Language and integration in Barcelona, a globalised bilingual city

Interviews for the UNU-GCM project, Women of the World, tell us about the encounter of women immigrants in Barcelona with new language(s).

Alex Lazarowicz
8 June 2015
Women of Barcelona

Lola. UNU-GCM. All rights reserved.

Lola. UNU-GCM. All rights reserved.

The city - like the rest of the region of Catalonia - is officially bilingual, with Catalan and Spanish both widely spoken. This has been the case since the democratic transition following the Franco dictatorship. However, this has not taken the heat out of language as a political issue, especially now that a centralist Spanish government is facing off against a Catalan government calling for an independence referendum.

While politicians in Spain debate which language is the more persecuted, it is immigrants who learn them in order to integrate themselves into the city. Tapping into their experiences with these languages can tell us a lot about the city they are now living in, but also about the women themselves and the countries they left behind them.

Barcelona received waves of immigrants from other regions in Spain over the last century, and has in recent years become a truly diverse city, welcoming immigrants from all corners of the globe. This, coupled with the substantial tourism in Barcelona means that English has also become an important language at street level. At the same time, this is the capital city of a region where the Catalan language has flourished in public life since Spain’s democratic transition, and learning Catalan is now a cornerstone of integration policy in Catalonia. It is also a prerequisite for working in the public sector, and many other jobs as well.

Women come to Barcelona from across Europe, Latin America, Asia and Africa. There is a wide range of educational backgrounds too, from women with basic education to women with post-doctorates. Those who have come forward to participate in these interviews are legal migrants, to be sure, and will in this sense not be representative of all migration experiences in Barcelona.

But it is telling that among the 16 women interviewed, there is one woman – Lola – from Spain’s southern region of Andalusia. Andalusia and Catalonia have a long history of migration, with waves of immigration from Andalusia to Catalonia taking place during the periods of industrialisation and post Spanish civil-war. This is not Lola’s case, in fact, as she is a relatively new immigrant to Barcelona, but many Catalans have an Andalusian background. For Lola herself, the idea of being somewhere different with a different culture and language, even though we are talking about regions rather than nations, is present in her reflections throughout the interview.

Language skills on arrival

Lola, together with the four Latin American women interviewed, arrived with the advantage of having Spanish as their native language, so this aids them in finding their feet quickly in Barcelona. On the other hand we have Edna from the Philippines, Deepti from India and Jenni from Finland who arrived with English but with no Spanish or Catalan, and Sithy from Cambodia, Fatima from Morocco and Bombo from Senegal who do not appear to have even had English to fall back on.

Stephanie from France and Serenella from Italy arrived without knowing these languages, but their ability to learn it quickly either through study (Stephanie), or the proximity of her native language (Serenella) to Spanish/Catalan means that they were quickly able to get up to speed.

We then have a group of women who arrived with a good knowledge of Spanish, whether through having lived in other parts of Spain (Huma from Pakistan), having studied it before (Lingling from China), or thanks to a work opportunity before arriving in Barcelona (Nilza from Mozambique). All in all, the non-native speaking Spanish women interviewed were quick to learn Spanish in order to gain a foothold in the city and to be able to communicate with people.

Discovery of Catalan

As anyone who spends more than a holiday in Barcelona knows, whatever your previous conception of Barcelona in terms of culture and language, you will soon discover the presence of Catalan. Like many Europeans, when women like Deepti and Edna arrive, they are surprised to find that there are two local languages.

All the native Spanish speakers were quick to take Catalan classes (Joice even took them online before leaving Venezuela), as were those arriving with a decent level of Spanish. To the credit of those facing the most linguistic obstacles, learning Catalan seems to have followed on from learning Spanish from scratch. Bombo’s efforts in taking a course regarding Catalan society, Fatima’s (from Morocco) determination to learn Catalan stemming from not being able to read her child a Catalan story, and Sithy and Deepti’s efforts to take classes were commendable. As many of the interviewees mentioned, the effort required to make a living, look after your family, and learn two languages is considerable.

Nilza, Lidia and Stephanie were fast-tracked into learning Catalan through the presence of Catalan partners in the case of the former two women, and in Stephanie’s case through a previous close relationship between her family and a Catalan family.

