Similar but Oh So Different: Learn Catalan with the Guide for Spanish Students
So you want to learn Catalan?
Whether you are learning Catalan because you actually need it or out of pure curiosity, it is still a meaningful decision because you will be learning a minority language and helping preserve its culture.
This resource guide will help you take the first steps toward approaching the Catalan language in a practical way, particularly if you are already studying Spanish.
- 1. Spot the Similarities Between Spanish and Catalan
- 2. Learn What Makes Catalan Distinctively Unique
- 3. Explore These Useful Resources
- 4. Get Witty With Your Study Methods
- 5. Dazzle and Shine with These Common Catalan Phrases
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1. Spot the Similarities Between Spanish and Catalan
It is wrong to think Catalan is a dialect of Spanish. Often, these languages do not sound a bit alike. In fact, Catalan itself has its own dialects!
However, considering its geographical distribution and presence, it is only normal that Catalan shares a lot of features with Castilian Spanish. If you already speak basic Spanish, you might find it easier to learn Catalan.
Here are some of the main connections you can make between Spanish and Catalan:
Pronunciation is very similar.
A vast majority of letters are pronounced the same way in Catalan and Spanish.
For instance, Catalan rolls the letter “r,” just as Spanish speakers do. Take the word carrer (street) as an example, in which your tongue has to vibrate like crazy at the back of your teeth!
Additionally, as is the case in Spanish, the letters “v” and “b” have practically no difference between them when speaking. For example, in Catalan, the words volar (to fly), vendre (to sell), beure (to drink) and banquet (feast) are written with these two different consonants at the beginning. But orally, they sound as if they all start with “b.”
Finally, Catalan speakers do not pronounce the letter “h,” just like in Spanish. It may appear at the beginning of words, but it is not pronounced. Take the word hola (hello) which, just like in Spanish, is pronounced as if the “h” did not exist!
All of these examples, as well as the pronunciation of each and every single letter of the Catalan alphabet, can be found in the video, “Learn the Catalan Alphabet.” Make sure you watch the whole video so you can see the rules mentioned above!
There is a large amount of common vocabulary.
Some basic expressions and a massive amount of vocabulary is shared in Catalan and in Spanish, although writing and pronunciation may change slightly between the two.
For instance, the words amor (love), tu (you), persona (person), cantar (to sing), comprar (to buy) and frase (sentence) are pronounced almost the exact same way in both languages and share the same meanings. Check out a list of 199 words that are written the same in Spanish and Catalan!
Here are more examples of basic phrases that are shared:
Hello — Spanish: hola | Catalan: hola
Yes — Spanish: sí | Catalan: sí
No — Spanish: no | Catalan: no
I don’t know — Spanish: no lo sé | Catalan: no ho sé
A little — Spanish: un poco | Catalan: un poc
Thanks — Spanish: gracias | Catalan: gràcies
Fortunately, knowing other Romance languages will give your Catalan learning process a boost!
You can watch videos using Catalan and try to spot any other shared words between the two, like this one on YouTube, or on language programs. For example, the FluentU program not only shows you videos with native speakers using Spanish but also has interactive captions. Find a word in Catalan that sounds like a Spanish word? Search for it in the program to see how it’s used in Spanish.
All that being said, the differences between Catalan and Spanish are numerous. Let’s take a look at what makes Catalan unique.
2. Learn What Makes Catalan Distinctively Unique
Mind those tricky sounds and letters.
A couple of letters sound different when pronounced in Spanish and in Catalan.
For instance, the consonant “x” in Catalan is usually pronounced as “sh.” That is why you will find the words xocolata pronounced as “shoh-koh-latah” (chocolate).
In Spanish, the letter “x” is pronounced either as “ksi” or as “s.” For instance, the words xenofobia (xenophobia) and xerografía (xerography) in Spanish are pronounced by most as if they start with an “s,” but are pronounced like they start with a “sh” in Catalan.
There are a few words in Catalan that also use the “ks” sound for the letter “x,” such as examen (exam) and èxit (exit). You will get to know the exceptions through use.
