Don’t They Speak Spanish in Spain?

by Alice · 10 comments

The author, Alice Lapuerta, with Maria

By Alice Lapuerta
Originally appeared in Multilingual Living Magazine.

Opening a Can of Worms

I always thought that in Spain, they speak Spanish. All of them. It was only after I met my friend and flat mate Maria that I learned that this is not the case.

Maria is from Valencia and speaks Valencian. This is her first tongue, she says. And her second tongue is Castellano. She is bilingual. There are also Catalan, Basque, Galician – all of which are languages of Spain. Or are they dialects?

This is all a rather sensitive, steamy subject tied to history and politics. A subject, I learned, that one best not bring up at college parties. At least, not if you want to make an intelligent impression on certain strangers (and not annoy them with the first few words that come out of your mouth).

This is exactly what happened to me. I was at a party and met this semi-good-looking fellow who introduced himself to me, saying he was from Catalonia.

“Oh, cool,“ I said. ”My friend’s from Spain as well!” highlighting my personal connection.
His initially friendly face shut down like a shop at closing hours.

“I am not from Spain! I said I am from Catalonia! Catalonia is not a part of Spain!” he barked at me. And gave me this deprecating look that seemed to say: you ignoramus! How dare you say that Catalonia is a part of Spain?!

Erm. It isn’t? Is Catalonia in France, or even Italy? I dared not ask out of fear he would really bite my head off if I did. I had unwittingly offended him but didn’t know why or how. He looked like he was daring me to ask, just waiting for me to probe further.

“Sorry,” I mumbled, confused. I let him be and went off to look for Maria or a world atlas, whichever I came across first. There was Maria, so I headed towards her.

“See this guy over there? He is from Catalonia and got all upset when I said that he’s from Spain, like you. I thought Catalonia’s in Spain? What the heck?” He still glared at me across the room, and would, no doubt, have liked to further impound on me how terribly wrong I was with my statement.

“Oh, goodness, that fellow” she said, “He seems to be one of those Catalonian separatists who want to be independent from Spain. Don’t mind him. He’s just really sensitive about this subject.”

Right. Phew! So Catalonia was in Spain after all. I mean geographically. From a non-separatist perspective!

Linguistic Misconceptions

Prior to meeting Maria, I hadn’t really thought much about Spain, Spaniards or the Spanish language, nor how this is all tied to nationalism, identity groups battling for independence, and the loaded question of whether there is only one language or several. In Spain they speak Spanish, don’t they? What more does one need to know?

Apparently things are not that simple. I had been content with a blurry vision of garish images and cultural stereotypes that I had picked up from movies and books. After I met Maria, she gently corrected some of those images in my mind, and realigned some other linguistic misconceptions that I had about her country.

She went about doing this in a kinder, gentler way than the belligerent Catalan nationalist from the party. I decided to ask her about it first thing in the morning after the party.

“You have to know this,” she says, “Catalonia is an autonomous region in Spain. It’s the area around Barcelona. And its official language is Catalan. It’s as official as Castellano – that is Spanish.”
I was already getting frustrated right there. “So what exactly are you speaking now? Spanish? Castellano? Catalan? Valenciano?”

“My first language is Valenciano, which is spoken around the area of Valencia. And next to Valenciano, I speak Castellano. I’m bilingual.”
“Castellano, that’s, like, Spanish.”
“Yes. You say Español when distinguishing it from international languages, but speak of Castellano when distinguishing it from other official languages in Spain.”

Other official languages? How many official languages can a country possibly have?

“Five. Plus two unofficial ones.”
“And Valenciano is an official language, too?”
“Well, yes.”
“And Catalan?”
“Catalan’s official too.”
“And what is the difference between Catalan and Valenciano?”

“Well …this whole thing is a bit controversial, because some claim that Valenciano is a dialect of Catalan; from a purely linguistic perspective it probably is. But it is a separate, official language, like I said. Talking about this is like opening a can of worms. Do you really want to get into this?”
“I’m all for it. Let’s open this can of worms, by all means!”

