5 Things I Learnt From Living In Spain And Not Being Fluent In Spanish

Tom Stevenson


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Back in September 2015, I decided to move to Barcelona to teach English. I had spent the previous three years living in Australia and New Zealand, as well as travelling around the Philippines and parts of Southeast Asia.

I was not finished with travelling or living abroad, so teaching English in another country was a good way of staying abroad while earning money at the same time.

I have no idea why I decided to live in Barcelona. I think it was due to the city having a beach nearby. I had been there before when I was younger, but it was a brief trip.

I was very much moving to the city without a clue of what to expect.

In my research, I realised that they speak two languages in Barcelona. Obviously, they speak Spanish due to the city being part of Spain, but they also speak Catalan, which is the language of the Catalonian region.

This left me in a quandary before I left. Should I learn Catalan, or should I just carry on learning Spanish? I wasn’t sure what I should do.

After doing a bit of research, it soon became clear that although everyone spoke Catalan, they also spoke Spanish too, so it didn’t matter too much about learning Catalan.

Once I landed in Barcelona, despite all the hours I had put in learning Spanish, it soon became clear that learning the language was different from experiencing it.

During my two years of living in Spain, my Spanish slowly improved. Despite not getting it to the level I desired, there was a lot I learnt from learning the language and living in a country where I wasn’t a native speaker.

Here are a few of those things.

Learning A Language is Hard, But Worth It

There is no getting away from it, learning a language is hard!

I spent two years living in Spain, and my Spanish is nowhere near perfect. A big reason was due to my job, teaching English. I spoke English at work, I spoke it at home most of the time too.

My opportunities for speaking and improving Spanish were limited.

The thing is, Spanish isn’t that different from English. There are so many words that cross over, and the grammar is similar apart from a few differences.

Despite this, I struggled to pick it up at first and a lot of my students struggled to learn English too. What I learnt during this struggle was invaluable.

We can either focus on how difficult something is, or we can focus on the aspects that make the task easier.

By noticing that Spanish words which end in ‘dad,’ such as Communidad, correlate with English words that end in ‘ety,’ such as Community, I was able to make the process of learning Spanish easier and more fun!

Language learning is tough, but if you look for the joy in the process instead of making it a chore, it will be much more rewarding!

The Language Barrier Isn’t That Much of A Barrier

This was a big problem at first. If I walked into a shop, and the person didn’t speak any English I had to communicate in my broken Spanish, or worse, sign language to indicate what I needed.

The more I did this, the better I became at transactional Spanish, but I also realised something else.

You can communicate a lot without speaking the same language!

This astounded me at first, but you can communicate quite easily even if you only know the basics of a language.

Sure, you won’t be able to have an in-depth conversation about politics or sport, but if you just want to know where something is in the supermarket, it’s really not that hard to express that and understand the response.

This was the base that I built my Spanish from. I learnt basic phrases that enabled me to perform most tasks and I took it from there.

Doing The Little Things Is A Lot Harder

Although I was able to perform most tasks that required me to speak Spanish without too much difficulty by the end of my time in the country, that wasn’t the case at the start.

Going to the shop was a real struggle. I could work out what most of the items were, but if it came to asking a question, I hit a roadblock.

Me and the attendant would stare back at each other with blank expressions on our faces as we tried to work out what the other person was saying.

It had never been so hard to find what I wanted in my life!

The worst experience was when I needed to get official documents and had to deal with Spanish bureaucracy. The bureaucratic process in Spain is worthy of an article itself, but trying to explain and understand what I needed was not easy.

They wouldn’t speak English or they didn’t speak English, so I couldn’t fall back on that. I had to try and communicate the best I could.

In a way, this wasn’t the worst thing, because it encouraged me to speak Spanish, but it didn’t make the process any easier. I just wanted to get what I needed and leave, but it wasn’t that easy when I had a limited understanding of what was happening.

Tasks that I would take for granted in England suddenly became much more difficult for the simple fact that I didn’t have a confident grasp on the language.

It’s amazing what taking yourself out of your comfort zone and living in a country with a different language will change!

You Can Still Make Friends

One of the biggest problems I thought I would have would be making friends while I was in Barcelona.

When I had been in Australia and New Zealand this wasn’t an issue, and it wasn’t something I even thought about it. The language was the same, meeting and speaking to new people wasn’t difficult at all.

All of this changed in Spain. If I wanted to make friends with local people, there were only two ways. Either they spoke English, or I improved my Spanish to a level where conversations weren’t an issue anymore.

Turns out I was wrong!

I’m not sure how much of this is down to the character of the Spanish or not, but it was quite easy to make friends with people even though my Spanish wasn’t the best.

I made friends with the owner of a small cafe and bonded over football, even though I struggled at times with the conversation. I also became very good friends with the father of our landlady despite his non-existent English and my terrible Spanish.

Language allows us to form closer bonds, but it’s not necessary to bring us together. I was still able to form good friendships initially without a strong grasp of Spanish. As my level of Spanish increased, these friendships only grew deeper.

It showed that while language is important to build bonds, you can still do it without speaking the language perfectly.

You, Will, Be All The Better For The Experience

Living in Spain was difficult. Learning a new language as well as getting to grips with a different culture was a challenge. Things that I took for granted living in English speaking countries suddenly became much harder.

However, when I look back on my time in Spain, there isn’t much I would change. Learning a language was one of the best things I have ever done. I may not be able to speak Spanish perfectly, but it’s good nonetheless.

Due to learning a language, I have a greater affinity for another culture that I otherwise might not have had. It has also given me an insight into other languages such as Italian and Portuguese due to the similarities between the languages.

The positives of my time in Spain greatly outweighed the negatives.

If I hadn’t have moved there, I wouldn’t have grown as much as I have done as a result of being there. It may have been tough, it may have been difficult at times, but it was a rewarding experience nonetheless.

Living in a country where you don’t speak the language sounds like a crazy idea. In a way, it was. I didn’t speak Spanish, I didn’t know anyone there, but I had a great time anyway!

It would have been easy to pack it all in and move back to England, something I was very close to doing in the first few months, but I persevered and made the most of the situation.

Challenges are a part of life, we can either face them head-on or we can run and cower from them.

What you do will determine your quality of life.

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