Illustration by Theresa Grieben
Spain: the country where paella, flamenco dancing, bull fighting and sangria spring to mind — and obviously where Spanish is spoken, right? Well, it’s not as simple as that.
The various regions in Spain boast very different cultural traditions, many of which have little to do with the clichéd stereotypes of the country. Bull fighting has been banned on the Canary Islands, and it is the sardana — not the flamenco — that is the dance of choice in Catalonia, along with the aurresku in the Basque Country. But that’s not all. Did you know that in Spain, along with Spanish (called castellano in Spanish), there are a multitude of regional languages spoken by several million people?
Example: Benvingut (Welcome)
Catalan is by far the most widely spoken regional language in Spain. It is spoken in the independent communities of Catalan, Valencia, Aragón, Murcia and on the Balearic Islands, with various regional differences.
With around 11 million speakers in four countries, Catalan is also the most spoken regional language within the European Union. It is the official language of Andorra and is also spoken in small regions of Italy (such as in the city of Alghero in Sardinia) as well as in France (in the Pyrenées-Orientales area in Perpignan). Around 35% of the population in Catalonia says that Catalan is their mother tongue, with a similar number reporting that they predominantly speak Catalan in their everyday lives. Furthermore, 95% of the population in Catalonia understands the language.
To the untrained ear, the language may sound similar to Spanish, but many Catalonians don’t like to confuse or mix the languages and prefer that visitors recognize Catalan as a language unto itself.
Example: Benvido (Welcome)
Another widely spoken regional language in Spain is Galician, which, like Spanish and Catalan, belongs to the romance family of languages and can similarly trace its heritage back to Latin. In Galicia, it is spoken by around 3 million people, and the language has incredibly close ties to the Portuguese language.
But beware to not confuse Galicia, the region in Spain, with the Galicia that straddles the border between Poland and Ukraine!
Example: Ongi etorria (Welcome)
In the Basque country you will encounter another fascinating language. Basque is a so-called isolated language, which, according to current research, is not related to any other living language, making it unique in Europe. It is estimated that Basque is spoken by 700,000 people in the Basque region, an area along the Spanish and French border at the western end of the Pyrenees.
The majority of Basques count both Basque and Spanish as their mother tongue, and the use of Basque in schools, the media, and other forms of public life varies from region to region.
What other languages are spoken in Spain?
Alongside these three well-known regional languages, there are a few others in Spain, some of which are only spoken by a few thousand people. These include Aragonese (spoken in some areas of Aragón), Extremaduran (spoken in Extremadura) and Asturian (spoken in the extreme northwest of Spain and the bordering areas of Portugal).
Why were the regional languages oppressed under Franco?
The one thing that all regional languages in Spain have in common is that they have experienced an extremely turbulent history, and the usage of these languages is still a contentious political issue.
Under the dictatorship of Francisco Franco, which lasted from 1936 till 1975, regional languages were marginalized and even banned in public places. Be it in schools, in the media, in theaters or in the church — in all public spaces, only Spanish (castellano) was allowed to be spoken, a tactic designed to encourage unity in the Spanish nation. Landmarks and streets were renamed, cultural institutions were closed, and libraries were purged of all regional language traces.
Despite decades of oppression, the regional languages clung on and fortunately were never fully wiped out. After the end of the Franco dictatorship and the return to democracy in the late 1970s, numerous efforts were made to strengthen the regional languages and bring them back into the public sphere. Nowadays, Spanish (castellano) is the official language of Spain, and according to the Constitution, all Spaniards are “obliged to know it and to use it.” However, Spain’s linguistic diversity is also incorporated into the Constitution, “The richness of Spain’s linguistic diversity is a cultural asset which must be respected and protected.” The additional Spanish languages can therefore be given the status of “co-official” languages in the autonomous communities where they are spoken. This is the case, for example, with Catalan in Catalonia and Valencia, for Basque in the Basque Country, and Galician in Galicia.A
What standing do regional languages have in Spain?
What does this mean exactly? In the respective regions, the co-official languages can be used to communicate with authorities, they are used as the teaching language in schools, and road signs and notices are often displayed in both. Nowadays, there are also many cultural institutions dedicated to the research, conservation and promotion of regional languages, such as the Instituto Ramon Llull which offers Catalan language courses and supports authors who publish in Catalan. In 2005, Catalan, Basque and Galician became semi-official EU languages, meaning that while they are not considered to be working or contact languages, they can be used for correspondence with the European Institutions. The only other languages with this status in the EU are Scottish Gaelic and Welsh.
What’s the role of the regional languages in the Basque and Catalonia independence movements?
In Catalonia and the Basque Country, the usage, defense, and promotion of the Catalan and Basque languages are central to each region’s independence movements. In both regions, there are significant numbers of nationalists who feel it’s not enough to simply have the status of “autonomous community” within Spain, thus they campaign to establish independent Catalan and Basque states. For advocates of independence, the languages are a special tool for emphasizing their unique cultural identity, thus distinguishing themselves from the rest of Spain.
Want to experience Spain’s linguistic richness?
The best way to understand the linguistic beauty of Spain is to travel to the country and experience it for yourself! But don’t worry, you won’t need to learn all of the regional languages before you fly, because even though Spain is home to a wonderful array of regional languages, you can certainly travel across the country armed only with Spanish. So, what are you waiting for? Get started with Spanish today!