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It's a commonly quipped remark for language learners that moving to a country to immerse oneself in a language must surely be the swiftest - and easiest - path to proficiency.
Well, I would say, it can be but it won't necessarily be. In my own case, I've lived in Spain almost three years and have made substantial progress in my Spanish, though very little with Catalan. If you had asked me prior to moving here whether I would be fluent in either, I would surely have confirmed with an optimistic 'of course' and perhaps added in 'within 2 years' to boot.
You see, I also thought that living somewhere means automatically joining the local culture and language, that they're naturally connected, but what I've learned is that living somewhere is not the equivalent to immersing yourself in that place.
How is it possible that I have managed to live in Cataluña for almost three years and am yet to speak like a local?
Perhaps creating the biggest rift between me and the local scene, I am a remote worker for UK companies. To plonk the cherry on top, I work from my home office. That means day-to-day interactions are limited to when I'm able to leave the house and engage someone in conversation (made harder by the next point). And this means I'm usually the one holding up the supermarket queue as I chat up the cashier, taking advantage of the chance to speak face-to-face, even if it's just about when the next batch of bananas are arriving.
If the word 'Spain' invokes images of sunshine, open arms and big smiles, and fiery flamenco dresses swirling around, then you're clearly thinking of southern Spain. Maybe that rings true down south, but up here in Cataluña, it's more along the lines of summer sunshine, crossed arms with wary faces, and fire-spitting dragons (still, it is friendlier than being on the London tube). From the big city of Barcelona to the open-air countryside village where I'm currently based, relations with locals have never been able to progress past a polite chat, light in detail and usually in passing.
Whilst big gatherings can be seen on Sundays in any restaurant, it seems that most people have their extended families around, so the tables are usually filled by excited grandchildren all the way up to a creaky grandmother, leaving little space - physically or emotionally - for any extras.
Even with young children in school, which is normally a sort of guarantee to make friends, how the locals celebrate birthdays or which after-school parks they gather in remains a mystery, for as far as we can see, locals retreat into their homes only to emerge in the school line-up the next day.
Large Expat Community
When it comes to Barcelona, there is a huge expat community and one that is quite segregated from the locals. It's a very easy, almost slippery route, into the expat scene - you tend to live where other expats live, hang out at the same bars, go to the same meet-ups, comment within the same Facebook groups and enjoy the same activities. Even just walking down the street, you might make an English-speaking friend on the way, drawn to you simply by your choice of language. Even if these new friends are from around the world, there is always one common factor: the shared language is English.
Wary of spending too many hours on the sofa, I have avoided having a TV pretty much all of my adult life. Whilst this has kept me up and about, it has actually been damaging to my language-learning and understanding of the culture. TV is pop culture; it's what people are talking about, eating, discussing, feeling. Not to mention, it's an incredible resource for listening material. In fact, it's so important that during a brief stint in Spanish lessons whilst living in Barcelona, it was assigned homework from my teacher. Needless to say, I didn't complete that task.
What I've realised, perhaps a bit later than I would have liked, is that moving to a country and learning a language are unique; one is not a natural consequence of the other. Will you pick up words here and there, fine-tune your listening and get a feel for the culture? Yes, of course this will happen. But becoming fluent is a different matter that involves making a concentrated effort beyond what you can pick up in the street.
For some, maybe it means isolating yourself from your familiar expat community, or seeking friends who don't speak your language therefore throwing you into the deep end of conversational practice. It could mean that when you go to MeetUp.com you search in Spanish, or you hit the paddle court instead of the tennis court, or even swap your regular TV drama for Locked Up.
As for my learning progression, I won't be buying a TV or signing up for local employment, but I will be taking the time to focus on the small steps that can lead to fluency. Who knows, maybe someday I'll even invite a local out for coffee...
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On a recent reconnaissance visit to Lisbon - I was on a trip to discover more about Portugal's capital for work reasons - I was struck by the similarities and subtle differences between life on the west coast, vs that on the east coast of the Iberian peninsula, in the equally charming city of Barcelona.
Granted, we only had a few days in Lisbon, but it's a city whose charm and beauty have been popping up regularly on my radar, thanks to a European-wide peak in curiosity in what they say is one of the last untouched European cities. Untouched by weekend stag parties and summer hordes of tourists, that is.
But untouched? I didn't quite think so, with more English and French heard in our Airbnb neighbourhood of Bairro Alto than Portuguese, not to mention during our central-city strolls.
