The Catalan that young people (do not) speak

Studies warn that Catalan is losing strength among young people. The ARA brings together boys and girls between the ages of 12 and 18 to explain how much, and with whom, they speak in Catalan, what audiovisual references they have (and which ones they miss) and what proposals they make for the future. In this conversation, in many voices, all the realities -social and linguistic- of a diverse country become evident

7 min
Time for the debate with the 12 young people

BarcelonaThe small-town girl who always speaks in Catalan, the teenager in the metropolitan area who barely uses it to address a high school teacher, or the young man who mixes Catalan and Spanish without realizing it. A computer screen can hold many different Catalonias. For example, Melissa's, who from her room in L'Hospitalet de Llobregat explains that she "always" speaks in Spanish, both with her friends and with her parents, who were born in Ecuador and "don't understand much Catalan". Or that of Clara, from Roda de Berà, who speaks in Catalan with her family and in Spanish with her friends. And that of Júlia, who is 14 years old and lives in Guixers, a small village between Berga and Solsona, and who practically only speaks Spanish during the three hours a week she is taught the language in school. These are just a few examples of the testimonies of teenagers that the ARA has gathered, with the collaboration of Fundesplai, to discuss their linguistic uses.

The conversation, which was conducted entirely in Catalan and with representatives from different areas and realities of the country, leaves some key clues: most -not all- associate Catalan with an academic and formal language, many speak it in the classroom but not in the playground, and almost all of them miss references -they speak of influencers- to communicate in Catalan in a natural way.

What language do you speak?

Most people mix Catalan and Spanish depending on the context

The Enquesta d'Usos Lingüístics (Survey of Language Uses) of 2018 -the study is made every five years- revealed an alarming fact: the habitual use of Catalan has stagnated since 2008. After a sharp drop of 10 points -from 46% in 2003 to 35.6% in 2008-, as a result of the migration wave in the late nineties and early 2000, the percentage of people who habitually use Catalan has not been recovered, which is now at 36.1%. In conversation with young people, there are few who use it in all areas of their lives. One of the few cases is Júlia: "In my environment everyone speaks in Catalan, and if it weren't for what my Catalan teacher explains to us, I would think that Catalan is the most widely spoken language in Catalonia. Although I don't see it, I am aware that it is at risk, in crisis", she says.

Àgueda, who also lives in a village, but in this case in the Alt Empordà, is a similar case: "When I went to high school I was very shocked that my classmates spoke among themselves in Spanish, because I had spoken in Catalan all my life. At first I made an effort and spoke to them in Spanish, but I think I don't have to minoritise my language and in the end I got used to answering them in Catalan", she says.

Las cifras
  • 19,6% Solo dos de cada diez jóvenes barceloneses de entre 15 y 29 años tiene el catalán como lengua habitual
  • 42% El estudio de la Generalitat revela que prácticamente la mitad de la población utilitza igual el catalán y el castellano
  • 36,1% La Enquesta d’Usos Lingüístics de 2018 reveló que solo un tercio de la población usa habitualmente el catalán
  • 0,5% Según el CAC, Netflix ofrece 2 largometrajes y 4 series en catalán, así como 2 documentales subtitulados y una serie doblada

In fact, the study of the Generalitat detects a growing trend of combined linguistic uses: 42% use Catalan and Spanish in a shared way. This is the case of Abril, who speaks Spanish at home and Catalan with some friends, or Clàudia, who uses Catalan with her father and teachers and Spanish with her mother. And with friends? With friends "it depends", she says. The boys and girls say that they change depending on the context. For example, if they have met at school or at camp, they are likely to speak Catalan, but if they know that their families are Spanish-speaking, they switch to Spanish without realizing it.

At the other extreme there are adolescents who only speak Catalan in their classroom, with their teachers. For example, the case of Aitor, from Polinyà, and Noa, from Cornellà, who speak in Spanish with their family and all their friends. "But sometimes the teachers answer me in Spanish", Noa adds.

The percentage of people who had Catalan as their habitual language in 1998 reached 45.3%. The decline has been evident, and above all is more pronounced among young people: only 19.6% of Barcelona's 15-29 year olds have Catalan as their first language of use, which means a drop of more than 10 points in just 5 years.

How do you speak on social media?

Instagram or Twitter are a reflection of their private life

Obviously, these language differences are reflected in social networks. Selma, from El Vendrell, has "never" put any Catalan sentence in her social networks. In contrast, Júlia has never written anything in Spanish. "Social networks define me and I don't put anything in Spanish because I don't feel identified either", she argues. There is also a third way, like Lluís. He speaks in Catalan in his private life, but takes into account who he is addressing when he has to address a message in public: "On YouTube, as it is more international, I use Spanish, and on the other hand on friends' social networks, such as Instagram, I use Catalan".

Debate with the 12 adolescents

How do you assess the situation?