Edna too has a partner from Barcelona, but one can assume that that partner is not a native Catalan speaker given her exasperation with the lack of patience she has experienced from Catalans regarding the speaking of Catalan. It is also the case that for her and Jenni, with their experiences in the world of hospitality, there was little need to speak Catalan, which may partly explain their lack of Catalan knowledge.

Languages key to making progress

The impact that knowledge of languages has had on the trajectory of these women is considerable. Edna found learning Spanish enabled her to get a job in a restaurant and Stephanie saw that learning Catalan opened many doors for her in her career in journalism. Sithy used her recovery from a kidney transplant to learn Spanish and to get one foot on the working ladder, quickly learning Catalan thereafter. Lingling, Deepti, Bombo and Fatima have all learnt both languages to varying degrees, helping them take part in the labour market, in local associations and in neighbourhood life.

The success of many of these women in learning both languages can be seen in how they have become intermediaries or contact points for people from their country of origin. Lingling has set up a translation company with many branches, including in the Chinese consulate. Sithy helps Cambodian students with various administrative tasks when they arrive in Barcelona to study. Fatima also takes part in local associations helping Moroccan women with her language knowledge, as does Bombo for the Senegalese community.

With many of the women interviewed there has also been a sense of languages unlocking their ability to get out of the domestic sphere, whether that be looking after their own families (Fatima) or working in the care sector (initially for Edna) or both (Bombo).

Catalan as an obligation?

To what was the learning of Catalan felt to be an obligation? Barcelona’s bilingual and international nature often tips newcomers towards learning Spanish first. Nora, for example, strongly objected to the way in which Catalan was imposed on her, and Edna did not feel that enough patience was forthcoming since she clearly did not need it in her work. However, the vast majority saw it as a way of furthering their personal development, and as a logical step along their progression in Barcelona.

Even when someone feels they want to make the effort to learn Catalan, they are also met with obstacles, as seen through Huma’s experience. Her stay in Madrid meant she arrived with fluent Spanish, which became a hindrance to learning Catalan as Catalans would speak to her in Spanish. Not having a partner who was Catalan, she is now gaining more exposure to the language through her children who are learning Catalan at school and making Catalan friends.

Catalan as key to unlocking Catalan society

Of course knowledge of Catalan does not need to be the only way in which someone can enter Catalan society. This can be seen in the experiences of Serenella and Nora who have taken courses but do not find themselves using the language much in practice. The feeling of being embraced by Catalans does help, and can be seen through the contrasting accounts of Serenella and Nora in this regard, where Serenella is invited into the houses of friends’ families, while Nora has found this more difficult.

Even those with the most positive experiences of Catalan society were quick to classify it a closed society. Nilza and Stephanie  were very clear that arriving with a Catalan family there to welcome you into society was a distinct bonus. Not only was Catalan quickly learnt, but various doors were unlocked in the social, cultural and work spheres. With its persecuted history as a language, and since Spanish is the more globally useful option of the two, it is no surprise that Catalans embrace those who do make the effort

However, this is clearly not the only way to experience Barcelona. Serenella, Jenni and Edna used English in their working lives, in the hospitality sector or working for English companies. The internationalisation of Barcelona since the 1992 Olympics has been spectacular and those who have lived here before and after testify to the enormous changes the city has undergone. So much so that it is perfectly possible to live a life in Barcelona where English and not Catalan is more useful in your daily life.

The Barcelona effect

Although the definitions of “integration” varied across the interviews, all interviewees felt part of Barcelona, some admitting they felt more at ease in Barcelona than in their city of origin, after having spent many years here.

Sithy, Lidia and Fatima all talk about the need to change their rhythm of life to integrate into the city, with Barcelona life faster than what they were used to. The hardworking nature of local people is also commented on in a positive way as something that has influenced the personal development of the women interviewed.

Barcelona is also praised for the amount of activities that it organises, from neighbourhood and city celebrations, to the presence of local associations and civic centres where one can take part in a plethora of activities.

For this reason, and the fact that the women’s experience of prejudice has been the exception rather the rule – as well as the frequently-mentioned curiosity of Catalans in learning about other cultures – all has resulted in a very positive integration experience. As this article shows, while Barcelona has offered them opportunities, many of them have repaid the city with their efforts, not least in the learning of both local languages, which has in turn led to further personal and professional progress.

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