Catalan is spoken throughout a territory of 68,730 km2, divided among four European countries (Spain, France, Andorra and Italy) in which over 13.5 million people live. This leads to the inevitable question—how many of these people understand Catalan? Or, to be more precise, how many of these people speak it?
The situation of Catalan is not the same throughout its linguistic area. At one extreme there is Catalonia, Andorra and La Franja de Ponent (an area of Aragon that borders Catalonia) while at the other extreme there is the city of L'Alguer (on the island of Sardinia) and the area known as Northern Catalonia (in the French department of the Eastern Pyrenees). In Catalonia and La Franja de Ponent almost everyone understands Catalan and more than 75% of the population speak it. In contrast, in L'Alguer and Northern Catalonia only half of the population understands Catalan and less than half speaks it. Somewhere in the middle of the scale are the other two territories where Catalan is spoken: the Balearic Islands and the Valencian Community. Altogether, of the 13.5 million people who live in the linguistic area, it is safe to say that more than 9 million speak Catalan and 11 million understand it.
It is very important to relate all of this information to the age of the people concerned. In Catalonia, the Balearic Islands and the Valencian Community, it is the youngest people who understand Catalan best and who have the most skill in speaking it. In Catalonia, for example, 75% of the total population speak Catalan, but this figure reaches 90% among young people aged between 15 and 29. Nowadays it is very unusual to meet young people in Catalonia with whom you cannot speak Catalan.
The figures given above show that Catalan is not an obscure minority language that is only spoken among the elderly and that is about to disappear because parents no longer teach their children to speak it. With the exception of La Franja de Ponent, Northern Catalonia and L'Alguer, Catalan is an official language throughout the linguistic area and it is present to some extent in all spheres of society. For example, Catalan is taught in every school, and many children, particularly in Catalonia, are taught almost exclusively in Catalan. Catalan is also present in the universities. In Catalonia, over 70% of students sit the university entrance exams in Catalan, and in the different Catalan universities, the use of Catalan as the teaching language varies between 60 and 100%. It is therefore likely that many students from elsewhere who come to Catalonia will have the opportunity to study certain subjects in Catalan, which does not have to be an insurmountable challenge if they already speak Spanish, since the two languages are very similar. Experience shows that it will take someone who knows Spanish less than a fortnight before they can understand someone speaking in Catalan. And if they set their mind to it, in just a few weeks they will be able to speak it and almost without realising it, they will have increased their linguistic resources.
The vitality of Catalan is also visible in the cultural statistics. Each year in Spain almost 6,000 books are published in Catalan, some 12% of the total number of books published in Spain. In Catalonia, 30% of newspapers sold are in Catalan and the television channel with highest audience figures is TV3, which broadcasts all of its programmes in Catalan. In radio broadcasting, the leader in terms of audience figures, Catalunya Rï¿½dio, also broadcasts exclusively in Catalan. In the city of Barcelona, which is a real heavyweight in the theatre world, the majority of plays are performed in Catalan. In this area, the weak point for Catalan is the cinema, where it is not yet present at the levels that could be expected from a language that is used so extensively in all other areas of culture.
However, Catalan is not only a language for education and culture, but also for trade and business. In Catalonia, for example, it would be very difficult to go to a bank or a shop and not be served in Catalan. In addition, many establishments are legally obliged to have all of the documentation with which they provide their clients available in Catalan. Banks are therefore obliged to have their cheque books available in Catalan; travel agencies their contracts, hotels their bills, and so on. In fact, everyone comes into contact with Catalan in their everyday lives. In Catalonia, Catalan is present in four documents that are regularly sent to the majority of households: the electricity bill, the telephone bill, the water bill and the gas bill. In many cases, pay slips can also be included here, which are often received more happily than bills... It is true that the spread of Catalan still meets with resistance in some areas (such as the courts and the police) but little by little this resistance is being overcome. It will be no time at all before Catalan is seen as an equally normal language as all of the other European languages spoken by a similar number of people, such as Danish, Finnish, Greek or Swedish.