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Foreign among foreigners - English takes a hike

Por: | 14 de febrero de 2012

Scotland in the snow

If you ever want to really confuse the average British person, I suggest sitting him or her down in a basic Catalan class.

If their experience is anything like mine, I can pretty much guarantee confusion, befuddlement and a powerful sense of dislocation.

It’s not that Catalan is a particularly difficult language to learn. Sure, the amount of “x”s might be a bit off-putting and the habit of pronouncing “e”s as a guttural grunt can prove a shock. But Catalan very obviously has the same roots as French, Spanish and Italian and appears to follow most of the same rules.

Nor is it anything to do with the teacher, who remains professional to the letter despite my systematic failure to remember that Catalan does not – and probably never will – use the word “hablar”, having its own entirely sufficient term for “to talk”.

No, what will really get your poor Brit is the almost total lack of English going on around them.

It’s shameful, maybe, but us Brits have got used to hearing English everywhere we go. Step into a bar from Moscow to Malaysia and you can order away in English. Check into a hotel in Helsinki and you may hear a visiting Norwegian querying his bill in perfect English. Sometimes I think it’s remarkable. Most of the time, though, it barely registers.

What this means is that when British people do learn foreign languages it’s always from English. Our native language is ever present so we get wedded to the concept of what a certain word or sentence means in English and forget that there may not be an equivalent. Try to translate “parturienta” or “zwischenraum” into English and you’ll see what I mean.

But Catalan class, in central Barcelona, is the land that English forgot. It’s not just that the class is in Catalan – thought that in itself is a shock – it’s that English isn’t the second language of the class and probably not even the third.

Generally, we all try to speak Catalan. But if anyone wants to briefly cheat or check what a particular word means, the lingua franca is Spanish, thanks to 10 students from Spain or Latin America. Second to this is French.

Indeed, in a 15-strong class, more people have Romanian as their mother tongue than English, with just the one Brit (myself) and not a sniff of Americans, Australians or Canadians.

It’s a dizzying experience. For three hours a day English is relegated to the linguistic dustbin, with just the odd word from my neighbours for comfort when they feel particularly sorry for me.

In a way it’s refreshing. English may be useful but it’s easy to get sick of its ubiquity, tired of its blunt vowel sounds and bored of its compact, unromantic structures.

The overall feeling, however, is one of happy confusion. Some days I get lost and start to wonder if Spanish may in fact be my native language, on the deductive grounds that A) I can speak Spanish B) everyone is speaking Spanish and C) Spanish isn’t Catalan.

Writing this now, I realise that I’ve made the class sound like a painful experience. But far from it: frankly I’d recommend it to anyone.

Learning a new language is useful in itself, of course. But equally important is the idea of learning to live without English, casting off the Anglophone safety net and drifting in the sea of linguistic diversity.

You’ll learn a lot about yourself. You’ll learn a lot about other people. And you’ll get an idea of what it must be like for the rest of the world when faced with the ubiquity of English.

It’s a lesson well learned. English may remain the world’s default foreign language for the time being. But with the rise of China and the inevitable decline of the United States, you can bet it won’t be forever. And that’s when you’ll remember your Catalan class.

Hay 6 Comentarios

I really appreciate your way of presenting this post with a excellent suggestion.I want some more about this article. Since I am the frequent visitor to this web.

I wouldn´t say China or the possible decline of the US may end up affecting the position of English as the world´s lingua franca. I would suggest something as simple as a mobile application which translates any major language into other major languages, instantly (like the one Google will be releasing soon providing instant interpretation of Spanish-English) and which will allow people to learn whichever language they wish based on preference and not on practicality as it is now. It's simple, you connect your headphones to your mobile phone, activate the application and speak English into the microphone. You hear the translation in Spanish through your earphones. Now, why would anyone then want to learn English before Catalan, Euskera, Russian or Estonian...


Looking forward to that Mandarin class in Catalan!

Dear exhausted. put your feet up and I'll make you a cup of tea (so long as you promise not to kill me). I'm sure English will be fine for the next few years. Ben

Please, now that I'm able of writing just this... you suggest putting the eye on another language... If I got the time, I'll kill you, I promise.

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Authors (Bloggers)

Chris Finnigan is a freelance journalist based in Barcelona. He writes for Barcelona Metropolitan and is a book reviewer and reader for The Barcelona Review. He is a graduate of the London School of Economics. You can find him on twitter @chrisjfinnigan

Ben Cardew is a freelance journalist, translator and teacher, now resident in Barcelona after growing up gracefully in Scotland via Norwich. He writes for The Guardian, the NME and The Quietus, among others, on everything from music to digital media. You can find him on Twitter @bencardew

Fiona Flores Watson is a freelance journalist, guide and translator who has lived in Seville since 2003, and has been a writer and editor for more than 20 years. She writes for the Guardian, Telegraph and Sunday Times Travel Magazine. Originally from Essex, Fiona is also Consulting Editor of and has her own blog, Scribbler in Seville. She has been contributing to Trans-Iberian since 2014 and tweets at @Seville_Writer

Jeff Brodsky is a freelance writer. He arrived in Barcelona in 2013 via an admittedly indirect route, living in Chicago, Arizona, Seville, Amsterdam, North Carolina and Madrid. Despite not having stepped foot in Seville for over five years, he still speaks Spanish with an Andalusian accent. Jeff’s writing has been published in newspapers and magazines in America and Europe.

Koren Helbig is an Australian freelance journalist and blogger enjoying a life of near-eternal sunshine in Alicante. She writes for publications in Australia, the United States and the United Kingdom, focusing on stories exploring smart and positive approaches to social issues. She hangs out on Twitter at @KorenHelbig and keeps a selection of her favourite stories at

Julie Pybus lives in a small off-grid house on a hillside in Catalunya. She usually focuses on helping charities and social enterprises with their publications and websites, but has also written for The Guardian, Country Living and The Observer. Julie launched and runs a hyperlocal website which endeavors to increase understanding between the different nationalities in her area @JuliePybus

Paul Louis Archer is a freelance photographer, multimedia storyteller and artist educator. A cross-disciplinary worker, who endeavors to encompass the mediums of photography, audio design and writing. Born in Hertfordshire of an English father and Spanish mother. Based in the United Kingdom. @PaulLouisArcher

Vicki McLeod is a freelance writer and photographer. She has lived in Mallorca since 2004. Vicki writes about her beloved island for The Majorca Daily Bulletin, the only daily English language paper in Spain; produces regular columns for the Euro Weekly News, and articles for Vicki runs PR strategies for several businesses in Mallorca and London as well as working on her own blogs and projects. She and her husband, Oliver Neilson, supply photo and text content for private clients via @phoenixmediamlr. She tweets at @mcleod_vicki.

Born in Newcastle upon Tyne and based in Barcelona, Alx Phillips writes about contemporary art, dance and theatre in a way that human beings can understand. For more previews, reviews, interviews and extras, check:


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