Alex is a British lad who has a passion: languages. He studied German and Persian at the university. After spending his Erasmus in Germany, he has settled in Barcelona to improve his Spanish and Catalan.
Studies: German and Persian
Job: Soon-to-be teacher
The interview: This time we were able to do the interview face to face. We had a coffee on his terrace, talked for a while and had a good time speaking about the many interesting things.
Why did you choose to study Persian and German? What motivated you to choose these languages?
I studied German and Spanish at school and knew that I wanted to carry on with one of them at university, but I also wanted to study a less common language. I already had an interest in lots of languages although I didn’t necessarily want to learn them all. At the time when I was applying to university, the three languages which most appealed to me were Icelandic, Russian and Persian and I actually applied to study all of these at different places. It came down to Persian and Icelandic. On the one hand, Persian was ‘exotic’, had an interesting culture and history attached to it, and even though it’s spoken in Iran, quite far away, it’s still an Indo-European language and in comparison to the other languages nearby (Arabic, Turkish) it’s relatively easy. On the other hand, Icelandic is just a beautiful, old language. The grammar is complex and irregular, but anyone who likes languages will admit that it’s one of the most interesting European languages. However, it’s not particularly useful; it has less than 400,000 speakers, most of whom speak perfect English…so in the end I had to choose Persian. It helped that I had applied to study Persian in Edinburgh which has to be one of the most beautiful cities in the world.
When did you start studying Spanish and Catalan? How did you learn them?
I started Spanish in secondary school and learnt most of what I know there (including the school trips to Granada and Valencia). I basically gave it up after starting university. For me Spanish isn’t a particularly exciting language and since for many English speakers it’s the foreign language of choice, there really wasn’t much need for me to learn it. However, when I was on my Erasmus year in Germany I got to know a lot of Spanish people and tried to practice my Spanish again, not very successfully though. That’s also where I met my current girlfriend, a Catalan, and I tried to pick up a little Catalan from her, but ended up falling for the language and started to learn it on my own with a book. Now I’m just trying to gain some fluency in it before I leave.
What made you come to Spain? And to Barcelona?
I came to Spain to live with my girlfriend since we’d been living apart for almost a year while we were both finishing our last years of university. I also took a TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) course in Barcelona and then began looking for work teaching English in the city for a while.
What is the most difficult part of learning Catalan/Spanish for you?
I tend to learn from reading, so for me the most difficult part of learning any languages is understanding it spoken. And Spanish is notorious for being a language that is spoken very quickly, although this is partly because the stress of the language is different to that of English, so it takes a while to get used to it. Catalan is similar in that respect. I actually find parts of Catalan easier than Spanish, e.g. the subjunctive, but all the pronouns (‘en’, ‘hi’, ‘t’ho’, etc.) can be confusing at times.
What are the similarities and differences between British people and Spanish people?
I don’t think there are that many differences to be honest, although there may be a little truth to be found in the stereotype of loud, outgoing Spanish people in comparison to the more reserved English. Then again, it seems that Catalans might be somewhere in between.
Do you think that is necessary to know a language to travel to that country?
Well, unfortunately if you speak English then it probably isn’t necessary, but I don’t think you’ll get the same experience. Without being able to speak to the people in their own language, you probably will never fully grasp the culture and identity of that people, but you can still go around sightseeing and taking photos and so for a lot of people (guiris), there isn’t any point in learning anything of the local language.
Apart from English, in your opinion what is the second most important language in the world?
Some people say Spanish, some Mandarin Chinese, but the problem with these globalised languages, especially English as the global lingua franca is that they are endangering local, minority languages. There are other reasons why languages are dying out, often because national governments are trying to push for one unified, national language. In terms of their unique cultural value to humanity, I’d say that those languages on the verge of extinction are just as important as English, Spanish or Chinese.
Can you tell us about any anecdote regarding communication you have been
A few years ago I was in France with family. We were walking around town and somebody needed to go to the toilet, so we found a public toilet, one of the ones you have to pay a euro to use. Later we were taking a stroll and passed that same toilet, but this time there was a group of Spanish people trying to use it. The woman obviously was pretty desperate and her husband (I assume) was getting annoyed because she couldn’t work it out. They were about to give up and possibly have the rest of their day ruined by her nagging urge to evacuate herself. So I saw my chance and called over “HAY QUE PAGAR!”. At first they looked confused but then as she began to understand, a smile crept across the woman’s face and she ran into the now functioning toilet. I turned to catch up with the rest of my family as I heard the man shouting something which I can only assume was “GRACIAS CHAVAL!”.
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