We dove deeply into the domain of history and politics. Wars have been fought over this issue: whether a language is a language or whether it is a dialect.

Colosseum in Valencia

“Valencia, or Comunidad Valenciana, which is the correct name of the region, is an autonomous region of Spain,” Maria explained. “As are Catalonia, Galicia, Castilla and Madrid. They are all autonomous. At one point, between the 14th and 16th centuries, both Catalonia and Valencia, along with Aragon and theBalearic Islands, were all kingdoms under the same king, or all part of the Kingdom of Aragon, which eventually merged with the kingdom of Castilla when the Catholic Kings Isabel and Fernando married. But saying that Valencia is or has been at some point part of Catalonia is not correct. Saying that they were part of the same kingdom at one point is, though.”

This explained a lot, especially why the issue of language versus dialect is so loaded. Claiming “Valeciano is a separate dialect” or even better, “it is a separate language,” is not a simple statement. It comes with a gigantic historical and sociopolitical baggage that states that the Valencian community is, and always has been, independent from Catalonia.

Some Catalonians are eager to unite the whole area, including Valencia, under a Catalonian flag. So by saying “Valenciano is a separate language,” you keep them at an arm’s length. You might as well shake a fist at them and shout: “Stay away from us, you bastards!”

But by saying Valenciano and Catalan are one and the same language, you affirm Catalan nationalist agenda that aims at immersing Valencian identity, language and culture, and soil, thereby exclaiming “We are all One, Brothers!”

That’s a huge can of worms, indeed. No matter what you say, you step on someone’s toes! And of course you never, ever say to a Catalonian separatist that he’s from Spain and that they speak Spanish. That’s just provoking him to pull out the guns right then and there.

Right, so now I was quite a bit wiser. I will henceforth be careful about making sweeping statements such as “They all speak Spanish in Spain.”

Growing up Bilingual in Valencia

Later that day, I found Maria in the kitchen frying pieces of chicken in a gigantic pan. Still full of questions, I wanted to ask her, what this language-versus-politics meant to her on a personal basis, when it comes to everyday living.

Maria and her family all speak Valenciano at home, in the street, at work, with friends, neighbors, in the shops. Valenciano is spoken everywhere. So, when do they speak Castellano?
“We get Castellano mostly on TV and in school, in some subjects. Where we live, Valenciano does not feel at all like a minority language. It’s the language that everyone speaks on the streets.”

Maria added tomatoes and green beans to the pan, and seasoned it generously with paprika. “My father’s really good at this,” she said as an aside, “you should try his paella one day. Real Valencian paella is different from the stuff they serve in Madrid. It comes with rabbit and chicken, and not seafood!”

She smiled and then continued. “We learn not only Valencian grammar and spelling in school, but also literature, linguistics, in as much depth as the Spanish language. We grow up reading as much in Valenciano as in Spanish. Most kids have fewer mistakes in Spanish because Valenciano is more difficult in terms of rules of spelling and exceptions, but otherwise we can speak, read and write in both languages. Funny, though, that most of us speak Valenciano on a regular basis but spell better in Spanish.”

She poured water over the chicken and sprinkled a pinch of rosemary over it, submerging the kitchen in a delicious aroma that made me feel instantly hungry and homesick for a country that I didn’t even know.

“And do your parents never have problems enforcing Valenciano at home in any way?” Like any bilingual situation I imagined it must be hard work to maintain a minority language in the face of an overpowering majority language.

“No. I think it is interesting that we acquire Valenciano without any intentional effort from the parents. Parents do supervise their children’s Valenciano, and correct them and teach them when the circumstances arise, but they are not enforcing the language at home in any way. Yet, slowly we have all become completely bilingual.”

The red broth blubbered and boiled in the pan. I watched, fascinated, how she sprinkled rice in the form of a cross across the pan.
“Why do you do that?” I asked immediately.
“It’s a way of measuring how much rice has to go in there.”
That’s an interesting way of doing it, for sure! I wondered whether I’d manage to recreate that on my own one day?

