was able to point to the phrase Voldria tallar-me només les puntes to indicate to Raul at a perruqueria (hair salon) in the chic El Born neighborhood that I just wanted a trim. I also used the phrasebook to explain to a maitre d’ in an Eixample restaurant why “battered kid’s brains” summoned an image far less appealing than the fried baby goat dish on offer.

(Communicát en Anglès was first published in June 2010. Its ISBN, or International Standard Book Number, is 978-8-44-12947-2. The closest I can come to finding it online is this link to its publisher’s page at, which shows an English-Catalan/Catalan-English dictionary but not the phrasebook.)

My absolute favorite phrase in the little book appears in the section titled Professions, Oficis, Feines (Professions, Trades, Jobs). Immediately after Quina professió té? (What is your profession?) came this priceless phrase: Sóc periodista, però traballo d’encarregat en uns grans magatzems (I’m a journalist, but I work as a floor manager in a department store). Could that really be the Catalan view of the crisis in the news industry?

All Americans should seize any opportunity they can to travel outside the United States at least once, and the earlier in their lives, the better. We inhabit such a big country, set off from much of the world by vast oceans, that we too easily project our way of thinking and doing things, our U.S.-centric worldview, on the rest of the Earth’s billions of people. Travel beyond our borders is an eye-opener, not least in that people in other countries don’t think about the U.S. all that much. They think about their own countries and their own issues.

The failure of too many Americans to experience non-U.S. perspectives is a major element in many of our international blunders and in our phenomenally stupid efforts to impose our habits of thought elsewhere. Stepping into the daily life of other countries enriches the traveler as much as bagging the must-see sights on the tourist circuit, and getting a sense of the local language, where possible – easier in Spain than in China, for most of us – is central to this effort. In the case of Western Europe, where so many languages share some part of the polyglot roots of English, even people who struggled through high school language courses can tease out meanings from the words they see with the help of a phrasebook.

Journalism students have a special responsibility to broaden their cultural horizons. If they hope to inform the reading/listening/viewing public about how the world is changing, they need to go beyond our national borders. In this age of globalization, it is not enough to explore the United States alone, although that is important, too. (And I confess to huge gaps in my understanding of the cultures that make up my homeland, having spent little time in the South or the Plains and none in the Southwest or Alaska.)

Here’s my travel tip for the day: Any time you travel abroad, buy a phrasebook appropriate to the country you’re visiting. Get over your fear of sounding foolish or stupid by trying out simple phrases when you buy something or ask for help. Saying please, thank you, hello, goodbye, how much, and “Do you speak English?” in the language of your host country goes further than you might guess in getting your hosts to see you as an individual rather than just another stray tourist. If you can go further in a language you’re more comfortable with – French and Spanish in my case – you can have real conversations and make real connections that will stay with you, however fleeting the contact and however badly you mangle the syntax.

Twenty-five years ago, my husband and I picked up a couple of young hitchhikers on the road from the southern coast of Portugal to Lisbon,Basque medical students on a break. The only language we had in common was some rusty French, but we managed to discuss the political situation in Spain, the Basque independence movement and why Americans brake for castles. Two months later, we received package containing a cassette tape entitled “Songs in Euskadi,” Euskadi being the Basque word for “Basque.” I no longer have a cassette player, but I still have that tape.

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