In fact, during my sunny days exploring the cobblestone streets, I couldn't help but draw parallels to the two years I had spent in Barcelona. And that got my thinking...if I were still in London (or wherever you may be based and sniffing around for fresh pastures) and in search of a city escape, which would I have chosen, Lisbon or Barcelona?
There were some points which struck me as particularly similar:
Expat life: There's often the feeling of expats living in a foreign bubble, one in which home culture and language remain swirling inside and reinforced by private schools, private doctors, private social circles. Never mandatory, but often the easier route.
Life in the country: Central city living isn't for all, and both cities offer countryside living in small, traditional towns where the morning traffic holding up your commute is most likely to be an older lady with last night's curlers, clutching her baguette and shuffling across the street. Surrounded by beautiful nature in a tranquil settings it's a beautiful set up, though once you make it past the abuela/avó and closer to the city, you'll be looking at 1.5 to 2 hour traffic jams. Of cars, that is.
Access to nature: Along those lines, the locals were on a mission to woo us to move to Lisbon with their 3 'best-seller' points: the sun, the sea, and mountains are all within easy reach. Thing is, Barcelona also has all three and possibly in even easier reach. The main differentiator depending on your style of hitting the beach: surfer? Head to Lisbon. Lounger? Head east, as Barcelona's waters are generally flatter than your breakfast pancake.
Bureaucracy: You can't talk about Spain and Portugal without this cringe-inducing word appearing. It is, I'm afraid, something you can't escape in either city. Layers and layers of red tape, official appointments, and thorough confusion await you on either side. If you work as self-employed, you may be slightly better off in Lisbon where they charge 100 euros for social security, plus your tax payments. If you think this sounds expensive, keep your distance from Barcelona (and the rest of Spain) where self-employed folk pay 270 euros/month for social security, plus tax. Of course, this is just a very brief overview of the financial situation, but it's well worth your time researching beforehand. My advice? Start with an accountant.
And that's where the similarities concluded from my short stay. Here's where I saw the cities come into their own:
Local schooling: An important topic in my family with two little ones, quality of school is a top priority. Considering Barcelona? Here's a heads up: schooling is almost purely in Catalan with very minimal Spanish, and a few classes of English depending on your school. Overall, we've found it to be a very reliable and organised system, with a strong focus on the Catalan culture and traditions. Lisbon locals, however, could not say the same about their public schools, instead warning that teachers were likely to strike and tended to start a month late each school year, to make up for low wages (again, I'll stress that this is based on just a few people we spoke to, but we were warned in general about public strikes and as it happened, we became trapped in a 5 hour airpot queue due to...security service strikes). There are of course alternatives to public school including private and religious ones, with one example I looked up costing in the range of 400 euros/month. Ouch.
Local language and culture: You can get by with English in Barcelona, but it's just that: getting by. People may understand a few words of English and a bit more so of hand gestures, but you'll never get into a conversation speaking just a few words of Spanish or Catalan. Not to mention, locals can be very hard to get to know. You know the really warm, open, hugely-smiling, Flamenco dancing Spanish? That's worlds away, so though you may see little girls' flamenco dresses for sale in the tourist bazaars, they are exactly that, for tourists. In Lisbon, on the contrary, it was a breeze to converse in English, with waiters, taxi drivers, doctors (so I'm told), and basically everyone having an excellent level of spoken English. The difference, I'm told, is in one simple secret: films and tv in Spain are dubbed, whereas in Lisbon they're left in their original English. In terms of culture, from the little bit we picked up, locals were friendly but we were advised they had a similar approach to the Catalans: friendly to a point - like, let's say, having a coffee, but still guarded, and not likely to be inviting you over for dinner on the weekend.
Tourism: Whilst tourism in Lisbon is on the rise as more and more foreigners fly out starry-eyed about this 'little lost city', it did have a different vibe that the tourism of Barcelona. Couples, families, digital nomads galore and, unlike Barcelona, not a stag party in sight. With the boom of cheap flights and Airbnb will it stay this way? We can hope. Lisbon's streets are better off without drunken groups of "Sarah's Hen" sashays staggering around (yes Barcelona, I'm talking about you), something the local government is currently battling to change.
