You may be wondering what’s happened to me. I haven’t updated this blog for two weeks, I haven’t been answering all your e-mails and messages, and I haven’t been posting my Russian word of the day on Facebook. Well… What can I say? Barcelona. That’s what happened.
I don’t know what it was about this city, but it took me over. It seduced me with its warm sun, the smiles of its people and the songs of its street musicians. Its quirky architecture, unique mix of languages, ridiculously small dogs and lack of fashion sense made me feel like I was in another world. At first I was absolutely enchanted, but after a while I started to feel like I was losing touch with reality. Like if I stayed there too long, I would go completely insane. Maybe that’s what happened to this guy:
(You can’t really see it clearly here, but he is totally wearing leopard print leggings. Leopard print leggings, people.)
Okay, but seriously– I’ll try my best to tell you about my stay there in a way that makes sense. I know many of you are curious about the language-learning aspects of the trip, so let me start there.
Languages in Barcelona
I wanted to make sure I’d be spending at least a little time speaking Spanish every day, so instead of staying at a hostel with other foreigners, I decided to sign up for a week of classes at a Spanish school that offered placement with host families. (I chose Olé Languages.) I was to arrive in Barcelona on a Saturday, have class for two hours each day from Monday to Friday, and then leave Barcelona the following Tuesday.
I had to find my own way to the house where I’d be staying, meaning that I immediately had to use my Spanish on the day I arrived to ask people for directions! People were extremely friendly, and I was relieved to find that they easily understood what I said and were happy to speak to me in Spanish. I didn’t always understand every word they said back to me, but I was at least able to get the gist and point myself in the right general direction. I found that after asking several different people the same question, I grew more confident in my ability to ask it and to understand the answer. Without too much difficulty, I got where I needed to go!
I was a little surprised to discover that I wouldn’t really be staying with a family per se, but with a single woman from Argentina. She was unable to work for some reason she didn’t seem eager to explain, and so, as far as I gathered, she was renting out the rooms in her apartment to foreign students to earn some extra money. She was very nice, though, and she spoke nothing but Spanish! So I would be able to get a little practice talking with her every day.
In the Spanish school, I was placed in a B1 level class (that’s on the CEFR scale). It must have been the right level for me, because I found the classes slightly challenging and did learn quite a lot from them! The classes were given entirely in Spanish, and since there were only five people in our group we had lots of opportunities to practice speaking and ask questions.
Besides Spanish class, talking with my host, and short interactions with people on the street, I got another chance to speak Spanish when I met a friend I know from Paris. She just happened to be in Barcelona at the same time, and she just happens to be Mexican (as well as her friend who came with her). So the three of us spent a day touring the city together and speaking a combination of Spanish, English and French. It was great!
At the end of my stay in Spain, I didn’t necessarily feel like my Spanish had improved a ton in terms of knowledge of vocabulary and grammar. I did feel, though, like I had gained a lot more confidence in speaking the language, which helps a lot to make it seem like I speak it better. I also became more interested in continuing to improve it in the future!
On my last day I recorded a short video of myself speaking Spanish, which you can see here:
Now, to avoid offending any proud Catalonians out there, I think I’d better also mention something about the Catalan language. As you may know, in Spain people speak not only Spanish, but a variety of regional languages as well. Barcelona is part of the region of Catalonia, so the official language there is Catalan. You will hear people speaking both Spanish and Catalan, but most of the signs and advertisements are written in Catalan. I didn’t find this to be a problem, since written Catalan is fairly easy to understand if you know Spanish or French. (It actually seems to be more similar to French than Spanish.) Spoken Catalan, though, is a different story! Since my Spanish isn’t exactly amazing either, sometimes when I didn’t understand someone, I wasn’t sure if they were speaking Catalan or just heavily accented or fast Spanish. As I mentioned above though, no one seemed to have a problem speaking Spanish with me, especially since I’m pretty sure they could tell I was a foreigner!
It so happened that I wasn’t the only one staying with my Argentinian host that week. There were also two German guys staying there, and the night I arrived they invited me to go out with them and their friends. I gladly accepted, since I didn’t know anyone in the city and didn’t have any plans for that night anyway. It turned out, though, that all of their friends were German, and they spoke German with each other the entire time! They spoke English to me directly of course, but whenever someone wasn’t paying attention to me specifically I felt rather left out, since I didn’t understand a thing they were talking about. I decided not to hang out with them anymore after that. They were really nice people and all, but I didn’t want to spend a lot of time speaking English, which was our only common language. I also really didn’t need to be tempted to start learning German at this point! (At one point one of the guys had actually started speaking to me in German, joking that I would figure it out. Yeah right…)
Actually, it was rather interesting to observe the situation these Germans had gotten themselves into. Apparently they had all gotten some kind of scholarship to come study Spanish for three weeks, and arrived not knowing a single word of it. They had been placed in an intensive Spanish class with nothing but other Germans. So, since they couldn’t understand a thing that was going on around them, of course they all ended up getting pretty close. They had been in Barcelona for two weeks when I met them, and already a rather affectionate couple had developed amongst their group of friends. I was quite surprised to learn that they’d never met each other before coming to Barcelona! Anyway, basically they were all hanging out with each other and speaking German all the time. The guys at the place I was staying at were always in their rooms when they were there, and I found myself being called on to translate whenever they needed to communicate with our host. I guess their example just goes to show that spending time abroad doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll learn to speak the language! It’s hard, especially if you start out knowing nothing. But you have to put in the effort.
The first two Germans left after a week, and two more Germans came in! The new guys spoke better English and seemed really nice, but unfortunately I didn’t really get the chance to talk with them much. I just hope they’ll fare better with their Spanish than the first group did.
…and Japanese (?!)
Even more than Spanish, I actually ended up spending a lot of time speaking Japanese. You see, after my first Spanish class, I noticed a couple of guys sitting in the lobby speaking Japanese. I couldn’t really help myself, because I missed speaking Japanese so much and just had to talk to them! So I went up to them and said hello, and we got into a conversation. It turned out they were going to be there for a year learning Spanish, and they were planning on visiting Paris before going back to Japan in the fall. They asked if I would show them around Paris, and of course I agreed!
Later that week one of the guys invited me to go to a Catalan restaurant with him and a bunch of his friends. They were mostly Japanese, but there were a few Spanish people as well. So I hung out with them all day speaking mostly Japanese and a little Spanish. I was very happy with that!
Then I told them they’d have to show me around Barcelona in exchange for my showing them around Paris, so the next day we met again and visited some places I hadn’t been yet. So I got to speak Japanese again, and I made some new friends.
So, by the end of this trip, my inner monologue was going on in quite an interesting jumble of languages. At first I’d done a pretty good job of making myself think in Spanish by carrying a dictionary around everywhere and looking up any unknown words that occurred to me. Then after I met the Japanese people, I just couldn’t get my brain to stop thinking in Japanese! So I was thinking mostly in Japanese, followed by Spanish, followed by English, followed by French, followed by a very small smattering of Russian. Are you starting to see why I felt like I was losing my mind?!
But you haven’t even heard half of it yet! Coming up soon, Losing My Mind in Barcelona, Part 2: People. If you don’t already think I’m crazy, this next post will probably convince you.