Sunday, January 17, 2010

Learning The Languages

Often times when I talk to someone who's leaving Barcelona, they'll mention the work situation and the fact Spanish or Catalan is required for many positions as the reasons they're leaving and I'll wonder if they know how that sounds. I mean, what did you expect?  True, Barcelona presents unique challenges to learning Spanish if you haven't studied it before and there's the separate question of Catalan, but come on - it's a foreign country, so as my grandmother says, shame on you if you haven't learned enough of the local language to order a beer and ask for change correctly after a year. 

Like I said, Barcelona isn't the easiest place to learn Spanish despite the fact it's in Spain. The large expat population of native English speakers, not to mentioned other Europeans, makes it entirely possible to have an international circle of friends where English is the common language. I know many people who have been here for years living like this, speaking little to no Spanish; yet they still thoroughly enjoy the city and are in many ways its biggest fans.

Another obstacle to learning Spanish is the local people. I don't think it's particularly controversial to say Catalans tend to be more reserved and insular compared to the rest of Spaniards, preferring to go home rather than grab drinks with colleagues after work. One of my first students told me I made a mistake coming here instead of Madrid for this very reason and I have to admit it took some getting used to the closed nature of the people. Still, while not as jovial as Andalucians, they aren't statues and often all it requires is for you to initiate the conversation, but in order to do this it helps to know the language. You don't expect them to speak to you in English, do you?

If you can't speak Spanish, then you are limiting your work options to basically teaching for a school or company, bar-tending in an Irish pub or answering phones in a call center. Compared the wages a Spaniard would get for doing the same things, you're doing okay in terms of money, but perhaps they're not for everybody or if you want to live here full time.  For those with an entrepreneurial drive, I think there are a lot of opportunities but you'll need to eventually deal with the infamous Spanish bureaucracy or suppliers which means you'll need to learn the language.

For those looking for a more stable and secure environment like office work, even if it's a multinational and English is the official language, you're nevertheless in Spain. Still, being a native English speaker is like having a second degree, having work experience in the states or the UK is a real feather in the cap, so if you can speak Spanish too, you definitely have an advantage, even in these depressed times. In fact, in every company I've taught at over the years there's always been one or two highly valued guiris working there.

You don't even have to speak it fluently, just competently, such are the low expectations people have that foreigners will speak their language. And, while maybe Barcelona isn't the optimum location, you're still in Spain with Spanish television, neighbors, and bars where you can easily practice if you're willing to make even a minimal effort. As for the question of Catalan, if you've chosen to make Barcelona home, despite what you might think of the politics, it's a respect thing and learning it will open even more doors.

This isn't to say learning Spanish or Catalan will guarantee your move to Barcelona will be a success, but I think it's safe to say that it will greatly improve your chances and overall experience.  So please, don't ever blame the need to speak the local language as a reason for leaving because it reveals more about you than the city and not in a positive way.


  1. The old saying holds true, "When in Rome...". We live in Catalunya, near a small Catalan speaking village and, as well as practising the language at every opportunity, we've embarked on our free Catalan courses. It's up to us to make the effort!

  2. I'm taking Spanish lessons now. My husband is a native speaker, and his company is offering him a transfer to Barcelona. If we do end up going I most definitely plan on learning as much Spanish as I can and use it at every opportunity. It would be rude not to try and learn it if we're going to live there among the people.