As for me, my family and I have ended up in, well, neither. We left the buzz of Barcelona for the beautiful coves and fields of the Costa Brava, where we have the sea, the sun, and the mountains without the Easyjet crowds or long commutes. The red tape and tractor-traffic though? That is an accepted part of daily life here.
So, will you heading east-side or west? How have you found life in either city?
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,Moving to Barcelona was decided on a whim and within a couple of quick months, my family and I had packed up all 40 square metres of our London flat and trucked it out to Spain. Luckily, I had already been having Spanish classes, even more luckily with a teacher who was from Catalunya himself, so I had already been offered a slight insight into the culture here.
I knew that Catalan was a language spoken here, and had a vague sense of the movement for independence. What I didn't realise was just how strong and powerful of a movement it is, and how this would affect us on a day-to-day level.
The first month, and my new-found foreign friends and I couldn't distinguish when people were speaking Spanish and when they were speaking Catalan. Fast forward a couple more months, and the only discussion was whether we should still be focussing on learning Spanish, or if, in fact, learning Catalan was the better route to go.
Now that I've been here over two years (slowly improving my Spanish and understand a few basic words of Catalan...), I'd suggest to anyone moving over to Catalunya to have a think through the following:
How long will you be here? If you're just hanging out for a couple years to soak up some sunshine before moving on to your next destination, Spanish may be your better option since you can apply it in so many more places.
What's your profession? If you'll be looking for work, language can be extremely important. Apart from a few English-focussed jobs which many temporary immigrants take up like call centres and teaching English, Spanish is a must. However, if you'll be looking to take on any public service like joining the police or being a nursery school teacher, you will be required to speak Catalan.
Do you have kids? If so, they'll be attending school in Catalan and it will become the language of their studies, and also of their friendships. If you want to keep up, enrol yourself in classes pronto.
Do you want to fit in culturally? The level to which people are willing to socialise in Spanish vs Catalan is obviously a very personal thing, but it's been crucial to embracing the culture. Will most people speak Spanish with you? Yes, most. But will you ever truly understand the culture, its incredible traditions and stories, and make friends without speaking Catalan? I would hesitate to say yes.
You can get by in Spanish and I personally would suggest that it's the priority language to master first. But for any long-term residents or those looking to understand and join the culture, rather than just brushing the surface of life in Catalunya, learning Catalan is a must.
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How long do you take for lunch? I'll take a wild guess: 20 minutes, to include popping over to the local cafe to grab a sandwich with crisps before settling into your desk chair and chowing down. It's the little fragments of crisps stuck in the depths of your keyboard that give it away.
When I worked in London, this was the norm for myself, all my colleagues and, judging by the queues in the cafe, half of London. In fact, when the company I worked for changed the policy to 'no eating at the desk', this was considered revolutionary and was on the verge of actually starting a revolution from my colleagues reluctant to abandon their inboxes. Now people actually had to sit around a table, eat without their screens, and socialise with colleagues.
Fast forward to my current life in Spain. Whilst I don't work in a formal Spanish office, friends and family do and share their lunchtime experiences, not to mention living over a restaurant for 2 years provides a pretty good insight into the norms.
One and a half hours. 3 courses. Bottle of wine included. Followed by coffee. All with colleagues. That's the norm. Ridiculous? Maybe. An interruption to the workday? Perhaps. Rewarding on many levels? Absolutely.
Whilst having such a long break may seem an indulgence or even extravagant to the tasks-focussed Brits, I personally have gained an appreciation for this type of lunch break and think they're on to something.
Food is enjoyed, savoured and looked forward to each morning. Colleagues discuss what the daily menu will consist of - lentil stew, steak with vegetables, yoghurt with fruit - with excitement and appreciation for the home-cooked style dishes, the quality of the ingredients, and the beautiful flavours. The thought of inhaling a sandwich is preposterous and as one Galician exclaimed when once proposed a quick bite to eat, "...we're not animals!" (let's ignore the technicalities here...). Food is appreciated for being just that, rather than a means to an end.
The lengthy break generally off-site encourages staff to take work off their minds, chat with the co-workers in a social setting, strengthen relationships and be people, not employees. Maybe, rather than sporadic team-building activities which the British do seem to love, more genuine relationships could be formed by these more natural interactions?
And for those lucky enough to work close to home, there is an even greater benefit: home-cooked lunch with the family. Because kids get a 1.5 hour lunch break from school as well, families can all meet at home and have a midday catch-up before wrapping up the day. Granted, this doesn't seem to be all that common as the logistics of bringing all the family home can be complex at best, but there option is there.
