South African journalist
Chené Koscielny, Director of the 2021 International Talent Monitor, looks at the importance of English in a city that aims to attract international talent.
One of the biggest challenges of moving to Barcelona for me was the language.
I knew from experience that unless I learned Spanish, I wouldn’t feel at home. But the thought of investing large amounts of money and time in learning yet another language to settle somewhere new was very daunting.
An important part of fitting in is the ability to communicate. However, as an expat, this basic need becomes a luxury, unless English is widely spoken or unless you learn the language, which takes time.
“Don’t worry,” my husband assured me before the move to Barcelona, “EVERYONE speaks English?.”
As it turned out, this was far from the truth! Of all the international cities we’ve lived in – Barcelona is the city with the least amount of English spoken. Of course, he didn’t even mention Catalan.
Does this mean Barcelona is not ideal for internationals who don’t speak Spanish, never mind Catalan? Not necessarily. Let me explain…
How important is English?
In Barcelona around 20% of the population are expats, yet English is not nearly as prevalent as in many other international cities.
A lack of confidence, particularly among the older generation of locals, is often given as a reason for what amounts to an unwillingness to speak English. Shop assistants tell you, “Your Spanish is much better than my English.”
However, the younger generation have a better grasp of the language and appear to be more open to speaking it.
In the 2021 International Talent Monitor – which gauges the opinions of internationals in Barcelona every second year, more than 1,000 respondents ranked the prevalence of English as 4.2 out of 7 in the city – with 4 being neutral.
This is slightly down from a previous ranking of 4.4 in the 2019 International Talent Monitor.
To see the full results of the International Talent Monitor, download the report.
What does this mean?
Although English may not be as widely spoken as expected, many internationals are not overly unhappy with this. For many learning Spanish, or even Catalan, is part of the experience.
What you can expect
Upon landing in the city, basic administrative procedures such as applying for your NIE (official residence document) or opening a bank account – depending on which bank you choose – is often not possible in English. We only learned afterwards that some banks do offer English services for expats.
In practice this means you either pay an agency to handle this process for you or take a Spanish friend along to every appointment.
This is about to change with the introduction in November 2021 of an International Welcome Desk by the city council, which will offer services in English and promises to make the landing process easier.
The public health system in Barcelona is excellent, but in my experience all communications, including info about where to get vaccinated against COVID in 2021 is in Catalan or Spanish. Hence, during the first 6 months all my doctor’s appointments were made by my husband’s secretary.
Internationals often rely on English WhatsApp groups, embassies or even social media to find out where to go to get vaccines or find English-speaking doctors.
My hairdresser, beautician, optician and vet all don’t speak much English. This forces me to practice my Spanish but there are days when I feel exhausted by the effort of trying to avoid misunderstandings.
Shop assistants and waiters in the city center often speak English but don’t count on it! For me one of the biggest ironies was discovering that in the famous Corte Ingles (English Court) Department Stores, shop assistants don’t speak any English.
Another major frustration is one of the city’s biggest internet and mobile phone providers – where there is zero attempt, either instore or online, to assist clients in English. Negotiating your way around internet packages or family phone deals is a nightmare – and I know from public forums I’m not alone in this.
Often, the owners and employees of smaller boutiques and startups in and around the city make more of an effort with English, probably because they are foreigners themselves or younger.
Making friends and networking
In one of the ITM focus groups, a longstanding Barcelona resident said the use of English still marks one as a foreigner in Barcelona. This is because English simply is not part of everyday life for most Barcelonians, which differentiates it from more international-orientated cities.
If you want to integrate you need Spanish and Catalan friends – see my previous post on how to be loved by locals in Barcelona. Staying in the expat bubble is easier, for sure, but kind of defeats the purpose of moving abroad.
Learning the language, at least to some extent, is essential if you really want to understand the culture.
What the city can do
Of course, the city would be a lot more welcoming if local companies and the city council and public health services would invest in more English staff or services.
Small tokens such as having at least one staff member on the team who speaks fluent English or having an English call center to assist clients who struggle to understand Spanish, show respect and makes life easier.
Basic medical information at hospitals and clinics should be available in English and again, at least some staff members should be able to help international patients.
Barcelona Global is actively lobbying for English to be more prevalent both in the public and private sector – to attract more international talent to the city.
Language is not everything
However, having said all that – after only one year in Barcelona and with far from fluent Spanish, I have to say I feel much less like a foreigner than when I lived in a small village outside of London.
Why? What my expat journey has taught me is that openness, warmth, shared values and interest in other people and cultures are more important than language when it comes to making someone feel at home.
With only a few words of Spanish you’re likely to feel very welcome in Barcelona.
What do you think? Does Barcelona need to up its game when it comes to English?
For more news updates in English for internationals living in Barcelona, SIGN UP to the Barcelona Global newsletter.
Read the 2021 International Talent Monitor report to find out more about the challenges and needs of internationals in the city.