Spanish vs. Catalan: A top guide to language & culture differences

Did you visit Spain only to be surprised that not everyone there speaks Spanish? Here’s what you need to know about the differences between Spanish and Catalan.

You’re not the only one if you thought everyone in Spain spoke Spanish. After all, the language is named after the country. However, Spain isn’t just a monolith — there are many different subcultures within Spain, and many speak their own language. The largest of them is in Catalonia, where natives use Catalan to communicate with each other.

And if you’ve never heard of Catalonia, don’t worry; you’ve definitely heard of its capital: Barcelona! Residents of this city speak Catalan, which often surprises tourists who visit and expect to hear Spanish on the street.

So, just how different (or similar?) are Spanish and Catalan? Let’s find out!

Table of contents

Is Catalan similar to Spanish?

Catalan and Spanish are very similar languages. They’re both part of the Western Romance languages and, as such, have a high degree of mutual intelligibility. Here are some of the most significant similarities between Spanish and Catalan:

Discover the similarities between Catalan and Spanish.


Catalan and Spanish both use modified versions of the Latin alphabet, much like English. The Spanish alphabet includes an extra letter — Ñ/ñ — which is absent from the Catalan alphabet. Catalan uses the letters ny to make this phoneme, such as in Catalunya . On the other hand, the Catalan alphabet uses the ç as a diacritical mark to change the pronunciation of the letter c.

Besides these two differences, the Spanish and Catalan alphabets are virtually identical.

Conjugation rules

Both Spanish and Catalan are very conjugation-heavy languages. If you’re not a fan of conjugations, then neither of these languages will be for you. In both languages, you will have to modify the ending of verbs to match the verb tense as well as the person and number of the subject.

However, there is a major upside to languages with extensive verb conjugations, and that is that you can often omit the subject from your sentences. For example, instead of saying, “We went to eat,” you can drop the subject (we) and just start with the verb, as the conjugated verb includes the information about who went to eat. Here’s the same sentence in both Spanish and Catalan:

  • Spanish: Fuimos a comer.
  • Catalan: Vam anar a dinar.

Verb tenses

Both Spanish and Catalan have four verb modes:

  • Indicative mode: Used to express real things that happened, have happened, will happen, are happening, etc.
  • Subjunctive mode: Used to express things that might happen, such as hypotheticals.
  • Conditional mode: Used to express things that will or could happen if something else were to happen.
  • Imperative mode: Used to express commands.

Phonology and pronunciation

Spanish and Catalan have very similar phonologies, and picking up the correct pronunciation won’t be too much of a problem for speakers of any language. One of the biggest similarities is that Catalan has eight vowel sounds while Spanish only has one. In addition to a , i , and u , Catalan also has sounds for an open e , a closed e , a neutral vowel , an open o , and a closed o .

Besides the vowels, there are some minor variations in pronouncing certain consonants. For example, check out the following short video for an expert demonstration of the difference between the g / j sounds in Spanish and Catalan:

What are the main differences between Catalan and Spanish?

While Catalan and Spanish are closely related languages, they’re still not identical. On top of very diverse vocabularies, there are several grammatical and historical differences that you should take a look at.

Grammatical differences

There aren’t too many significant differences between Spanish and Catalan grammar. Both languages follow a subject-verb-object (SVO) structure, just like English. However, here are some grammatical differences worth pointing out:

  • The past tense: Spanish relies on the simple past, while Catalan uses the periphrastic past. The periphrastic past is used by using the verb anar (to go) conjugated in a non-standard present tense followed by the infinitive of the action that happened in the past.
  • Atonic pronouns: Catalan uses atonic pronouns, also known as weak pronouns, that don’t have a direct equivalent in Spanish. These are the hi and en pronouns, which are placed before or after a verb to denote direction and origin, respectively.
  • Articles before possessive nouns: Spanish — like English — doesn’t place articles before possessive nouns, as in mi casa (my house). Catalan, however, does use articles before possessive nouns, as in la meva casa (the my house).

Historical differences

Although Catalan and Spanish are both Romance languages , they developed independently after the fall of the Roman Empire. Catalan developed with the Gallo-Romance languages, while Spanish developed with the West Iberian group of languages. It wasn’t until the 15th century, when the kingdoms of Castile and Aragon got together, that Spanish started to have a greater influence over Catalonia.

Which language is easier to learn, Catalan or Spanish?

