I have studied Spanish for years and when I spent six weeks in Buenos Aires two summers ago, I had no trouble understanding the language and was even complimented on my Spanish-speaking skills. So, naturally, when I embarked on my semester abroad in Barcelona, I was looking forward to perfecting my spoken Spanish. I began to fantasize about the amazing conversations I would have and all the Spanish friends I would make, chatting over espressos at charming cafes.
However, my time in Barcelona did not begin the way I imagined it would. In fact, it was just the opposite. Because Barcelona is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world, everyone there speaks English. Most of the time, my appearance alone generated a response in English, without my having to open my mouth. What was worse, when I did speak Spanish, I was immediately shut down and addressed in English. It took a single word for a Barcelonan to recognize that I was a foreigner. And worst of all, Spanish is not even the true language of Barcelona. Most people are unaware of this, but Barcelona is the capital of an autonomous community Catalonia, and one of its official languages is Catalan. In fact, Catalonia is trying to gain its independence from Spain, so Catalan has a political significance as well. I was aware of this: I was warned that all the signs would be in Catalan and that people on the street would speak Catalan. Nevertheless, because Spanish is the second official language there, and I was assured that knowing Spanish would be enough.
It was enough, but I was frustrated that the only way I could earn respect was to speak Catalan, and unfortunately, I had no intention of learning it. So, while I was falling in love with the beauty and the diversity of the city, I continued to feel greatly disappointed with my language experience. Without anyone taking me seriously, I began to recede more and more into my shell. Before I knew it, I was becoming bitter. I would catch myself not trying to speak Spanish at all, or I would let the native speakers in my program take the reins and speak for me. I even became a bit frustrated with the locals. I would scoff at their English and would come up with sassy commentaries in my head about how bad their English was.
And then came the breaking point. I spent one weekend in San Sebastian, a city in northern Spain, and I felt as if I had practiced more Spanish there than I had my entire time in Barcelona. Frustrated, I called my mother for advice. Having emigrated to the U.S. from Russia as an adult, and as someone who had had to learn English from scratch, she advised me to depend less on others’ opinions and continue practicing Spanish. As soon as I followed her advice, Barcelona began to blossom before me. It’s not that my mother’s magical words of wisdom made the Catalans suddenly appreciate my Spanish; it was my attitude that changed. On many occasions, I had interesting conversations during which I spoke Spanish and the other person responded in English. Eventually, seeing that I had no intention to stop, he or she would switch to Spanish. Instead of seeing a mocking aspect in their smile, I began to catch glimpses of appreciation.
My change in attitude and the realization that others in my program had similar experiences made me think about the reasons behind the Catalans’ attitude. I realized that some want to practice English as much as I wanted to practice Spanish. Others address Americans in English to be courteous, just as I was trying to be respectful to them. Additionally, Spanish is not their native language – some might even be offended when they hear Spanish and may prefer to speak in English, a more politically neutral option. My greatest realization was that they speak English because they are used to tourists and foreign students who expect the rest of the world to speak English. My program was unique because its students studied Spanish and respected the local culture by speaking it. The Americans that I met from other programs made me disappointed in my country – none of them even attempted to speak Spanish in public. My experience is a good lesson for anyone traveling to a country whose language they are studying. Focus less on your insecurities and think from the locals’ perspectives for a change. You’d be surprised to learn that people have more important things to do than mock you, and some most sincerely appreciate your efforts.
When I was boarding the plane from Morocco to Barcelona, I was being helped by a very Catalan flight attendant who was clearly proud of his knowledge of Catalan, Spanish, French, and English. When I continuously tried to speak with him in Spanish, he sassily responded that he spoke perfect English. I explained to him that I wanted to practice my Spanish, and he retorted by imitating my “white” accent. Having learned to not take things so seriously, I just rolled my eyes at my friend sitting next to me and ignored him. What I didn’t expect was for him to come up to me ten minutes later, compliment my Spanish, and even ask me where I had learned it. And guess what? He asked me that in Spanish!
~Dinara Gabdrakhmanova '16
© 2014 Princeton Traveler