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How to Handle Language Barriers When Studying Abroad in Barcelona

Jan 3, 2019 11:36:00 AM / by Maya Crawford

One of the many things you can pick up while studying abroad is a new language! In this week's post, Maya broaches the topic of the language barrier in Spain and how she overcame her doubts to learn and practice Catalan and Spanish in Barcelona. She shares several tips and strategies to grasp a new language and make it one of the highlights of your study abroad experience. 

One of the biggest skills you can gain from studying abroad is a better grasp on a new language. For me, one of my goals is to be bilingual and Barcelona was a perfect place to do so! However, I did not know going into this that Spanish is not actually the main language spoken in Barcelona—it’s actually Catalan. While this is very similar to Spanish it is a completely different language and can really confuse you, especially if you had no idea this language existed.

View of Barcelona from Il Corte InglesView of Barcelona from the top of El Corte Ingles in the center of Catalunya.

When I arrived in Barcelona, Catalan confused me so much that I thought every bit of Spanish I knew was wrong, when in fact I was looking at Catalan signs instead of Spanish signs. All of my housemates and I had no idea about the history of Barcelona, Catalonia, and their native language of Catalan, which is incredibly interesting. You will hear a lot about it if you decide to study here! All of our professors were excited to talk to us about everything they knew, and we even were able to talk to some locals about the history of their homeland.

View of Town during Architecture field tripThe town we visited during one of my architecture field trips. This neighborhood is being torn down for apartment buildings soon, so this sadly is one of the last photos that will be taken of it.

Now when I say Catalan can be confusing, here are some examples of Spanish vs. Catalan. There are the easy words that you can generally recognize like zumo vs. jugo (juice), and larger differences like salida vs. sortir (exit). Even my housemates who were fluent in Latin American Spanish were confused by this new language because we had never seen it before and we were all wondering if we were going crazy, or just for some reason were getting all these Spanish phrases wrong for years.

One thing that was helpful is that CAPA provided us with lists of both Spanish and Catalan general everyday phrases we could study just in case we needed them, and to make it easier for us to get around. Also, most Catalonians speak both Spanish and Catalan, since both are taught in schools and because Catalonia is still technically part of Spain. It is rare that you will run into someone who only speaks Catalan. That usually only happens with older locals, and even then they can usually understand your Spanish if you are speaking clearly enough.

View from Park GuellOne of the trips I took alone was to Park Güell (one of the filming locations from The Cheetah Girls 2), which was so beautiful. I had such a great time!

For me, I am not fluent in Spanish and only have a basic understanding of the language. That said, I found it easy enough to get around because I have studied Spanish for a few years, have family members who speak the language, and can generally understand when it is spoken to me. This helped, but not being fluent made it very complicated for me to respond even when I understood what was being said to me. There is sort of some anxiety that comes with speaking a language you are not fluent in to someone who is.

Some tips for getting through this is to SPEAK—you will never become fluent if you never try. Go out alone (during the day, BE SMART and SAFE) to grocery stores, little shops, or even just on a walk and practice asking for directions, the costs of certain items, etc... This helped me a LOT with the language, and I gained so much knowledge.

Watching the Barcelona SunsetOne of the many locations my housemates and I found for sunset watching.
There are so many hidden gems like this in Barcelona!

Living in the language rather than reading a textbook and taking a test helps you learn so much faster, because you are forced to practice constantly. It was a little intimidating at times, but it gave me a new sense of respect and understanding for people who live in America, can’t speak English, and go through this every day. Don’t let the fact that you do not speak a certain country’s language keep you from studying there! That is more of a reason to go so that you can learn, and if all else fails and you are completely stumped, I noticed in Barcelona there is almost always someone nearby who speaks English, or knows at least a little to help you out. This is definitely a risk worth taking that you would not regret!

Thanks, Maya!

Maya Crawford

Maya Crawford is an official CAPA blogger for fall 2018, sharing her story in weekly posts on CAPA World. A Business Administration major at  University of Massachusetts Lowell, she is studying abroad in Barcelona this semester.

Maya's journey continues every Thursday so stay tuned.

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Topics: Language, Barcelona, Spain