When the rest of your classmates are reaching for coveted spots in French & Spanish classes, you may want to venture the road less traveled. RSJ Contributor Adina Levin discusses her love affair with Catalan, and why less popular languages could earn you a kiss from a head of state. Article by Gillian Kemmerer
While Americans are generally criticized for their monolingualism, it seems that those of us interested in breaking the mold tend to reach for the same textbooks. Spanish continues to lead the pack with four times the number of enrolled students as its runner-up, French. While critical languages such as Arabic and Chinese continue to rise, they have yet to eclipse the golden three: Spanish, French, and German.
The US Government has attempted to prioritize less-popular languages deemed “critical” to national security and economic stability. The Boren Awards, a set of scholarships and fellowships valued up to $30,000, are granted to students who wish to undertake critical language study.
But what’s in it for you? Taking the time to study a different language may unlock cultural experiences and regional secrets available to only a privileged few. RSJ Contributor Adina Levin weighs in on her decision to study Catalan–the official language of Andorra, and a widely-used lingua franca in Catalonia, the Balearic Islands, and the Valencian Community. Choosing a less common language may result in a few roadblocks, but in terms of personal rewards and cultural immersion, Adina shows us that her decision was a fulfilling one.
RSJ: What influenced your decision to study Catalan?
Adina Levin (AL): During two exchange trips as a teenager to improve my Spanish, I fell in love with the city, the culture, and the people of Barcelona. And I know it’s quite common… But even though my Spanish skills skyrocketed while I was over there, I encountered many social situations–family dinners, bar nights, Barça games, etc.–where it would’ve been super-helpful to know Catalan to actually understand what was going on.
I wasn’t a local, and everyone knew, and it was kind of embarrassing and very taxing to have most conversations translated to me in Spanish. It just wasn’t natural… which was when I realized that if I wanted to milk my immersion experience to the fullest, I needed to learn Catalan. It was the only way to get an authentic experience of the area/culture and grow closer to the community I had learned to love so much.
RSJ: How did you go about learning the language when your returned home? Surely there were fewer resources available than if you had continued with a more common choice…
AL: Thankfully, Columbia University offers a few (but awesome) Catalan classes. And even if it didn’t, New York City has a bunch of other educational institutions where one can seek Catalan classes. I guess I really lucked out. However, if there had not been so many options, I would’ve taken a semester abroad in Barcelona and enrolled in classes over there.
RSJ: What were some of the rewards of choosing Catalan? Did you feel like there were any cultural experiences or relationships that would not have been open to you otherwise?
AL: It’s like I’m really part of the family now! Learning the language has allowed me to more deeply understand the ever-problematic dynamic and history between Catalans and Spaniards (have you SEEN them at Barça-Madrid soccer matches?), earn scholarships, and meet amazing people who beam with delight upon learning that I’m a Catalan student.
Everyone is very supportive of me embracing their culture through leaning their language; I’ve been so incredibly welcomed into the Catalan community that everyone calls me “catalana al cor”–”catalan at heart.” The ex-president of the Catalan government kissed my hand when I told him that after a conference here in NYC ! Now, if only I could meet those Barça players…
RSJ: The ex-president of Catalunya kissed your hand?! I’m sure Gerard Piqué will follow soon. Do you have any last tips or words of encouragement for students who want to go down a similar, untrodden path?
AL: There really aren’t any disadvantages to learning a “local” or “minority” language. Surely my time spent learning Catalan could’ve been put to perfecting my Spanish or learning French (still on my to-do list), but I have a more intimate and genuine connection to this less-widely-spoken language because of the warm support and encouragement I’ve received along the entire way. I’m now a specialist in a topic very dear to millions of people, and that makes me feel really special, too. VISCA!
Gillian says: If you’re interested in learning more about the Catalan language, please visit Institut Ramon Llull. Their website provides numerous ways to explore Catalan culture, including a directory of all universities in which Catalan courses are offered throughout the world.