If you’d ask most people who have ever studied a Romance language which languages are included in the list, they’d probably come up with at least three or four, including French, Spanish, Portuguese and Italian. A fifth one, Romanian, would probably complete the group.
The sixth most commonly spoken Romance language is Catalán, spoken mainly in northeastern Spain, southeastern France and the tiny landlocked country of Andorra in the Eastern Pyrenees. If you add to this the almost identical language, Valenciano, you come up with a figure of more than 10 million current speakers. Valenciano is the version of Catalán which is spoken in the adjacent area of Spain south of Catalonia.
The first time that I remember hearing Catalán when I was only 18 years old and was spending a few days in the Spanish Basque country. At the time, I was working for a summer in southwestern France.
I didn’t know what I was hearing.
It sounded vaguely familiar as if they were combining some of the elements of Spanish, French and Italian. I asked these people in Spanish what language they were speaking. They turned out to be students vacationing from Barcelona.
I found it very interesting that these students were equally proficient in Spanish and they explained to me that Spain had more than one “official” language. Spanish, being number one, is spoken by 99% of the population. It is known as Castellano, or in English, Castilian.
Catalán /Valenciano is second on the list. One thing I learned after living for a summer in Valencia is not to call the language Catalán . Valencianos are very proud of their language and will point out the differences from Catalán even though they are very small differences in a few words and pronunciations.
Galician, or Gallego, as it is called in the northwestern section of Spain just north of Portugal, is the third most important “co-official language.” Galician sounds and looks much more like Portuguese than Spanish. It is easily understood by people in Portugal.
Basque is the fourth co-official language. Until democracy returned to Spain after the replacement of the dictator Franco in 1975, speaking and educating children in Basque (Euskera as it is known in the region) was illegal. Its origins are still disputed but it is not related in any way to a Romance language. It is termed a “language isolate.” With its co-official status, it is taught in schools and there is a growing pride in the Basque culture. The language is also spoken in the Western Pyrenees section of France by fewer people than in Spain.
The fifth co-official language is Aranese which is equivalent to the ancient Romance language Occitan, . It is spoken by a small number of Spanish citizens in the Central Pyrenees area of Spain known as the Val d’Aran. Occitan is spoken in the south of France but it does not have official status along with French.
During the summer that my wife and I spent in Valencia, my wife was learning Spanish. I, on the other hand, was fascinated by Valenciano- Catalán . It would confuse Meryl to no end when I would point out a new word in Valenciano.
Although I never reached any degree of fluency in Valenciano or Catalán , after a few months I was able to understand much more. I had to remember that its roots were in Occitan. I enjoyed seeing that it has equal status with Spanish. In the city of Valencia, many signs were in both languages, Spanish above the Valenciano. In the countryside, where Valenciano was spoken more often, many signs were only in Valenciano. Although it sounded like Spanish, it looked like French and had similarities in sentence construction to Italian.
I often wished that I had grown up in a bi-lingual community. It would have made my learning of foreign languages as an adult much easier. It has been proven that the earlier a child hears multiple languages, it becomes easier to acquire additional languages in the future.
Instead, having been born in the United States, it is much more “labor intensive” to learn a second or third language. It is always fun to travel to areas where the residents are very comfortable with two, three or even four separate languages. When I visited India a few years ago, I observed how easily people can move from one language to another. Many times, I saw our guide start out in Hindi, the “national language,” but then the two people would intuitively arrive at a mutually understood regional language.
This reminds me of the many times when I am conversing on Zoom with Michel, my “language exchange” friend in France. He understands Spanish as well. Sometimes when I cannot remember a specific French word, it will come out as a Spanish word with a French pronunciation. When this happens, I will usually see the expression on his face which means that he knows what I am trying to say, even though it wasn’t proper French.
Isn’t learning languages fun?