“Did you ever rebel against Valenciano? As in that you suddenly decided that you didn’t want to speak it anymore, seeing no purpose in it?”

“Yeah. One curious thing is that most kids go through a phase in which they just want to speak in Spanish! It’s around the time when they have been a year or two in school, interacting with teachers in Spanish, learning songs and games and meeting kids who do not speak Valenciano. Eventually, they go back to speaking Valenciano regularly, but the knowledge of Spanish obviously remains.

“There, it has to cook for a good hour now until it’s done.” One hour seems like forever to someone whose stomach was growling wildly, like mine. I grabbed a celery stick and chewed on it thoughtfully.

“Why is it important for you to keep this language alive and use it with your children despite it being a minority language?” I was playing devil’s advocate. That was a mean question, but I was rather curious about her answer.

“For many reasons, really. It might be a minority language compared to Spanish, but it is still spoken by 2 million people. It has a wonderful literature; it’s embedded in my culture. I don’t know any nursery rhymes in any other language but Valenciano, I can’t speak to a baby in any other language, it feels fake, strange. It is important to me that my children speak to my parents in that language as well. In summary, it’s enriching, it’s culture that I can pass on to my kids with no effort. And it is a beautiful language, too. I prefer poetry in this language to any other. And here is what very few people know: Joanot Martorell’s Tirant lo Blanc, written in the Valencian vernacular in 1490, inspired
Cervantes to write El Quijote!”

Plus, of course, they have the original Paella, the preparation of which is a real art, as I had just witnessed! By the time our conversation was finished, lunch was ready as well.

As the mouth watering taste of the Paella blended with the swirling of information in my mind, I felt as if I was setting foot in a newly discovered country. Just when we think we know all about the world we live in, we find we have only touched upon the surface!

Bon Profit!

Want to learn how to make your own Paella Valenciana? Click Here for the recipe and a photo (taken by the author) of the final dish!

Credits for map images: Languages in Spain  & Dialectical Map of Catalan Language

Alice Lapuerta, the Editor of Multilingual Living Magazine, is a regular contributor at Multilingual Living. She grew up in a trilingual household of German, Korean and English. She and her husband from Ecuador live in Austria where they are raising their three children trilingually in German, Spanish and English.

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{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Wendy Bergonse December 16, 2011 at 9:39 pm

Interesting! I lived in Valencia for 2 years as a college student and afterward. I was in the capital of Valencia, and the only people who spoke Valenciano were the grandparents. Was your friend from a small town in the region rather than the capital? My Valencian friends really did not care for the Catalanes! Ha ha ha… This was the late ’80s/early ’90s, so things have probably changed since I was there as far as how much they enforce learning the Valencian language in school now… My boyfriend’s family did the cross thing when making paella too… brought back good memories :0)


2 Marta December 16, 2011 at 11:53 pm

Hi! I’m from Barcelona and schools teach all subjects in Catalan, except for Spanish and English and we’re told at school that Valencian is a dialect of Catalan. I love paella by the way 🙂


3 Víctor December 18, 2011 at 1:42 pm

The information given in this post does not reflect the linguistic reality of Catalan/Valencian. From my point of view, it is not valid saying: “Claiming “Valeciano is a separate dialect” or even better, “it is a separate language,” is not a simple statement. It comes with a gigantic historical and sociopolitical baggage that states that the Valencian community is, and always has been, independent from Catalonia.” Why do we have to speak abou history, social science or politics when analyzing the family tree of a language? If we look at the language from a linguistic and grammatical point of view, if we see the evolution from a linguistic point of view… they ARE the same language. Of course languages are not independent from the environment, but wouldn’t you feel betrayed if someone said that American English and British English are different languages? Or the Spanish spoken in Argentina is a different language from the Spanish spoken in Chile? If that was true, then we would have as many languages as regions or even towns. Of course AmE and BrE are not different languages, and neither Valencian and Catalan or all the Spanish variants spoken around the world. Then, inside a language, there are dialects: ant that’s the core of dialectology: the study of how geographical, historical and social elements affect the way a language is spoken. And then, after all these classifications, come politics, trying to take advantage of languages and messing all things up.
What I am trying to say is that we should not mix things. When speaking about science, we look at it from a strict point of view: things are as proven, After that, we can see them from a sociological, historical, religious or political point of view, but we all accept that there is a scientific basis which should not be altered. Why don’t we apply the same to linguistic studies?
We are not meeting anyone’s agenda by saying the truth: Valencian is a dialect from Valencian, as well as the Catalan spoken in the Balearic Islands. We cannot allow politics to come before languages or people. Linguistics are first.


