English Speaking Therapists in Barcelona

Do You Need to Learn the Local Languages to Belong in Barcelona?

Do You Need to Learn the Local Languages to Belong in Barcelona?


Living abroad as an expat in Spain can be an exhilarating experience, filled with cultural immersion, adventure, and personal growth. However, when faced with the challenging reality of language barriers the real pain points arise for many expats. We start to wonder, how can I master the language/s to be able to live in this country and am I a ‘bad expat’ if I do not master the languages? 

In this vlog (with transcript below), Spanish Coach María Ortega Garcia explores some key insights and strategies to help you reflect on your own specific level of need and ‘why’ around learning the local languages in Spain or Barcelona. 

You’ll find it is a nuanced approach that María encourages and one that is respectful of your unique journey and motivations to help you determine how much energy and time you need and want to invest in learning the local languages. 

And with that, let’s explore this really important topic with María.

Is learning the local language the way to belong as an expat? 

Well, yes, and as with everything, it depends very much on your specific situation. 

So my name is Maria Ortega-Garcia and I’m a trauma-informed language coach and poetry therapy practitioner. And in my 20 years experience teaching Spanish as a foreign language, I’ve come to realise that the language is nothing more than a tool.

Is it a good tool to have in your expat life toolbox? Yes, it’s useful, but it is as useful as having a spanner. But I would ask you, can you live your life without even using a spanner once? And the answer is probably yes. But then there are other elements that come into the equation.

Do you have, for example, you have friends that have spanners? Or is the lack of a spanner in your toolbox creating some difficulties in your life? Or maybe it isn’t. So there are questions to be asked. So there is no need to learn the local language, regardless of whether you plan to stay long or long term or not in that country.

The question is more about what kind of life you are envisioning for yourself in that country or in this city. Do you have some friends living already there with whom you have or you share a common language that is not the local language? Or do you need to find a job in the country? Or what kind of support do you have? And in what way, or if any, would speaking the local language help you to fulfill your needs? So learning the local language helps to fulfill our needs in many different ways. So I’d say that in the pyramid of needs, we have survival needs.

And these ones are, I wouldn’t say the most important ones, but when we move to a different country, when we move to a different city, these are the basic needs that we need to have covered, whether we can achieve that through the language, the local language. So we manage to buy our food and go to the doctor and organise our appointments through the local language, or we need to have someone who helps us. And the second option, it might be more difficult to achieve, but it is possible.

You may have friends, or you may have a support network that can help you with these needs, and you don’t need to learn the language. But I’d say that you do, or it probably helps to learn the language at a basic level, enough to go to the supermarket, order a coffee, or ask for directions in the street. So when we move to another country, or when we move to a different city, what is important is to understand the mindset and worldview of the people we are going to be sharing space and air with.

It’s interesting to know, or it’s important to know the culture and history of that space, because that informs relationships and interactions, or it can impact them. And also it’s important to understand where, and this is a very important question, where we are in the hierarchy of language in relation to the individuals you want to connect or interact with. This last point is very important, to know where our language, our native language, and our country is placed in this hierarchy, in this hierarchy of language.So I’m thinking that English would be the number one in that hierarchy, and then Spanish might probably be two or three, and then all the European languages are very high in that hierarchy of languages. 

So this position brings or comes with consequences when we are interacting, or we are entering in conversation, or in relation with the other individuals that have a different language, depending on, so let’s say if you are a native English speaker and you are interacting with a Spanish native speaker, there are going to be some assumptions, some stories that are directly connected to mindset, different mindsets, English native speakers, and your country of origin, Spanish native speaker, and Spain in this case, if you’re in Spain, or any other country in Latin America, and then culture, history, and the position that our language is in that hierarchy. So knowing that if you’re a native English speaker, you are seen as above the Spanish native native speaker, that’s important to have into account.

So all these things are really important to consider. And so I’d say that to understand the mindset and to understand culture, learning the local language is useful. It helps us.

It helps us in many different ways that are not always conscious. So when we are learning another language, we are entering the realm of the conscious and the unconscious. In a way, when we are learning the language, we are learning the grammar, we are learning all these structures.