Intellectually, both languages are equally easy to learn because of their similarities in grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation. Spanish is rated as a “super-easy” language to learn for English speakers, according to the U.S. Foreign Service Institute . That means it only takes 600 class hours to learn Spanish from scratch, equating to less than two semesters worth of classes if studying full time. Although the FSI doesn’t rate Catalan, we can expect a similar learning timeline based on the overlap between Spanish and Catalan, making them both some of the easiest languages to learn for English speakers.

However, one thing worth pointing out is that there is an abundance of high-quality Spanish study materials available online and in person around the world. For example, you can sign up for Spanish lessons online and choose from group lessons, private lessons, and even self-study + private lessons programs . Catalan resources are much more scarce, so this might be something to consider when figuring out which language to learn.

Which language will be more useful to learn?

Spanish will be much more useful to learn than Catalan in almost any scenario. First, Spanish is spoken by nearly 550 million people in more than 20 countries, whereas Catalan is only spoken by about 8 million people, most of whom live in Catalonia. Plus, most people in Catalonia speak Spanish in addition to Catalan, so you won’t struggle too much to communicate without speaking Catalan. So, Spanish will be the most versatile language without a shadow of a doubt.

However, learning Catalan may be a good idea if you plan to settle in Catalonia long-term. Locals prefer speaking Catalan to each other and, even if their Spanish proficiency is high, will appreciate you speaking Catalan with them. In other words, if you want to truly fit in and become a Catalonia local, you must learn to speak Catalan.

Antoni Gaudí’s distinctive modern art and architecture can be seen at the Sagrada Família Basilica and in the colorful outdoor mosaics of Park Güell.

Catalan vs. Spanish in practice

Now that you’re familiar with the differences between Spanish and Catalan, let’s look at some concrete examples. How different (or similar?) do they actually look when it comes down to it? We’ll show you right below!

Similarities between Catalan and Spanish

Let’s start with the big fish: words that are similar between Spanish and Catalan. If you still have doubts about these languages being similar, here are 132 similar words in Spanish and Catalan.

Noun cognates

Few feelings in this world are as great as understanding a word in a language you don’t know. These are known as word cognates, which are words that sound similar enough in different languages to be mutually intelligible. These words can give you a big leg-up when learning a new language, as they will save you a lot of time when memorizing new vocabulary.

These are some of the most common noun cognates between Catalan and Spanish:

EnglishSpanishSpanish IPACatalanCatalan IPA
Water bottleCantimplorakantimˈploɾaCantimplorakantimˈploɾa

Verb cognates

Verbs in Spanish and Catalan have one key commonality: they have almost the exact same endings. The only exception are Spanish verbs ending in -er , since their Catalunian counterparts end in -re . Same letters, different order. So, it’s no surprise that countless verbs sound almost identical in these two languages. Here are some of them:

EnglishSpanishSpanish IPACatalanCatalan IPA
To acceptAceptaraθepˈtaɾAcceptarakθepˈtaɾ
To beSerˈseɾSerˈseɾ
To beHaberaˈβeɾHaveraˈβeɾ
To haveTenerteˈneɾTenirteˈniɾ
To comeVenirbeˈniɾVenirbeˈniɾ
To knowSabersaˈβeɾSabersaˈβeɾ
To be able toPoderpoˈðeɾPoderpoˈðeɾ
To fitCaberkaˈβeɾCabreˈkaβɾe
To runCorrerkoˈreɾCórrerˈkoreɾ
To maintainMantenermanteˈneɾMantenirmanteˈniɾ
To understandEntenderentenˈdeɾEntendreenˈtendɾe
To dieMorirmoˈɾiɾMorirmoˈɾiɾ
To openAbriraˈβɾiɾObriroˈβɾiɾ
To obtainObteneroβteˈneɾObteniroβteˈniɾ
To achieveCumplirkumˈpliɾComplirkomˈpliɾ
To offerOfrecerofɾeˈθeɾOferirofeˈɾiɾ
To promisePrometerpɾomeˈteɾPrometrepɾoˈmetɾe
To singCantarkanˈtaɾCantarkanˈtaɾ
To be worthValerbaˈleɾValerbaˈleɾ
To payPagarpaˈɣaɾPagarpaˈɣaɾ
To look atMirarmiˈɾaɾMirarmiˈɾaɾ
To studyEstudiarestuˈðjaɾEstudiarestuˈðjaɾ
To askPreguntarpɾeɣunˈtaɾPreguntarpɾeɣunˈtaɾ
To utilizeUtilizarutiliˈθaɾUtilizarutiliˈθaɾ
To needNecesitarneθesiˈtaɾNecessitarneθessiˈtaɾ
To tryIntentarintenˈtaɾIntentarintenˈtaɾ
To enterEntrarenˈtɾaɾEntrarenˈtɾaɾ
To teachEnseñarenseˈɲaɾEnseyarenseˈʝaɾ
To debateDebatirdeβaˈtiɾDebatredeˈβatɾe
To losePerderpeɾˈðeɾPerdreˈpeɾðɾe
To be afraidTemerteˈmeɾTemerteˈmeɾ
To breakRomperromˈpeɾRompreˈrompɾe
To decideDecidirdeθiˈðiɾDecidirdeθiˈðiɾ
To sleepDormirdoɾˈmiɾDormirtɾaˈðwiɾ
To translateTraducirtɾaðuˈθiɾTraduirdiskuˈtiɾ
To discussDiscutirdiskuˈtiɾDiscutirkompaɾˈtiɾ
To shareCompartirkompaɾˈtiɾCompartirˈbendɾe
To sellVenderbenˈdeɾVendreesˈkɾjuɾe
To writeEscribireskɾiˈβiɾEscriurekonikˈseɾ
To knowConocerkonoˈθeɾConèixerkonikˈseɾ
To moveConmoverkommoˈβeɾCommourekomˈmowɾe
To hurtDolerdoˈleɾDoldreˈdoldɾe
To fallCaerkaˈeɾCaureˈkawɾe
To concludeConcluirkonˈklwiɾConclourekonˈklowɾe
To pleaseComplacerkomplaˈθeɾComplaurekomˈplawɾe
To beatVencerbenˈθeɾVèncerˈbnθeɾ
To estimateEstimarestiˈmaɾEstimarestiˈmaɾ
To touchTocartoˈkaɾTocartoˈkaɾ
To hopeEsperarespeˈɾaɾEsperarespeˈɾaɾ
To workTrabajartɾaβaˈxaɾTreballartɾeβaˈʎaɾ
To winGanarɡaˈnaɾGuanyarɡwanˈʝaɾ

Adjective cognates

Spanish and Catalan have many adjective cognates, which is one of the reasons why these languages are so similar. Here are some of the most common adjectives that sound the same in Spanish and Catalan.

EnglishSpanishSpanish IPACatalanCatalan IPA

Differences between Catalan and Spanish

Believe it or not, there are many differences between Spanish and Catalan. Despite all the similarities, these are still separate languages with different histories, so there are many words that you won’t be able to understand just by speaking one of the two. Let’s take a look.

Words that are completely different

First, we’ll go over 34 completely different words in Spanish and Catalan. Even if you’re an expert speaker of one of the two, you most likely won’t understand any of these words. By the way, if you’ve studied French before, you might be able to pick up on the French influence on Catalan from the following words!

EnglishSpanishSpanish IPACatalanCatalan IPA
To closeCerrarθeˈraɾTancartanˈkaɾ
To grabCogerkoˈxeɾAgafaraɣaˈfaɾ
To mixMezclarmeθˈklaɾBarrejarbareˈxaɾ
To makeHaceraˈθeɾFerˈfeɾ
To drinkTomartoˈmaɾBeureˈbewɾe
To escapeEscapareskaˈpaɾFugirfuˈxiɾ
To loadCargarkaɾˈɣaɾDurˈduɾ
To meltDerretirdereˈtiɾFondreˈfondɾe
To shineBrillarbɾiˈʎaɾLluirˈʎwiɾ
To listenEscuchareskuˈʧaɾEscoltareskolˈtaɾ
To talkHablaraˈβlaɾParlarpaɾˈlaɾ
To returnRegresarreɣɾeˈsaɾTornartoɾˈnaɾ
To eatComerkoˈmeɾManjarmanˈxaɾ

False cognates

Another thing to pay close attention to is the relatively high number of false cognates between Spanish and Catalan. For example, Toronja means grapefruit in Spanish. And, just like that, there’s a word in Catalan that’s just the same: toronja . So, it must also mean grapefruit, right? Nope! It actually means orange in Catalan! As you can imagine, these words can be real headaches for speakers of either language. Here are some you should be aware of to avoid making an embarrassing mistake!