The typical Spanish sound “ñ” becomes a written “ny” in Catalan, but it is pronounced almost the same way. That is why the word xampany (champagne) is actually pronounced “sham-pa-ñ” rather than “sham-pa-ny,” and thus it is necessary to be familiar with this sound that does not exist in English.
You can hear this sound pronounced by playing the “Learn Catalan from Barcenlona” video again and jumping to 5:53!
Additionally, you will often find that several Catalan words end with a “ç.” This is called la ce trencada. This letter is pronounced like the Spanish “s,” and therefore a word like feliç (happy) sound like “feh-lees.”
The letters “j” and “z” also have different sounds in Catalan from their Spanish equivalents.
In Spanish, the letter “j” makes a very deep “h” sound, like in the English word “house.” The name Juan, for instance, would actually be read “huan.” In Catalan, however, the letter “j” makes a sound similar to the “g” in “genre.” For example, the word jo (I) would have that soft “g” sound in the beginning.
As for the letter “z,” in Spain it is read like the “th” in “thought” but in Catalan it sounds like like a regular English “z.” For example, the word zona (zone) would be pronounced “thona” in Castilian Spanish and “zona” in Catalan.
You can find a useful video on YouTube that details these differences between sounds and teaches many more!
Drop that “n”!
Words that finish in “-ión,” “-an” or “-en” in Spanish are often reduced to “ó,” “é” or “á/à” in Catalan. That is why you see so many words like these:
Extension — Spanish: extensión | Catalan: extensió
Reduction — Spanish: reducción | Catalan: reducció
Catalan — Spanish: Catalán | Catalan: Català
Too, as well — Spanish: también | Catalan: també
Other Catalan examples include investigació (investigation), qüestió (issue, matter, question), ficció (fiction) or edició (edition). Apparently, there are several words you already know in Catalan and you were not even aware of it! Thank goodness we have some cognates over here!
Some vowels might go missing.
A major difference between Spanish and Catalan is that several words ending in a very open, well-pronounced vowel in Castilian Spanish become vowel-less in Catalan. Here are some examples:
How much: Spanish — quanto | Catalan: quant
Finally: Spanish — finalmente | Catalan: finalment
Let me: Spanish — déjame | Catalan: deixa’m
Mandate: Spanish — mandato | Catalan: mandat
These words are pronounced just like they look, with no sound after the last consonant. It gives Catalan quite a futuristic vibe, doesn’t it?
Funny similarities with French, Italian and Spanish… all at the same time.
As mentioned before, Catalan should not be reduced to or described as a piece of patchwork, designed with several other Romance languages. It is so much more complex, inspiring and unique than that!
However, if you do have some basic notions of other languages, this knowledge will come in handy.
Did you know that apart from gràcies, another way of saying “thank you” in Catalan is mercès? Does it remind you of any other language? Exactly! In French, we say “thank you” by using the word merci!
Another example: In Catalan, rather than asking “Habla inglés?” (Spanish for “Do you speak English?”), you ask “Parla anglès?” This version is much more similar to the formal Italian “Lei parla inglese?”
Catalan even shares several similarities with European Portuguese. The Portuguese also tend to let go of vowels at the ends of words when they are speaking, so the European Portuguese words finalmente (finally), “olá a todos” (hello, everybody), “bom dia” (good morning) and deixa‘me (let me…) will shockingly sound way more similar to Catalan than Spanish, with their Catalan equivalents finalment, hola a tots, bon dia and deixa’m.
Watch out for those false amigos.
Look at this short list of words:
Spanish: llevar | Catalan: llevar
Spanish: cercar | Catalan: cercar
Spanish: afamada | Catalan: afamada
Spanish: cocina | Catalan: cosina
Spanish: hombres | Catalan: ombres
Similar, right? In fact, they are so similar in writing and phonetics, you might think they mean the same thing, too!
Well, the problem is… while in Spanish cocina means “kitchen,” in Catalan cosina means “female cousin”! Well, that is awkward! The word for “kitchen” in Catalan is actually cuina.
