Catalan is the language of Catalunya (or Catalonia in English). Catalunya is located in the northeast of Spain, near the French border. Dialects of Catalan (known as "Català" in Català) are also spoken in Valencia (known as Valencian or Valencià), the Balearic Islands (known as Balear or Mallorquí). Catalan also is the sole official language of Andorra, although it is spoken alongside both Spanish (Castilian) and French.
Català, a minority language in Spain, was heavily suppressed during the Franco years, and this pressure, combined with the exigencies of maintaining any minority language in the modern world, led to a great decline in its usage during the twentieth century.
Through the efforts of the Catalunyan government, Catalan has made a comeback second in magnitude only to that exhibited by Hebrew in Zionist Israel. Català's comeback is even more impressive, as Hebrew was widely known as a liturgical language, while knowledge of Catalan declined greatly until its revival. During an era in which languages are becoming extinct at a terrifying pace, Catalan has managed not only to survive but to prosper, becoming once again the everyday language of most of Catalunya's citizens.
Catalan is spoken by perhaps 80-90% of Catalunyans, although almost all understand it. In the Balearic Islands, perhaps 70% of citizens can speak Català, and in Valencia, less than 50% are capable of speaking it.
In Catalunya, it has co-official status with Castilian, but Catalan is considered the region's "own language". Public officials must speak Català, although citizens may deal with the administration in either language, and documents are printed in both languages.
Català is considered the normal language for education in Catalunya, but native Castilian speakers may receive elementary education in Castilian. As of 1990, around 30% of students received their entire primary education in Catalan. The three universities in Catalunya all use Catalan as their official language, but students may use either.
Several television and radio channels broadcast entirely in Català, including Spain's public television and radio service, Catalunya's public service, and several private stations. Several newspapers are printed in the language, and many books are published in Catalan.
In the Balearic Islands, Catalan is granted similar official status, although its presence in the media is somewhat less impressive. Valencia grants Valencian (a dialect of Catalan) official status along with Spanish, but administration is primarily conducted in Spanish. Valencian receives little attention in schools, although Valencia's Statute of Autonomy provided for its inclusion. The media broadcasts little in Valencian.
Outside of Spain, in the minority communities in Rousillon, France and L'Alguer, Sardinia, essentially no public usage of the language exists, in administration or school. Additionally, very few media outlets employ the language in these areas. In France especially the language, like all minority languages in the country, is actively supressed.
Catalan is spoken by approximately 7 million of Spain's citizens, and has co-official status in Catalunya. It is a Romance language of the Ibero-Romance subgroup. Its immediate siblings are the group of languages/dialects in southern France variously known as Provençal, Occitan, and Languedocien. The relation is close enough that they are often all considered to be one language, Catalo-Occitan.
Its next closest relative is probably Spanish, although some linguists classify it closer to French. Classification is difficult because, while the phonology, or sound system, of the language remains closer to French, the morphology, or system of word formation and derivation, leans more towards the Spanish. However, the language did not come about as a derivative of either Castilian or French. It evolved from a different dialect of vulgar Latin entirely.
Catalan was probably distinct from its neighboring languages at approximately the same time as the other Iberian languages first diverged: around 900-1000 CE. Prior to that, the Romance languages were really dialectual divisions of Romance (vulgar Latin after the fall of the Roman Empire) rather than separate languages. During this period, Spain was almost entirely controlled by the Moors (indeed, this pressure may have led to the individuation of these languages).
Catalunya evolved approximately in parallel with Castile and the other Spanish kingdoms. Asturias fought the first battles of the Reconquista, or 'reconquest', of Spain. During this period, Catalunya emerged, initially under the auspices of the Franks, who used Catalunya as a buffer zone to prevent further Muslim incursions into modern-day France. Later, this Frankish land was joined with Aragon and the Kingdom of Valencia as the Crown of Aragon. During this period, the literary language of Catalunya changed from Provençal, the greatly admired language of the Troubadours, to the vernacular Catalan.
Subsequently Catalan experienced its Golden Age in literature. The 14th and 15th centuries led to its wide use by poets and playwrights. However, the political melding of Castile and Aragon with the marriage of Ferdinand and Isabella in 1492 led to the unification of Spain under the rule of Castile. This began the decline of Català. Until the modern period, it remained the language of the people, if not the aristocracy and the writers. Not until the 19th century, along with many other minority Romance languages, did it experience a revival. Literary Catalunya's revival earned the title Renaixença, or Renaissance. B.C. Aribau's La pàtria, an ode to Catalunya, was published in 1833 and is considered the landmark of the period.
Catalan experienced a period of stagnation with the oppression that came with the Franco regime; no education was permitted in Catalan and books were rarely published in the language. Minority languages were heavily repressed, with no government recognition at all and their use in the public sphere illegalized. Not until the return to democracy and the establishment of autonomy in Spain's regions did Catalan begin its revival.
Today, writers, educators, and journalists use Catalan widely within Catalunya, and use of the language has greatly increased, preserving the language and its interesting history for the future. Its status is no longer doubtful in the slightest (unlike, sadly, many other minority languages in Europe). Both publicly and privately, it is widely used in everyday life.
More info available at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Catalonia