There are two essential truths about English-speakers in Barcelona: (1) they have been to an intercambio, and (2) they wish their foreign language skills, whether it's Spanish or Catalan, were better. For every celebration of triumph against a foreign tongue, there’s the sagging sensation of total drift. Learning a language takes time—work deadlines, trips abroad and everyday responsibilities quickly wipe out the fantasy of imminent fluency. Language learning is also expensive. But there’s no better place to learn a language than in its native surroundings, and we're convinced that it needn't cost an arm and a leg. Here are some ideas to get you started:
Bar room intercambios are always a little strained—it’s easier to hang out with friends than total strangers, and the lack of obligation adds to the risk of inconsistency. Weekly volunteering with a steady group solves these issues and increases the probability of meeting non-English speakers, so you don't have the option to switch to English at every hitch. Benefits include conversing with locals and feeling morally superior to your friends.
2. Email, WhatsApp, Messenger
Writing to bilingual friends in Spanish is an easy way to integrate writing into your everyday routine. On a phone, install a Spanish keyboard to help practise spelling. On your laptop, bookmarking a dictionary, spell check and conjugation tool can speed up the process.
3. Occasional readings
Each day is filled with opportunities to read Spanish, generally for things you’d much rather scan in English. The backs of condiments, informative plaques, newspaper headlines, instruction manuals and restaurant menus—you’re surrounded by chances to learn. Museums are especially good because there is often a translation available when needed.
Every neighbourhood has one, they’re stocked with language books and you don’t need a NIE to get a library card. If, like many residents, you have had plenty of conversational exposure but little formal grammar, setting aside some library hours or borrowing a book may be the fastest route to improvement. You can figure out your CREF level (A1, A2, etc.) with a free online test (dele.cervantes.es), which should help you choose the right text, and give you some idea of where you stand.
5. Online tools
The Duolingo app is a brilliant way to begin learning, whilst lang–8 (a language exchange social networking website) can help practise the neglected skill of writing. Another option is to sign up for a daily news roundup from La Vanguardia. On a smartphone with a Spanish dictionary installed, you can tap words to look them up while reading articles. Embedding this into your daily routine (reading on your commute to work or alongside a morning coffee) can help keep it up.
Because sometimes the obvious choice is best. Catalan classes, heavily subsidised by the state, are available without charge across Catalunya—a good starting-point is cnpl.cat, the Consortium for Linguistic Normalisation’s official website. And though free Spanish is harder to find, the CCOO (Via Laietana 16) provides courses of up to 140 hours without charge, and some schools have particularly cheap options—you can even be the guinea pig for trainee teachers at International House Barcelona (Trafalgar 14) with their ‘almost free Spanish lessons for adults’.