The other pairs in this list are all false friends, or false cognates—they look extremely similar but have different meanings. You will find several of these as you learn the two languages.
For instance, llevar means “to remove,” not “to take” as in Spanish. Cercar means “to search,” not “to enclose/to fence” as in Spanish. Afamada means “famous” (female) in Spanish, but in Catalan it is used to express that you are extremely hungry (if you are female)!
And while hombres means “men” in Spanish, ombers sounds the same but means “shadows” in Catalan. What an unexpected turn of events! Try going with homes next time.
Keep vocabulary differences in mind.
Some words in Catalan are completely different from words in Spanish. Here are some examples:
Dog — Spanish: perro | Catalan: gos
Ice — Spanish: hielo | Catalan: gel
Maybe — Spanish: tal vez, quizá | Catalan: potser
To want — Spanish: querer | Catalan: voler
To talk, to speak — Spanish: hablar | Catalan: parlar
I am called Maria. — Spanish: Me llamo Maria. | Catalan: Em dic Maria.
This is why Catalan cannot be described as a dialect of Spanish or even a variety of Spanish. Sometimes, side by side, this language is unrecognizable for Spanish speakers.
Learn Catalan for what it is: a whole language in its own right, with its own identity and unique ambiance!
3. Explore These Useful Resources
Institut Ramon Llull
You have just found a gem! This resource promotes the Catalan language and culture for wider audiences, including several articles on Catalan music, art exhibitions, events and literature.
Not only is it available in English, you can also browse it in Spanish or Catalan, allowing you to practice reading skills in your target languages whenever you feel like you need a challenge!
Still not convinced? The website contains a full section devoted to resources and advice on learning the Catalan language, including internship programs to study Catalan, Catalan certificates and a list of more than 150 universities worldwide where you can learn the language.
Learn Catalan from Barcelona
You knew this list would not be complete without YouTube, a language learner’s occasional savior! While several YouTube channels that claim to teach Catalan seem to be irregular uploaders or contain a short list of content, you can always mix and match to get the sweetest possible juice.
Learn Catalan from Barcelona, for example, introduces you to the very basics of the Catalan language, addressing topics like personal pronouns, how to tell the time, and even a couple of easy everyday expressions to start talking as soon as possible!
You can pair this channel up with others such as Aprender Catalán and Catalan Language to gain access to vocabulary related to animals, the beach, the months of the year and even types of vegetables! Ready to start exploring?
Because INTERCAT specializes in teaching Catalan, the whole website has a user-friendly, welcoming vibe to it.
It is a platform dedicated to helping Catalan learners, and it does this by providing useful resources divided by level, answers to frequently asked questions, suggestions of exchange programs and in-person programs in universities.
Perhaps one of the most helpful aspects of this resource is that you can access it in English, German, Spanish, French and Chinese!
While Argumenta is not exactly a friendly resource for absolute beginners, you would be wise to save it for the future, when you are a little more comfortable with Catalan and its ways.
If you are planning on working or studying in a Catalan-speaking region, this platform will help: It is dedicated solely to Catalan in a formal context.
It is written in Catalan only and will help you by addressing topics such as how to write useful notes in class, develop credible arguments or craft a solid, coherent text from beginning to end.
Dedicated to learning Catalan in a university context, SpeakCat’s platform is organized in such a way that you can access your own study itinerary according to level!
You will also be able to use extra materials organized by topic, the website’s very own Catalan-English-Spanish dictionary and several grammar aids to help you stay on track.
RodaMots is perfect for language learners who take pleasure in learning new words and expressions “just because.”
If you are genuinely curious about what words Catalan speakers use on a daily basis, why they use them and what they actually mean, this platform gives you a new word every day. You will find isolated words with an illustration, the origin of the word, the word in context and even that week’s topic.
Think of RodaMots as a huge dictionary… but more fun!
4. Get Witty With Your Study Methods
Beyond the resources above, here are a few more ideas for how to continue your Catalan studies!
