I quite like watching the TV programme on Channel 4 called “A Place in the Sun”. It’s a little bit of escapism I suppose, imagining yourself in a warmer place under the sun, maybe near the beach. But having lived in Spain for a while, it amazes me how the prospective ex-pats gloss over the things that in reality will be quite sizeable obstacles. One of them is the Spanish language barrier. People seem so glib about moving to places like Spain and saying things like “We’re going to integrate with the locals; live the Spanish lifestyle.” And then the presenter says, “Can you speak any Spanish?” to which the unwitting would-be “Spaniards” reply, “No, but we’re planning on getting a few lessons” or something to that effect. I have visions of them living in the small Spanish town, in their old ages, surrounded by Spanish locals gabbling away in a totally foreign language, communicating by way of pointing at a loaf of bread or restricting themselves to shopping at Mercadona, where they can help themselves to what they want.
I know from experience that when living in Spain (and I am not talking an out-of-the-way, inland town, I’m talking a big, cosmopolitan city), it’s really quite imperative to speak Spanish, truly imperative, unless you really don’t want, need or care to do anything much apart from living as if you are on holiday, or living in an area like Benidorm where you can limit yourself to mingling with other ex-pats and frequenting “English” shops and bars.
Before I went for my first spell in Spain, I spent a lot of time getting to what I suppose was lower intermediate level Spanish, and felt reasonably well-prepared to overcome that Spanish language barrier, but when I arrived I discovered that I couldn’t even hold a conversation, not even a basic one. People would talk too fast, or several at once, or I would get stuck on one vital word that they said or even if I managed to understand them, my reply was so slow and so late coming that they gave up waiting and reverted to English or got an English-speaking colleague to deal with me.
By the time I went for my 2nd spell in Spain, I had learned from my earlier experience and was, I thought, even better prepared. I’d got my Spanish to what I think was about upper-intermediate level, or even lower advanced and that’s about where I am now. It WAS better. I could hold a basic conversation on a range of subjects. I mean basic, mind you. I could also usually understand what the other person was trying to convey to me, or at least get the gist of it. Phone calls were trickier, but again, I could usually just about get by if I planned the call well enough. (I arranged, for example, my internet connection over the course of many tricky phone calls to Telefonica, all conducted entirely in Spanish.) But when it came to, say, a group conversation where I was the only English person, it was a lot harder, because the locals would speak more quickly, and would use colloquial phrases, and would talk several of them at once, and would not make any concessions to my middling Spanish. This is REAL Spanish; REAL Spain. I found, and find, this frustrating. It’s very hard to play a part in this situation. I realised after a while that I had hit a kind of glass ceiling which would be very hard to shatter. Let me explain: When my Spanish was lower intermediate, I could order food and drink; make extremely basic comments about the weather or exchange other pleasantries, ask directions, that kind of thing. When my Spanish became upper intermediate, I was more fluent. I could grapple with the paperwork and staff at the Town Hall and jump through the various administrative hoops to get my evidence of residency; I could order a roller blind from the curtain shop; I could negotiate gas bottle delivery from the gas man in his elusive little lorry – but what I came to realise was that the Spanish language barrier was preventing me from doing something that is, for many, so important when trying to put down roots in a new place – to make friends; to communicate at such a level that you will begin to pick up on things that are an essential part of getting to know someone – their needs, desires, concerns; their nuances and idiosyncrasies and all those little character traits that often come out through the dialogue they use.
So now, in preparation for what I hope will be more spells in Spain, I am trying to take my Spanish to the next level. I try to listen to Spanish radio (via the internet) for example, and to read Spanish books. Not Spanish language-teaching books, but “real” Spanish books. I’m reading one about the Spanish real estate industry for example – a kind of training book for people entering that industry in Spain (not that I intend to, you understand). Listening to Spanish radio is REALLY useful – especially those channels that have phone-ins or where there are multiple people in the studio talking together naturally. This is real-time Spanish with no concession to the foreigner. This is the Spanish that you will need to understand, without even thinking, if you are to really communicate to the extent that you can begin to KNOW people, make friends, integrate.
For me, this is vital. If I ever went on “A Place n the Sun” – not that I ever would – I would never want to have to say “Well, I can’t speak a word of Spanish – ha ha ha – but we’re planning to take a few lessons because we really want to integrate with the locals.” It really does involve a lot more than just a few lessons before you go or at the local Town Hall with the other novice ex-pats after you arrive in Spain. For me, learning Spanish is fun, rewarding and not like “work” at all. But be in no doubt that it takes effort and a lot of time if you want to learn a new language to the level that you can “integrate” even slightly.
I think that this is why so many ex-pats gravitate to the ex-pat world, and to places where they can get away with living, working, socialising pretty much totally with other expats. They’ve either never seriously wanted to integrate, or they’ve made token efforts with “a few lessons” of Spanish only to hit that Spanish language barrier and conclude that it’s hopeless.
It actually ISN’T hopeless at all. But if you are really serious about integrating with the locals in Spain, in my experience you have to go a lot further than “a few Spanish lessons”. It will be well worth your effort though. The natives ARE on the whole friendly, supportive and eager to help. They WILL on the whole appreciate that you are trying, really trying to communicate with them in their own language, and they will forgive your mistakes and give you useful feedback when they correct you. And one day you will have that truly beautiful experience of holding a conversation with a local, coming away and realising that you did it, fluently, naturally and barely conscious of the fact that you were speaking a foreign language at all.