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This guest post is written by Benny Lewis who blogs at FluentInThreeMonths.com where he encourages and helps people learn to speak foreign languages. I met Benny earlier this year in Bangkok and again in Las Vegas for BlogWorld Expo, where we took a side trip to visit the Hoover Dam. Benny currently speaks English, Esperanto, Portuguese, Spanish, French, German, Gaelic, Hungarian and is now is the Philippines to learn Tagalog.
“So, how long have you been speaking Catalan?”
“Actually, this is my first ever conversation in the language…”
It was Susanna, a potential landlady, who had asked me the question. Since the initial Hola, com estàs? the conversation had continued, albeit slowly, just in Catalan. She didn’t realize until this last question that it really was the first time I had ever used the language.
She had already shown me around the beautiful two-bedroom house near downtown Barcelona, but we stopped here in the garden.
“Què?? Parles molt bé el catalá!”
This impressed reaction was something I would see many more times in future when trying to speak a language for the first time. Despite doing poorly in languages in school and only speaking English when I was 21, soon into my travels I had figured out the secret: speak it from day one, no matter what. Study quickly and use the little you know quicker.
It seems as if almost nobody else really tries this, because my initial stumbles in any language are almost always met with shocked congratulations. But Susanna was particularly impressed and despite my constant “ummm”-ing and likely horrible butchering of Catalan, her face had a glow that welcomed every simple phrase I’d utter.
This was back in 2006, just three years into my travels, when I had already picked up a few languages and now had a bit of an advantage. You see, if you imagine a triangle with French, Spanish and Italian on the ends, Catalan would be in the middle of that triangle. My plan to wing it with a Spanish sentence rhythm, French vocabulary and Italian verb conjugation, mixing that in with the little I learned on the flight over, seemed to be working!
“You know what? I was going to rent out the rooms separately, but I like the idea of an Irish guy learning Catalan so much that you can have the entire house for the same price as a single room!”
Now I was the one with a surprised expression on my face. An entire house to myself, 15 minutes away from the Ramblas, for most of the summer, for just a couple of hundred Euro?? I was off to an excellent start in Barcelona!
Susanna is a born and raised Catalan, and spoke several languages herself, but only spoke Catalan to me for my entire stay. I was soon to discover that many residents of Barcelona would typically speak four or five languages, which is completely different to the otherwise monolingual rest of Spain.
Despite this, someone learning their language when they really didn’t have to (I wasn’t marrying a Catalan, or looking for a government job, and was only planning to spend two months there), meant that I would be instantly welcomed as one of their own. I got invited to VIP events, received discounts on pretty much everything, was invited to family dinners immediately after meeting people, got more free offers for tours of the city than I could accept, and had a social circle that seemed to be spanning hundreds.
All this despite not knowing a single person in Barcelona when I arrived.
Susanna and her boyfriend invited me to eat with them regularly and she cooked me several fantastic vegetarian paellas and told me many interesting things about Catalan culture. She would of course also help me progress in the language. By the end of my stay I was able to understand and participate in quite deep conversations with the couple and had already made some amazing local friends my age that I would go out with regularly.
That was all well and good, but I had another mission for my time in Barcelona; I wanted to improve my other languages. Rather than chain myself to books, there is something academics seem to miss when it comes to the essentials in speaking a language well as soon as possible: lots and lots of practice. This can be done anywhere in the world for any language in the world, and in person with natives if you look carefully enough.
Watching World Cup matches with Brazilians, but not in Brazil
Just before Barcelona I was in Brazil, and confusion with visa issues meant that I couldn’t spend the World Cup there as I had hoped. Moving to Barcelona and learning Catalan was actually a last-minute decision because of that.
But being on the wrong side of the planet wasn’t going to stop me from enjoying the matches with Brazilians themselves!
I did some digging and found that there was an active Brazilian community in Barcelona that connected to one another through a group on the social networking site Orkut. I saw that they were planning to watch Brazil play against Japan at a sports bar, so I joined them!
It was like being back in Brazil again – yelling “porra” at the referee for any unfavourable decision, seeing nothing but yellow t-shirts, drinking Guaraná, and of course speaking Portuguese. In fact, participating with that level of fun and passion for the game with such a big group of Brazilians would have been impossible to do in any language but Portuguese.
