It’s not as easy as Ah, Be, Ce…there’s Ch as well.


Learning to survive in both Catalan and Castillian is no mean feat. Firstly, we have the difference between the two languages. Catalan is a rich and complex language, one that I am struggling to understand properly – partly due to the fact I understand French quite well, but mostly due to the fact I am struggling to separate Catalan from your regular day to day Spanish. For instance, take the word ‘cheese’. In Spanish, this translates to ‘queso’, but in Catalan, it’s ‘formatge’, a word that looks altogether too familiar in the guise of ‘fromage’ (French). Most publications are written in Catalan: forms and official documents, and road signs. Schools teach only in Catalan except for their English and Spanish lessons, during which the main language always returned to is – you guessed it, Catalan. The family I am staying with speak solely Catalan at home. The teachers around the table at lunch speak in Catalan, but can switch to Spanish with the drop of a hat. Prick your ears and you might just hear the difference. The weather man on the Catalan news speaks so rapidly I’m worried he’s going to take off. So is it any surprise I am picking up only snippets of Spanish, and becoming used to the Catalan phrases? Every day, I bid colleagues ‘adéu’ rather than ‘adios’. I tell the children ‘molt bé’ rather than ‘muy bien’. I’m speaking in a mix of four languages: English, French, which pops into my head first as it’s the only other language I have a basic grasp of, then Catalan and Castillian finally pipe up, usually in the wrong format/a useless order. I start making words up that don’t exist, simply because I believe they sound like they fit.

Graffiti, demanding 'In Catalan' over Castillian road sign.

It’s difficult to express how hard it can sometimes be here. I do love the experience, and teaching the children is fabulous – they are so inquisitive, and it’s sweet how much pleasure they get from asking questions that seem so inconsequential to us (‘Do you like funfairs?’). But how can I express, when sat round the dinner table, the fact that I miss my own language, my own idioms, the fact that if I talk about wanting to go to the chippy, someone will understand me. The greenery of England, rolling hills, driving on the correct side of the road. One thing that strikes me, is that in the Barcelona metro, people very rarely stand on the right – an offence that in London would most likely have its citizens reacting like a lynch mob, shooting daggers and shouting at the idiot who dares come to a standstill on the left of the escalator. The Underground in London on the daily commute is crammed to the brim with people not engaging in eye contact, expressionless faces focussed on their iPad, Kindle, or newspaper. Here, people don’t seem to care about that sort of technological gimmickry. The one man I saw with an iPad turned out to be English in the end (or, at least, it looked like he was – he was reading an English article on stated gadget, and, well, you can just tell, can’t you?).

KEEP RIGHT. Or else.

Another difference I am finding, is that the discipline in English schools – if you can believe it – actually pips Spanish discipline to the post, from experience of a primary school here. Today, at school, the children in the equivalent of our year four watched a video about an English school. My, they were impressed. We always called our teachers Miss/Mrs/Mr/Sir, or Ms, for the really obstinate feminists/divorcees/unlovable women/cat ladies. At the beginning of the school day, you answer ‘Here, Miss …’, awaiting your turn to speak up in silence. Ties are commonplace in English schools. In many schools, when the teacher enters, you stand up, or tactics such as ‘hands on head’, ‘fingers on lips’ are used frequently. The children were so impressed that kids their age were wearing a tie. Gasps of ‘Mira! Les noies estan usant corbates!’ (‘Look! The girls are wearing ties’) were heard around the room, among comments that my, didn’t the English girls and boys look smart. I wish they could have seen my tie when I was at high school – the fashion being then that you would make it appear as small as possible, tied as loosely as you could get away with, for fear of someone yanking down on the end and strangling you with full force. I’m not so sure they would have been quite so impressed with that.

The archetypal English schoolboy, a pure picture of elegance...

Polo shirt is the standard option here for uniform, and teachers are most certainly not addressed as ‘Miss’, or ‘Sir’. The children use the teacher’s first name, something that to me seems so ridiculously informal, I still can’t get used to it. Assembly, the only time I saw it (they don’t have it every week, like we do), was such chaos I think my ears are still ringing from the excitement. I won’t sweet-coat the experience and say every moment is a pleasure when taking groups of children out the class into another area to start conversation practice, but it’s very rewarding, and most of the children, you can see are interested and excited to learn or speak English. They ask you questions, ones I haven’t been asked for years, so often that it feels like I’m on a first date with the entire school: I’ve changed my mind about my favourite colour several times, just so I don’t have to keep repeating the word ‘pink’ on a daily basis. I do love how excited they are when they find out you have something in common – that we both like tigers, or we listen to Lady GaGa.