SpanishSpanish IPASpanish meaningCatalanCatalan IPACatalan meaning
AlejaraleˈxaɾTo move awayAletejaraleteˈxaɾTo flutter
EscoltareskolˈtaɾTo escortEscoltareskolˈtaɾTo listen
LlevarʎeˈβaɾTo takeLlevarʎeˈβaɾTo take away
OrejaoˈɾexaEarOrejaoˈɾexaTo air
PastelpasˈtelCakePastellpasˈteʎA mess up
RentarrenˈtaɾTo rentRentarrenˈtaɾTo wash
AtenderatenˈdeɾTo attendAttendreatˈtendɾeTo pay attention to

Catalan vs. Spanish culture

You might think there aren’t many differences between Spanish and Catalan because they’re both spoken in the same country. However, Catalonia has a distinct identity with its own culture and traditions.

Woman discovers the differecnes between Spanish and Catalan.

FAQs — Catalan vs. Spanish

Is Catalan just a Spanish dialect?

No, Catalan isn’t a Spanish dialect. It is its own language with its own regulatory organisms, the Institute for Catalan Studies (IEC) and the Acadèmia Valenciana de la Llengua (AVL).

Where is Catalan spoken?

Catalan is spoken in the Spanish regions of Catalonia, the Balearic Islands, the Aragonese Strip, and the Valencian Community, as well as the French region of Roussillon, the Italian city of Alghero, and the country of Andorra.

What is the difference between a dialect and a language?

A dialect is usually an informal, regional variation of a language, whereas a language is a fully defined formal language with its own regulatory organisms. In general, you can think of a dialect as a local way of engaging with a bigger language that often changes the parent language’s grammar, spelling, and pronunciation.

However, they also say that a language is a dialect with an army and a navy, which points out the often arbitrary distinctions between languages and dialects. For example, Russian and Belarusian are largely mutually intelligible, but Belarusian remains a separate language thanks to being one of the official languages of Belarus. On the other hand, Mandarin and Cantonese aren’t mutually intelligible at all in spoken form, yet they’re both considered dialects of Chinese.

What is the difference between Spanish and Castellano?

Spanish and Castellano are often used interchangeably, although they’re not exactly the same thing. The Castilian dialect of Spanish — known in Spanish as Castellano — developed in the Middle Ages during the Kingdom of Castile in central and northern Spain. This was the kingdom that launched expeditions to the Americas, which is ultimately why this is the version of Spanish that got popularized around the world.

The Real Academia Española, the agency that governs the language, considers both Castellano and Spanish to be synonymous. In practice, however, Spanish is often used to refer to the language spoken all over the world, while Castellano is used to refer to the specific version of Spanish spoken in Spain.

How do you say hello in Catalan?

Hello in Catalan is exactly the same as Spanish: hola . The pronunciation is slightly different from Spanish, although pronouncing it with a Spanish accent will get you close enough. If you’re looking for other greetings in Catalan, you can try the following:

  • Bon dia. This means “good morning,” and its Spanish equivalent is buenos días .
  • Bones. This means “good ones,” and its Spsnish equivalent is “ buenas .” It is commonly used around the times when morning changes into afternoon and when afternoon changes into evening.
  • Bona tarda. This means “good afternoon,” and its Spanish equivalent is “ buenas tardes .”
  • Bona nit. This means “good night,” and its Spanish equivalent is “ buenas noches .”

Is Catalan more Similar to French or Spanish?

Catalonia is sandwiched right in between Spain and France. It borders France’s region of Occitanie, whose local language, Occitan, resembles Catalan very closely. Since all of these languages have a common origin, you can think of them as a continuum where, in general, geographical proximity translates into linguistic proximity. Since Catalonia is right in the middle of Spain and France, Catalan resembles Spanish and French. It’s perhaps a bit more similar to Spanish, however, since Catalonia has been a part of the Spanish State for centuries.

Can you speak Spanish in Barcelona?

Yes! Although Barcelona natives will speak Catalan to each other, everyone speaks Spanish in addition to Catalan. So, don’t be alarmed if you walk into a store and someone greets you using Catalan. Barcelona is a very cosmopolitan city with people from all over Spain and all over the world, so natives are used to speaking Spanish with other people in Barcelona.

Catalan vs Spanish - which should you learn?

Ultimately, choosing which language to learn is a very personal decision that should be made with not just the brain but the heart. You will spend a lot of time learning either language, so choose the one you feel more passionate about. The important thing is learning the language to a usable level, as neither will be very helpful if you don’t learn it all the way.

Still unsure which language to study? Then consider taking a sample lesson from each language to see which you like best! It’s now easier than ever to learn Spanish or Catalan, whether in-person or online . And if you want to learn more about Spanish, take a look at our Spanish blog ! We regularly publish helpful Spanish guides, from how to say hello in Spanish to how to wish a Merry Christmas in Spanish !

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