There are those who "wouldn't be affected by" the disappearance of Catalan

The case of Lluís serves as bait for Aitor, who is 13 years old, to explain how he sees the situation: "It is a matter of globalization. The best thing is that everyone understands you and speaking a language that few people know how to speak doesn't help", he says. However, if everyone had this point of view, Catalan could end up disappearing. "I don't think it's right that Catalan should disappear, because the more variety there is the better, and because, as they say, knowledge doesn't take up much space, but I wouldn't be affected if it did," he says bluntly.

Àgueda replies immediately, warning that if Catalan is no longer spoken, not only would a language be erased, but also "its history and culture". And she is clear about this: "Catalan is in danger of extinction". "I see it in adolescents, in the way we express ourselves in our daily lives. There is always some expression that does not work in Catalan. If all our lives we have spoken in Catalan and the day comes when we cannot find a word, something is going on", she says.

And what is going on? Clara, also from Berà, points out that one of the reasons this occurs is that some people are "ashamed" of speaking Catalan in public. Clàudia agrees: "It's true. I think it is in crisis because many people speak Spanish because it is their comfort zone".

Most kids find that "in the big cities" is where it's hardest to hear Catalan. "In L'Hospitalet nobody or almost nobody speaks Catalan at home", Melissa says. She, who speaks mostly Spanish, believes that knowing languages "is important" because it helps to learn others. "Catalan makes it easier for us to learn more languages", she says.

What references do you have?

Teenagers are missing out on the Catalan language

If there is one thing young people agree on during the debate, it is that they lack television references in Catalan. They are teenagers who grew up with the drawings of the Club Super3 and who, when they became teenagers, were left out in the cold: with no youthful offer in Catalan, they looked for entertainment in the Boing, Clan or Disney Channel channels. Clàudia explains: "When I was little I always watched the Super3, but when I got older I went straight to the Spanish channels. And then I saw that there was nothing in Catalan for kids my age". Lluís seconded her: "There wasn't an option for a youth channel in Catalan. When I was little, there was the 3XL, where they made teenage series that my parents didn't let me watch. Now it's gone, and I think something similar to that is missing". The Government closed the youth channel in 2012 with the aim of saving 12.4 million euros, a decision that these young people consider a mistake. "If the Super3 for 3-7 year olds has been so successful, why can't a teenage channel succeed", Àgueda asks. She believes that the problem is that "no one dares to take the plunge", but makes it clear that "if you don't take a chance to try and save your tongue, you'll never succeed".

When it comes to consuming audiovisual content, they turn to platforms like Netflix or HBO, where Catalan is marginal. According to the Consell de l'Audiovisual de Catalunya (the Catalan Audiovisual Council), the presence of Catalan on Netflix does not exceed 0.5%. "I would like them to show films in Catalan. It's a fish that bites its own tail: they don't do it because it doesn't have an audience, but it doesn't have an audience because they don't do it", Selma says. Aitor, on the other hand, states that "it's good that more series are translated, but I don't think it's possible, because companies are not willing to take this economic risk", he warns. According to Lluís, the solution is to "subsidise channels and businesses in Catalan" and thus be able to "institutionalise" a young television channel in Catalan.

Beyond the audiovisual imagination, young people also miss references of their age that speak to them in Catalan. "One way of promoting Catalan is through influencers. I think that if they are Catalan, they could speak in Catalan", Clara says, citing the cases of tik-toker Abril Cols or youtuber Paula Gonu, who, despite being Catalan, always expresses themselves in Spanish on social networks. "Abril Cols posted a video speaking in Catalan with her brother and received a lot hate", she laments. None of the participants in the debate cite Teen iCat o XL, nor Canal Malaia. This is a digital platform with content in Catalan, especially for teenagers and young adults, which has nearly 6,000 subscribers on YouTube and 12,000 on Instagram. One of its promoters, Juliana Canet, has more than 36,000 followers on her social networks.

What do you propose for the future?

They are asking to promote Catalan in schools... also in Spain

The debate ends with proposals for the future, most of which involve strengthening the language in the education system. One of the demands is very basic: "That all teachers speak Catalan at school", Clàudia says. In Catalonia, the language used in schools is Catalan, but most students admit that there are teachers, especially in secondary school, who give classes in Spanish.

Àgueda calls on politicians to "raise the language level, because in 4th year of ESO it's very basic", while Aitor points out that "I would give students from the rest of Spain the chance to speak in Catalan at school. Probably most of them won't want to, but they could be encouraged and perhaps it would be a way of eliminating hatred and rivalry between communities". The rest nod, and say they would also like to learn Basque or Galician at school.

It is not so clear how they imagine the situation of Catalan in the long term. While for Aitor it is unfortunately "inevitable" that it will disappear, Àgueda calls for a "fight" to ensure that this never takes place.