Getting used to the names is a big struggle for me: what seems unusual to me is common over here, and instead of your Johns, James’, Emmas and Sarahs, you have ‘Pol’, ‘Pau’, ‘Irene’ (say ‘Eerayni’), ‘Oriol’, and ‘Xavier’ (the Catalan version of ‘Javier’, but you say ‘Shavie’, ‘X’ being a ‘ch’ sound, which I’m getting used to, in words such as ‘Xocolate’, and the more unusual name ‘Txema’, said like Gemma, but actually a boy’s name).

Another word I want to express my sheer delight at is the word ‘guapo/a’. This word seems to have neverending usage here. It can be used to describe polite, well-behaved children: for instance, when Maria clears the table ‘guapa, Maria’. It can also be used for when the children are told to be calm and quiet (mostly in the 3-5 age group), laying their heads down on the table in their arms to the utterance, ‘muy guapos, nens’. It can be used to describe a handsome man (Johnny Depp es muy guapo) a cute looking child, or, in my case, shouted out a car window on the street – ‘CHICA, GUAPA!’ Makes a change from ‘Hola, Primadonna’…

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Spanish people don’t hop…


After being in Spain for five days now, I’m beginning to get into the swing of things. The school days were a shock for me: children here start school (usually) at 3 years old, and the average day is nine until five o’ clock, the same as a working adult in the U.K – although they do get two hours for lunch. As you can imagine, for a three year old, this is very hard work. I took my first class of four year old ‘nens’ yesterday – and they were completely exhausted, sleeping away on their desks, even during a rousing session of ‘I’m happy, happy, happy, happy’. Which is probably a good idea on their part, considering the song is as boring as it sounds from that title.

‘Nens’ is the Catalan word for ‘children’ – similar to the Spanish, but as usual with Catalan, they like to take words you’re familiar with and give them a shake around, but not enough for you to notice in everyday conversation with an untrained ear. Many times in regular conversation, people in Catalunya can change from Castillian (regular Spanish to you), to Catalan in the space of a sentence. I take my lunch with the teachers, and conversation is of course, muy rapido, but when you team that with the fact that I don’t actually know what language they’re speaking in, I’ve taken to enjoying what’s on my plate and immersing myself in the banter, listening hard, hoping I’ll absorb it through spongy ears. Maybe one day I will wake up and find Catalan on the tip of my tongue, like a taste that I’ve grown accustomed to over a period of time: the red wine of the language world.

Through conversation with my Spanish ‘dad’, whose leg is broken, making him house-bound, I am discovering the subtle differences between our languages. His English is very basic, but better than my Spanish, and he was telling me he ‘jumps’ everywhere. I said, that, in fact, he was hopping, because he still uses one foot: but he didn’t understand. After which followed a great demonstration of me hopping and jumping around the kitchen to express the difference between the two words. After careful contemplation, he informed me – ‘Hop? We don’t have.’

Life here is very relaxed, despite the long days. Perhaps the long days are partly due to their relaxed attitude on life: at first, I was very surprised that the children of the family I’m staying with did not go to bed until around nine in the evening (they’re made up of three girls, one 2, and 6 year old-twins). Now, it seems to make sense. They’re not much more tired than most English schoolkids, from what I can see: and the late lunches and dinners make for a much  less rushed eating experience. Take your time, seems to be the message here. Although, for a country famed for its siestas, not once have I heard anyone mention they’re having a nap (apart from the two year old). The school, in fact, introduced a rule in which children were no longer allowed to take a siesta after lunch. This does result in quite irritable/despondent children at four in the afternoon, but doesn’t seem to affect them too terribly.

School trip to 'Pi d'en Xandri', a local symbol of Sant Cugat, a 230 year old tree: a walk to celebrate St. Francis' day.

The children can clearly see I’m English – pale, blonde hair, and a complete inability to reply to anything they tell me in Catalan spoken at a hundred miles an hour. They love shouting ‘halo, how you?’ in the corridors, and waving at me. I’ve become a big tree trunk to hug for the very little ones, swinging my arms from side to side as they hold my hand because it’s the only common language we have. With the older ones, I’m a welcome outlet for them to ask all the burning questions they’ve always wanted to ask – ‘What’s your favourite colour?’ ‘Do you like sport?’ ‘Are you American?’ I love being in the school, and I know it’s an environment I simply have to be around for the rest of my working life: I absolutely love the challenges you face on a day-to-day basis: will the kids listen to me, who will be difficult today, how can I engage them with subjects that on the surface seem too boring for words?

All being considered, I think it is safe to say I’m going to love my time here. Barcelona is loving me, and I’m reciprocating.

Ball de Bastons - stick dance, a Catalan tradition
'Tiger Mosquito' bites: the Godzilla of the little flying nuisance world.
Pi d'en Xandri, encircled by the zimmoframe equivalent for trees