Get your reading skills on… with the news.
If you are just getting started learning Catalan—or any language, really—the thought of buying an entire manual or spending money on literary masterpieces might seem overwhelming and even demotivating.
That is where news websites come in!
Most news sources in Spain, including newspapers (periodicos), have an option in Catalan. Make sure you click that option to have access to several news articles about the latest events in short bites and a more accessible discourse.
Perhaps you can start with El Periódico, EL PAÍS or ara.cat!
Practice listening with music in Catalan.
If you are new to the Catalan music scene and its incredible diversity of styles and approaches, you may want to visit the platform Viasona. It is a portal for music in Catalan only—it even includes its own magazine as well as its own encyclopedia of artists!
On the other hand, if you want to start exploring your options right now, a healthy list of suggestions is in order:
For indie music, go with Mishima, Animal, Buhos and Sopa de Cabra.
If you are into pop or pop-rock, you might begin by listening to Amelie, Teràpia de Shock or Beth!
Seek actual Catalan speakers.
Even if you do not feel comfortable speaking Catalan from day one, you can get precious advice on what expressions are commonly used, what vocabulary is more appropriate for which situation and what daily Catalan really sounds like by reaching out to actual Catalan speakers.
This can be done in a variety of ways. If you are only looking for advice and prefer writing, you could always try publishing at a Catalan forum like WordReference Forums Català.
If your goal is speaking, try meeting Catalan speakers online using platforms like InterPals or italki!
5. Dazzle and Shine with These Common Catalan Phrases
Ready to tackle the language? Start by learning these common expressions!
“Déu n’hi do!”
If we had to find a literal meaning for this expression, it would mean something along the lines of “God gave to you.” Nowadays, however, it is used to express meanings like “quite” or “very much.”
Additionally, it can be used to express admiration or emphasize an idea.
You just found out your best friend can drink 10 beers in a row and not pass out? “Déu n’hi do!”
Did someone just ask you whether your mother-in-law is really that terrible and you are positive the answer is yes? “Déu n’hi do!”
As a last example, imagine you have just met your friend’s children and they are very cute. You might say (very enthusiastically, of course!) “Déu n’hi do! How cute!”
“Fer-ne cinc cèntims.”
So you are the type of person who is always on the run, latte in hand. You like to keep things concise. We have got your back!
This expression literally means “Make it five cents,” and it is used to mean “get straight to the point” or “make it brief.”
As you may have guessed by now, it is mostly used when you are asking somebody to explain something briefly, in a nutshell.
However, it does not always have to be rude, dismissive or cold: Sometimes you request that someone keep their story short for their own sake! For example, imagine your cousin just returned from vacation. You might ask, “Me’n faràs cinc cèntims, del teu viatge?” meaning, “Will you please tell me briefly how your trip went?”
If you are invited for a lengthy session of socializing, drinking and eating some seriously delicious tapas, the words fer vermut (literally “doing vermouth”) should be included somewhere in the middle.
Barcelona Eat Local and TimeOut Barcelona write about the city’s vibrant tapas bars and tasty wines around the concept.
Next time somebody says to go fer vermut, you know you can count on a sequence of delicious treats… possibly as an intro to an even tastier Catalan lunch! And who would reject some of that Catalan goodness?
“Vés a pastar fang!”
For those days when all you want and need is to be left alone, Catalan is here to inspire you and help you tell that very annoying classmate or co-worker to go take a hike!
This expression literally means “go knead clay.”
Need we say anything else? It is a very Catalan way to ask others to give you a break!
Oh, you are still there? Gràcies (thank you) for sticking around!
Learning Catalan will definitely be a rewarding experience and make you and other Catalan speakers proud, but Castilian Spanish is equally important to establish a deeper connection with Catalonia, and surviving there will require a sound understanding of both.
We will be here to support you, as always. Fins després (see you later)!
Download: This blog post is available as a convenient and portable PDF that you can take anywhere. Click here to get a copy. (Download)