Brazilians do a great job at creating a community in every city abroad, and I was glad to be a part of this one. They were even more welcoming than the Catalans when they heard me speak their language far from home and I had half of the bar laughing in hysteria when they heard me sing my best rendering of songs I kept hearing on the radio during the Carnaval. They dubbed me o irlandês mais brasileiro do mundo (the most Brazilian Irishman in the world); a title I continue to hold to this day!
Barcelone à la française
Next, it was time to improve my French! Now, unfortunately I can’t quite repeat the same story of “They heard me speak the language and loved me instantly” – definitely not!
The year before this I had been living in France and had learned the language much slower than I wanted to. This wasn’t because French itself was hard – it was because my confident approach of speaking despite having lots of mistakes was not welcomed by the French, and especially not by the Parisians.
It’s the only place on earth where my attempts to learn the language weren’t appreciated, (the French can be a little too proud of their language at times) and were actually met with quite a lot of resistance! Many years later I finally figured out what I had been doing wrong in Paris, but until then I would take any other opportunities I could get to improve my skills in the language.
And now in Barcelona, since I had an entire house to myself in a popular touristy city, which included a spare bedroom, I realized that I had the perfect opportunity to do that in a unique way: Host Couchsurfers.
I was instantly one of the most active Couchsurfers of the city, hosting groups of 2-5 people and changing the group every couple of days. While I did make a point to host as many varied people as I could, French speakers got a preference.
And it worked! I hosted Quebecers, Belgians, Swiss and some Africans and did indeed spend my day hanging out with them in French. I was finally improving my spoken level!
Eventually I ran into a French girl, Anna, who was also living in Barcelona and when I confidently showed her my French, she shot me down and switched to Spanish immediately. Drats!
To make matters worse, Couchsurfing had undergone a major crash and nobody could log in anywhere for weeks so my hosting days looked numbered.
But then this Fançaise asked me to host her friends for a week. To make sure I would say yes, she assured me that they all would only be able to speak French with me.
And I had the best week with them! We spent a whole day at the majestic Parc Guell and hit the nightclubs close to the Ramblas. We sat down for a few drinks in Plaça Reial and the police came up to us to move us along, but changed tune very quickly when I explained in broken Catalan how we aren’t typical tourists. I don’t think they were convinced, but they must have found me charming enough since they left us alone!
During all this time, the World Cup matches were continuing and it was time for the final: France vs Italy. My company that week meant I didn’t really have much of a choice of who I was going to support, and the Françaises painted a tricolore flag on my face to make it absolutely clear!
Their usual perkiness was extinguished after Zidane headbutted Materazzi in the chest in extra time, and France ultimately lost to Italy. The girls weren’t interested in staying out and called it an early night.
Since my loyalties were pretty flexible, as soon as I had consoled them and let them make their way home, I quickly switched sides and started parading up and down the Ramblas singing “Campioni, campioni, olé olé olé!” with the Italians and partying with them for the night. But don’t tell the French girls I did that!
Because I had met one of my Brazilian friends that morning, I had successfully spoken Portuguese, Spanish, Catalan, French and Italian, each one for several hours, all on the same day of the World Cup final. And to think – I barely even got a C in German in high school!
All my success in languages comes down to simply being confident, focusing on the positive and beauty of a language rather than getting intimidated by grammar books, and above all else – lots and lots of practice. If you can’t speak a foreign language yet, it’s very likely simply because you aren’t trying. I hope some of these stories show you that there may be opportunities to practice in any city that perhaps you weren’t previously aware of!
Fast forward four years and I am still moving around with “missions” to learn local languages, while trying ever more imaginative ways of practicing languages I’ve already learned, while not in the country it is spoken in.
I met Gary as I was dabbling in some Thai in Bangkok, and once again just over a month ago in Las Vegas on my way to Colombia. If I’m lucky, soon I’ll convince him to take on learning Spanish! In January I’ll take on a new language myself, and explain on my blog how pretty much anyone else can do what I’m doing, without necessarily needing to travel.
But sometimes it’s important to put the explanations aside and share stories like my amazing summer in Barcelona. Learning a language isn’t just about getting by in some foreign culture – it can help you expand your friendships with the many interesting people in this world whose native language isn’t English. Some of those people could be living just around the corner from you. Why not go say Hola/Ciao/Salut?