Do I think the UK should suddenly adopt a mandatory, long lunch break and Brits should start tucking into a fish and chips menu each day? No, I'm more realistic than that. But I do think we can take a lesson from the Spanish in their appreciation for personal time, for the quality of their food, and for their more balanced approach to the workday. We may, in fact, be animals (newsflash, Galician friend), but we can even take inspiration from them: let's gather around our watering hole, linger with the herd, and tuck into tasty delights.
Photo credit Keith Ellwood
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I've moved between countries a fair amount in my 30 years, but my relatively recent move to Spain was the first time I had to immerse myself in a foreign culture, foreign country, and foreign language. As an adult. With a family to look after. All at once.
After dabbling here and there with Spanish classes from my childhood onwards, I luckily had enrolled myself in private lessons before making the snap decision to move to Barcelona. So in that sense, I was more prepared than many an expat touching down in El prat, armed with an 'hola', 'cerveza' and 'paella por favor' to get them by.
But, two years later, and I'm still studying. I'm yet to understand the culture. I'm awaiting the day I can fly through a conversation without flailing my arms about to ensure I'm understood. I'd love to be able to talk about my life prior to today, without having to question which past-tense I should be using. Really, I'd just like to be able to be myself which is surprisingly hard in a foreign language, where formal education has transformed me into a sort of robotic personality able to say 'jajaja' but never tell a joke back.
I'll get there, though. The conversation will flow, I'll crack some jokes, and maybe one day I'll hit the 'I've made it' marker of having a local friend. Till then, I'll stumble through cultural lessons as I assimilate and settle, understand and apply. And this is what I'll be sharing with you - snippets of my learnings of life in Spain so that when it comes your turn, you can skip the road blocks, hit the ground running and order more for lunch than a paella with beer, please.
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It's often assumed that when beginning to learn a language, we should seek a native speaker of the language. But assumptions are just that, and they may not always be right.
So here we explore, do native speakers really make the best teachers?
There's a not-so-fine-line between speaking a language, and teaching it. And this is where the biggest argument against using native speakers enters. Native speakers learned their languages from birth (though some say they became accustomed to the sounds even in the womb); their language developed naturally and without the formal structure usually provided in language classes.
And at times, this can translate into a challenge when attempting to teach the more complex rules of language including grammar, irregular verbs and other rules lacking straightforward explanations. In this forum questioning the same, students offer snippets into why they preferred to learn from a non-native speaker, for example "the advantage of learning from a non-native is the (sic) he/she has had to study all the mechanics of the language - grammar, syntax, spelling, punctuation, etc. He is probably more in tune with the actual structure of the language" and "Non-natives surely have a lot useful tips to share, plus they make you feel less nervous or intimidated. "
Not to mention, speaking a language even as your mother tongue, is not mastering the language. We all know plenty of people (myself included) who, probably more frequently than we even realise, spell words incorrectly, write blog pieces full of grammatical errors (guilty, probably) or even speak slang without skipping a beat. And really, how many native speakers of English can consistently differentiate between their, they're and there - not to mention, be able to clearly translate these into a lesson? Our language is ingrained in us which can make it challenging to extract it, observe it from a distance, and consequentially pass our understanding of it on to someone else.
So it seems perhaps a non-native may be a better teacher of grammar, of structure, and of the technical side of language. They understand their students and can relate to their learning journeys. But there is something to be said for native teachers and it goes beyond the practical side of learning a language and into experiencing a language.
The key, I believe, is in the culture. Pronunciation, unless your teacher went to a standardised boarding school type establishment, is not an across the board standard. Is your English teacher from Liverpool or London? California or Sydney? And your Spanish teacher from Andalucia or Argentina?
The way the words are selected and spoken, the gestures that accompany them, the background of why you use them and the general type of interaction of each teacher encompasses the language as a whole. We believe in a holistic approach to learning languages as simply memorising the vocabulary may have you catching a cab, but you won't be experiencing the ride.
And the answer to the question? In order to encompass both the structural approach and the cultural crossover, we wholeheartedly believe a native speaker with professional teaching qualifications is the answer. With their habits reaching you through what one may think of as cultural osmosis, their language teaching training skills should also allow your teacher to relate to you from a student's point-of-view. So there it is: let's go native.