From Barcelona: Learning the languages

From Barcelona: Learning the languages

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Leave Barcelona if you are unhappy. Just don’t name the language requirement in your work place as one of the many push factors, says blogger Jeremy Holland.

Very often when I talk to someone who's leaving Barcelona, they'll mention the work situation and the fact that Spanish or Catalan is required for many positions as the reasons they're leaving.

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.  

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 mention 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.

"Lo siento. No hablo Espanol!"

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 centre.

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 and if you have worked in the States or the UK, it’s a real feather in the cap. Top that with your ability to speak Spanish and 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, neighbours, 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 matter of respect and learning the language 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.


Jeremy Holland / Expatica

Written by an American expat, From Barcelona is a blog dedicated to the city, the life and the people of the capital of Catalunya (Catalonia).

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4 Comments To This Article

  • Francesca Maggi posted:

    on 7th May 2010, 19:34:26 - Reply

    Your article is spot on! As the Univ of Mich rep in Italy, so many people write to me looking for a job - but I always ask, 'do you know Italian?

    Anyway, I'd like to post your great cartoon above on the UpYourBottom website (we are 'partners' of sorts) - would that be okay - with link?

    http://www.upyourbottom.com
  • Alan posted:

    on 14th April 2010, 03:32:52 - Reply

    The article struck a chord with me. I spent a year living in Catalonia and learnt Catalan before Spanish. I've been living in the Basque Country for 20 years now and when I make efforts with my faltering Basque the reaction is completely different. Basques slap me on the back and buy me a drink. Catalans in my experience speak the "other language": if a foreigner speaks to them in Catalan they answer in Spanish and vice versa. This happens time and time again and I have even found open hostility from Catalan speakers to me using their language [edited]. The Catalan government is doing its best to erradicate the Spanish language [Edited by moderator]
  • Diana posted:

    on 8th April 2010, 09:12:13 - Reply

    Hi Jeremy,

    I am Catalan, a proud one I would say. And I'm leaving in Holland, so I am an "expat" myself.

    I wanted to thank you for your article. We could desagree in some aspects... more related to personal feelings conected to the political side of the situation of Catalunya being part of Spain than anything else... nevertheless, I think you're right at the point with many things you say.

    Catalan people are not closed, they're just a bit careful. We like to go out and have a drink with colleagues. We just like to know they're trustworthy. Happens in many cultures, I am feeling it myself here in the the Netherlands!

    We speak two mother languages since childhood, and even we're proud to use the one we consider "ours", we're willing to change to the other one with no problem when the situation requires it... the same way we try to speak in any other language we might know if that helps the communication. We are open-minded, but with very clear ideas of what we want and what we like.

    I am learning Dutch myself, and I know that will make my life easier over here, so I expect the people coming to Catalunya to live, to try to integrate, understand the culture, and enjoy being part of it.

    It brings you a great deal of nice things when you try to be part of a bigger world!

    Enjoy your time in Barcelona, and I hope you keep writing nice things about it!

    Salutacions des d'Holanda

    D.
  • Justin Sare posted:

    on 7th April 2010, 16:55:04 - Reply

    Generally I agree with a lot of what you have said about Barcelona / Catalunya, but I would say that the main resaon why most Catalans don't go fro drinks after work, is that they finish work so late. In addition, a round of drinks here is getting more expensive than London, so one does think twice before buying a round (although I do miss the buying rounds culture).