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How to Navigate Life in Spain with a Language Barrier

Sep 21, 2020 10:00:00 AM / by Stephanie Sadler

Are you ready to take a leap with a new skill and a wonderful experience in Barcelona? Today we're sharing with you some secrets to study and live abroad successfully in Spain.

Philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein was born in Austria, studied and taught in England, worked in Norway, fought in Russia during the war, and lived for some time in Ireland as well. What does he have to do with a blog post about Spain? Not much directly, but his life of movement across borders was possible because he knew the importance of language when it came to opening up opportunities.

He once made an observation that, “The limits of my language are the limits of my world.” And that’s a statement that does have a lot to do with a blog post about studying abroad in Spain.

If the only Spanish word in your vocabulary right now is hola and you don’t know any Catalan at all, don’t let that stop you from seriously considering Barcelona as a study abroad destination. In fact, if you don’t speak the language yet, it’s all the more reason to strongly look at Barcelona when you’re choosing a study abroad city.

Think of how much you’ll grow when you’re spending your days soaking up a completely new language that’s constantly being spoken all around you — stretching, little by little, the limits of your own world.

Student At Park Guell in Barcelona, Spain

There are a few things you can do to make navigating life in Spain through a language barrier less intimidating and absolutely achievable. And trust us, if you take this leap, you’ll land on your feet with a powerful new skill and an incredible experience behind you.

¿Listo?

(Translation: Ready?)

1. START LEARNING AT HOME.

You don’t have to attend a university course to learn a language these days. Download an app called Duolingo and spend five or 10 minutes a day in the months leading up to your departure playing the language learning games. It’s free. It’s easy. It’s even fun. If you want to go a step further, take notes on what you’re learning so you can review them and make sure the lessons stick.

Casa Batllo in Barcelona, Spain

2. THINK AHEAD.

Again, before you travel, make a list of some of the words or phrases you think would be most use useful during your time abroad. Translate them and commit them to memory. A few of the most obvious might be “Where is the bathroom”, “I’m learning Spanish”, “Do you speak English?”, “How much is it?” and some basic manners: “Please”, “Excuse Me”, “Thank You”, “You’re Welcome” and “Sorry.”

The City in the Evening

3. LISTEN AHEAD.

Whether you understand what you’re hearing or not, get used to listening to the sound of the language, the rhythm of words and sentences. From “Notes in Spanish” to “Coffee Break Spanish”, there are many free podcasts to play in the background. Watch YouTube videos. Listen to Spanish music. Watch Spanish movies. Check out some audio books. All of these are fantastic for pre-study abroad language exposure. If you happen to be friends with native Spanish speakers at home, ask them to speak Spanish in front of you while you soak in the conversation and, if they can teach you a few things, even better.

Walking in an Alley

4. ACCEPT THE LEARNING PROCESS.

While you’re abroad, depending on your language skills at the time, you probably won’t be able to immediately jump in on a conversation with locals or even understand much at all, but know that you’re on a learning journey. The people around you will know that too. So don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Don’t be a perfectionist. Do relax and try to listen mindfully and contribute where you can. Understanding the conversations of others is a first step to speaking yourself.

Day Trip to Girona

5. KNOW THAT THERE ARE OTHER WAYS TO COMMUNICATE.

It’s incredible how much can be expressed by body language and gestures when we need to fill the gaps. Even if the person you’re communicating with speaks English, don’t automatically switch to your own language when you’re stuck in Spanish. First, try to talk your way around a word you don’t know by explaining it in another way. If you can’t remember how to say you woke up at 6am, you may remember how to say you got out of bed early this morning instead and that will get your point across. Or maybe you only remember the word for bed and you can play charades and hold up six fingers. The person you’re speaking with will then repeat, in Spanish, what you were meaning to say. Making this sort of effort will help you remember for next time.

6. LEARN AS YOU GO.

There’s nothing that helps you learn a language better than immersion. Through your language classes in Barcelona and your interactions throughout each day, you’ll learn a ton. We recommend writing down some of the important vocabulary, grammar, and sentence structures that you pick up outside of your classes (and of course, in them!) as soon as possible and then taking some time at the end of each day or as you start each morning to review your last page of notes. Repetition helps language stick. And then try to use some of your new knowledge in your next conversation. Practice makes perfect.

Photos from the CCCB Archive in Barcelona, Spain

So go boldly into the world as it opens up to you, this new language stretching boundaries and opening doors. Don’t be intimidated. Know that, little by little, you will learn. Listen. Try and try again when you’re misunderstood. Speak often and ask to be corrected. Be able to laugh at yourself once in a while. Take Notes. Review. Practice. Challenge yourself.

Film director and screenwriter Federico Fellini once said, “A different language is a different vision of life.” If you take a chance on yourself and study abroad in Barcelona despite a language barrier, you will certainly come home with a different vision of life too.

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Topics: Language, Barcelona, Spain