And it is also helping us to understand culture and history in a conscious level. But by the mere fact of the language having different structures, grammar rules and ways that the Spanish speakers have, that mindset and that way of organised language, that is embedded in the language. And when we are learning another language, we are exposed to it frequently, we are absorbing by almost by osmosis, these ways of seeing the world.

And that belongs to the unconscious somehow in a way. And that understanding at a deep level, the mindset of the people that we are interacting with, that helps us to interact with them. That helps us to connect and build stronger relationships with them.

But again, that’s only if we want to establish and build strong and deep relationships with the locals through the language. It’s not necessary. And that’s okay.

I know that that could be, there’s a controversial point here that if you’re living in a country, and if you love that country, you have to learn the language. That’s the best way, or maybe the only way to show love and appreciation. It’s not true.

But it does help. It contributes to understand and to build bridges between individuals. I wanted to talk a little bit about what is important to consider, not only about the language, but what is important to consider when you are trying to belong.

And when you are trying to connect with the space you are in as an expat. And I’d say that resilience, self-knowledge, and confidence, and empathy are more important than learning the language. Because everything changes when you trust yourself and you trust the others, regardless of the language you are communicating in.

So, when we are talking about self-trust, I think that it’s important to understand that self-trust requires a certain communicative level. But there are certain questions we need to ask ourselves. Do I need to talk about, I don’t know, politics or history, art, personal development, whatever specific topic or topics I’m interested in? Do I need to talk about these things or be able to talk about these specific high-level topics with everyone I interact with in order to connect with them? And the answer is probably not.

You do not need to be able to talk about history when you love history. You don’t need to talk about these when you go to buy bread. Maybe you can find people to talk about these topics in your native language or in a language you feel comfortable speaking in.

So, it’s not necessary to achieve a high level in the local language to be able to connect with, to belong, to connect with others, to be able to talk about these topics in this language. But, on the other hand, and that’s something that I mentioned at the beginning, do you need to be able to talk about your health, to order food, to talk about, to call the police, to ask directions if you get lost? Yes, you need to have a level of language that allows you to cover these safety needs, these security needs and your physiological needs. Because these are also part of belonging.

How are you going to belong in a place where you cannot feel safe or be safe? 

And it’s also important to trust in others. I think that’s something that we often forget and my experience with many clients, that’s something that, you know, it’s a block, it’s something that hinders our sense of belonging, is that we do not trust that the others that we are interacting, that we are going to enter in a conversation with, we do not trust them. How that happens? So, most people will do their best to understand you and make themselves understood.

This is almost like a rule, like a universal truth. There are exceptions, but in general, most people are going to really do their best to understand you and to make themselves understood. And when that doesn’t happen, when the other person is not making their, are not making their best to understand you, there are other elements at play that we also need to consider, but I’m not going to enter in them right this moment.

So, this trusting others covers the need for safety, security and your physiological needs. So, if you go to the police and you cannot communicate in local language as well as you need, it’s very likely, and I am saying this with certain reservations, but it’s very likely that the police people, or mostly the majority of them, or a certain percentage of them are going to do their best to understand what you’re trying to say and help you. Same goes if you’re going to the supermarket, same goes if you’re going to the doctor.

So, even if you do not have the level of language to cover your basic needs, the other people are going to do their best to solve these needs. Of course, here we need to have into account the hierarchy of languages, so you are going to be helped more if your native language and country has a higher position in the status of this hierarchy of languages, you’re going to find more challenges if your native tongue is lower in the hierarchy, but still, trust in others is important. 

The thing is, how important is it for you to cover all the other needs in the local language? Do you want to hang out with other expats or are you reluctant to do that? So, this is a question that you need to ask yourself.

Some of us, when we go to another country, we seek refuge in the other language, whereas others find refuge in their mother tongue. So, which one is it? And this is a very personal question that you need to ask yourself, and I repeat, do you want to seek refuge in the other language, in another language, or you find refuge in your mother tongue? And more questions that are very important, and I am going to set the example as if you are an expat in Barcelona. 

So, why are you in Barcelona? What are you trying to achieve or need to achieve? It might be internal or external goals.