4 Antoni March 4, 2012 at 3:12 pm

The truth of the matter is that the Catalan language has regional variations in Catalonia, Valencia and the Balearic Islands, much in the same way English and French have regional variations at both sides of the Atlantic. This a proven historical fact, there is no controversy, or in other words, if there is controversy the real question is WHY somebody wants to promote it. There’s the side of facts, truth and reason, and there is the other side. As for the idea of political union of the lands of Catalan language, the idea exists, but then there are many ideas around. The relevant question is: ¿are there political organisations hegemonic in the Catalan language territories, in a position to pass the agenda of political union? The answer is NO. The three main territories, Catalonia, Valencia and the Balearic islands, they are different societies. All this has more to do with all what happens in Valencia, a land devastated by its own demons, ruled by the worst band of corrupted politicians. The region is bankrupted and without a vision of future. So they are obsessed with the Catalans as an outside enemy. As long as the Catalans are there to be blamed, the criminally and shamelessly corrupted Valencian elite can buy time and save its ass. This has worked for many years, but the money has run out, there’s nothing left to steal, and there are winds of regime change in Valencia which are very close to what is going in nort-afican countries.


5 brokenheart June 10, 2015 at 11:35 am

The first thing you (foreigners) need to understand about Spain is that this is a multinational country with very different culture, traditions and languages. When some of you claim that “we are Spanish” is like you sink a knife in our heart, it’s very very painful, really 🙁

Btw, Catalan and Valencia both are two different dialects of the same language. Saying they are different language is completely stupid is like if you say that the Spanish dialects spoken in South America are not Spanish at all.


6 Sophia June 12, 2015 at 4:20 pm

Yes, it seems as if knowing Spanish only is not sufficient to get you through Spain! Need to familiarize yourself with other dialects and languages.


7 Lori June 14, 2015 at 10:01 am

I enjoyed this. I found it while working on a post of my own about languages of Spain (we currently live in Valencia). Come take a look: Thanks!


8 Coralie June 17, 2015 at 5:40 am

@brokenheart: You say “Catalan and Valencia both are two different dialects of the same language”, which language would that be?? Catalan? Valenciano? Spanish?

I have many Catalonian friends who consider themselves Spanish and who have a Spanish ID card. I don’t feel insulted when being told that I am French (another very multicultural country with indepedence issues for some regions).
PS: I was in favour of a referendum (as I am pro-democracy), but I can’t understand the comparison with being stabbed! Super violent and hateful towards Spanish people.


9 Livonor June 22, 2015 at 3:11 pm

Being the language nerd I am I really despise those political “picuinhas”. Like in Brazil when people get upset or joke about gringos who take Portuguese as Spanish despite the fact that Brazilians are completely ignorant about foreign stuff and can’t tell Russian and Czech or Mandarin and Japanese (!) apart. From the extreme south of Italy, passing through the Iberia to the Latin America, all those languages exist in the same spectrum, the rest is political crap. It’s like they say “a language is a dialect with an army and a navy”.


10 Cantia June 3, 2016 at 2:13 am

This is so wrong… Apart from what the other comments say, I must add another thing: it is not “asturian”, have you ever heard of “asturleonés”. And in Cantabria, which is not in Castilla (it used to, but not now), there is more Spanish than “cántabro” (a dialect from the leonés and not from bable or asturian).

And, in order to conclude, I also want to say another thing: the Spanish or Castellano was born in those places where the cantabrians were because it was born “between the mountain of Santander and Burgos”.


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