At an InterNations event here in Barcelona some months ago. I struck up a conversation with an American woman who had been living here for 3 years. After a brief introduction, I asked where she was from in the USA in Spanish, and she said “ Sorry, I don’t speak any Spanish!” I knew it was time to write this article.

How many of you have lived in a country but never really mastered the language? Maybe you learned enough to survive or ‘get by’; to go shopping, order a meal, get directions, book a taxi, exchange pleasantries with your neighbours and talk about the weather, or complain about how difficult it is to find a reliable gardener and a pool cleaner.

In a previous article I spoke about the 5 reasons people don’t learn a language well or even give up altogether. Motivation is number one on the list and is probably the one that affects you.

“But,” people will say, “How can you NOT be motivated to learn the language if you actually live in the country?” Here are some of the main reasons I’ve heard over the years and especially since joining InterNations in Barcelona (the expat association).

  1. You’re not thinking of living in the country long and the effort just isn’t worth it. The so-called digital nomads might be in this position. Some people end up staying in the country and then regret not starting earlier!

2. You never find the opportunity to speak the language, and no-one speaks to you in that language: “I try to speak Spanish / Portuguese but everyone just answers me in English. Even though I speak pretty good Catalan (IMHO), I still occasionally find that people ask if I want to swap to Spanish. I don’t. It has a lot to do with the surprise that someone who looks so ‘foreign’ or ‘guiri’ would be able to speak it in the first place. If I have the opportunity to speak Catalan on the phone, I speak it even though in some situations Spanish would be easier. It’s an attitude you need to adopt to speak a language. Above all, it’s a propitious circle. The more you speak the better you get, and the inverse is true.

As both a lingua and logophile I relish the challenge of a new language, but I fully understand if most people have other less fascinating interests!

3. You just can’t be bothered. Maybe you don’t like learning or speaking foreign languages very much, and so as long as people understand you and you can get through life with English (probably) you’re OK with survival Spanish, etc. Many expat groups, such as the foreign ones in Spain survive by living in groups where English is spoken and the smart local business people offer services in that language. It doesn’t necessarily mean that you don’t like the local culture or people, it’s just the effort to learn Spanish… with all those verb conjugations and long words it’s just so hard!!

You could also add REASON number 3 from my list “The language is difficult”. For example, languages with different scripts from Russian and Greek to Hindi or Chinese, especially when they are not related to any language you know do require a lot of effort.

4. You don’t like the culture or the people much. You may live in a country where you simply don’t identify with the people of that country. If it’s a culture that is very different to yours, you may not feel a connection or the desire to speak the language or adopt the customs. It’s easier to integrate into a culture where the language is the same, as a different language is a huge barrier to communication and integration obviously!

When my family moved to Ireland when I was 12, we were shocked by how different the culture was (and is), and we even had problems understanding the locals for the first month even though we were speaking the same language. After 11 years, even though I ended up speaking with an almost 100% Irish vocabulary and 50-50% accent, I wanted to keep my British identity; a brave thing to do in the 1980s (I have Irish roots too!). By the way, apart from a few ‘Irish tics’, I’ve recovered my British English!

But, one thing is preserving your identity, quite another is rejecting it altogether. That’s why Guinness is my favourite beer and my best friend is Irish!

But, this article stops near here, because I’m not going to preach evangelically to you about embracing a new culture you live in if you don’t like it. That’s up to you and you know the pros and cons.

What I will say is that if you really want to reach a bilingual or near-native level in a language, starting to feel like a native and adopting a new native-speaker identity when you speak the language is one of the only ways of getting to that elusive point of passing as a native speaker. The younger you are, the easier it is, but I have met some people who started learning  as adults who can pass as native speakers in English!

Back to the American lady. She works exclusively in English with American companies in America, her daughter goes to an American School, and she hangs out in ex-pat groups where everyone speaks English, and she’s probably not planning to stay in Spain for the rest of her life.

If you want to speak the local language,  join groups and associations where only locals go, and avoid InterNations like the plague! If you don’t care, InterNations is highly recommended.

The smartest language learners I’ve met in Barcelona also hang out at InterNations events, but in this case they’re Spanish and get to speak English all the time, and if you try to speak Spanish to them, they’ll probably say, “ Shall we continue in English?”.

I’ve created the Personal Language Learning System which is part of my 7 habits of highly successful language learners. If you want to know more, please feel free to get in touch.

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