What do you want your life in Barcelona to look like? What is the life that you envision for yourself? And that’s the question I mentioned at the beginning. And write that down, like, spend days or weeks or, you know, with your journal, asking yourself these questions, and keep asking yourself why. Why this goal? Why do I want my life to look like this? And in asking why, why, why, why, as much as we can, we are going to get to some core needs.

And these are the ones that are going to inform you if you really need to learn the language, 

or if you need, maybe what you want is friends, and you don’t need to speak a local language to make friends. Maybe what you want is something different from your life, or that maybe, I don’t know, maybe you want adventure, or you want excitement, or you want refuge. Whatever that may be, go to the core of those needs.

And that is what’s going to inform if you really need to learn the language, or if the learning the language is really going to help, it’s not going to really do much with that. 

Another question that you need to ask yourself is if you want to learn the local language, so if you have decided that you do want to learn the local language, you need to ask yourself why. Is it really necessary? And if it isn’t, why are you so adamant in learning the language? What kind of belief is there? And again, ask why again.

Why do you want to learn the language? And answer, and why this? And continue answering, and why that? And why, and why? What need are you seeking to fulfill when you are telling yourself that you need to learn the language? Whatever the need, you need to put things into perspective. Is the language the only way to achieve that? How much would it help? Sometimes it would help you in a great deal, or some other times it won’t help at all, and might be even distracting you from your goal. And how much of your current lifestyle supports your spending time and effort to learn that language? 

So these are elements that are playing a part in both in deciding if you need to learn the language or not, and also in succeeding in learning it.

See, I think you need to maybe make up some realistic percentages. What percentage do you think is allocated to the language to fulfill your need once you have realised or discovered what the need is? What percentage belongs to finding a group of friends in whatever language? Or finding a job that doesn’t require the language? What percentage that contributes to your need? What are your possibilities? And if the language facilitates most of them, then we have to get to work. 

So if learning a language and speaking the language really has high percentages in fulfilling your needs, then that’s when you need to start considering learning the language.

And if they don’t, if learning the language is not realistically as important, maybe your energy should be, or could be, could be spent much better doing something else. Once you decide to learn the language, if that’s the best decision, then my advice would be that you seek advice in what’s the best approach for you. Might be learning in a group, in a classroom, in a traditional setting.

That may be super counterproductive and really not work for you. And you need maybe to study at your own pace, your own rhythm, and with traditional materials or with unconventional materials and in unconventional ways. 

Remember that, and I’m going to end with this, remember learning the language is super, and mostly when we are doing it as an adult, is super personal.No one way fits all. We know this, but we really, I see that very often we forget this when we learn language as an adult. We believe that we have to do it as we did it when we were kids in school, if we learned a second language when we were in school.

We believe that we have to do it in the same way. We do not have to, we do not need to do things in that way. We really need to apply our self-knowledge and understand our conditioning, our biases, beliefs, and also understand our lifestyle, our needs, our energies, and type of intelligence.

And that is the way to learn a language in a way that is fulfilling, that is doing more than just getting the tool in the toolbox. It’s actually making us feel better about ourselves, better about the world we are living in, and feeling more connected to ourselves and feeling more connected to others, to the language and the culture of the place we are living in, if learning the language again is what we need to do. 

So I hope this offers an expansive and light perspective at the question of, do you need to learn the local language to belong in that place? And that’s it. Bye!

María Ortega García is an embodied language coach, author, speaker, and Spanish multilingual poetry teacher based in Ireland. She offers 1:1 coaching to build your confidence with Spanish.

Maria is a profound thinker and an ardent aficionado of languages, deeply fascinated by the intricacies of the human mind, authentic self-expression, and the art of poetry. 

She cherishes her roots in both Spain and Ireland, navigating her dual heritage with Spanish as her mother tongue and English as her preferred medium of expression. Yet, she believes that these languages intertwine beyond discrete identities, reflecting the complex narrative of her life.

A self-described introvert with multifaceted passions, Maria often embraces her dynamic identity as a human being who cannot be confined to a static description. In her professional life, Maria predominantly works with the Spanish language, crafting multilingual poetry and essays that echo her diverse experiences. Beyond the written word, she finds joy in dance, movement, and the serene embrace of nature.

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