Barcelona's Babel

Tongue-twisting tales from a bilingual city.

Submitted by Lindsey Simon, Senior Media Editor, Class of 2015

Less than an hour after I landed at the Barcelona-El Prat Airport one March morning, study abroad had already presented me with its first test: How in the name of Gaudi do you pronounce carrer?

Eventually I would face challenges like, How do I feed myself? and, How can I trick my classmates into wanting to be friends with me? But now, as I sleepy-stumbled toward the taxicab that would bring me to my new home for the next nine weeks, I was faced with a more pressing trial: I could not for the life of me discern how to move my mouth into the local word for “street.”

This was an awkward problem to have. I had come to Spain because I was, in theory, fit to converse with Spaniards—the language-immersion version of UChicago’s Civilization in the Western Mediterranean program had brought me to Barcelona. I had come to spend the quarter reading and writing in Spanish at an academic level. Years of language study had left me well prepared to chat with my taxi driver about anything from horoscopes to gender politics (the subjects of two of my favorite cab conversations of the quarter), but stating the address of my destination was beyond my reach. The fly in the lexical ointment? I speak Spanish, and Barcelona speaks Catalan.

Barcelona also speaks Spanish, of course. No one ever recoiled in confusion when I said por favor or cómo estás. But of all the foreign words I encountered in ads, maps, and snippets of conversation, some felt more foreign than others—the fragments of Catalan I found swirling around were noticeably heavier on x’s and lighter on o’s.

My classmates and I were bilingual students in a bilingual city, and as such, language and all cultural weight were consistently in the foreground of our experience abroad. In the classroom, we learned about the fraught regional politics that have led to such a complex language situation in contemporary Catalonia; in the city, we witnessed firsthand how Barcelonans navigate their heritage each time they write and speak. Reading and listening out on the street brought the history we studied in Civ to life, just as our readings and class discussions added crucial context to the sounds we overheard in parks and cafes.

In a way, this two-pronged linguistic experience gave us the best of both worlds. Academically, we had unparalleled opportunities to hone our Spanish skills: under the careful instruction of our native-speaker professors, we zeroed in on the subtleties of grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation. Beyond that, the language-immersion aspect of the program let us access the words of some of Western society’s most celebrated thinkers, from Cervantes to Dalí, unmediated by translation.

On a more basic level, we came to Spain equipped with the know-how necessary to order a coffee, read a map, and purchase nail polish remover with minimal strife; speaking Spanish provided a safety net in case anything went awry. But at the same time, living in Catalonia made it hard to get complacent. Study abroad wouldn’t be study abroad without those mystifying lost-in-translation moments—which teach you to be resourceful and to adapt and to laugh at yourself, hard—and Barcelona more than delivered on that front. One of my greatest victories that quarter came when I finally managed to communicate with the very Catalan printer software in the campus library (imprimeix indeed).

Perhaps best of all, Barcelona’s bilingualism meant getting to maintain BFF-status with Spanish while simultaneously riding out the honeymoon period with Catalan. Those early days of language learning may be frustrating, but they’re also exhilarating and full of discovery—every new word is at once beautiful and hilarious (my current favorite from Catalan’s lexicon: ratpenat, meaning “bat”). Embarrassingly, I’m still not sure how to pronounce carrer, but it’s a nice reminder that I still have plenty left to learn.

Posted on Thursday, November 6, 2014

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