Understanding Native Speaker Privilege

Just over a month into my Barcelona experience, one night I found myself up late, panicking.

Had this all been an enormous mistake, I wondered? Should I really have just quit my job in London, packed a suitcase and left like that? Was I actually going to end up living under that bridge in Sants with those junkies and their eyebrow piercings and mysterious French accents?

Later, when discussing this with a friend over a beer, she reassured me this was a normal part of the so-called ‘ex-pat cycle’. The best way to deal with it was just to stay strong, keep focused on your projects, and turn over and go back to sleep.

Hindsight is a beautiful thing. Instead, I did possibly the worst thing I could have done in that situation. I spent hours trawling through job adverts on Linkedin, and sending out mass applications to all sorts of unheard of companies.

In the morning when I woke up, it all felt like some kind of a dream. Until I checked my emails. To my horror, I’d started receiving some replies. I’d even been invited to a handful of interviews.

As I sipped my café amb llet that morning and began to think about what to do next, I realised there was only one thing I could do. I was going to go.

A few days later, I turned up sleep deprived and stressed in a small town outside of Barcelona, looking for what could turn out to be the next few years of my life. It was easy to spot the building. It was the only one that was not daubed with pro-independence banners and Catalan flags. I knocked, and went in.

The job had been advertised in English. My communications with the HR manager had also all been entirely in English. I’d also found out that the CEO was from the UK. So after meeting him, exchanging some pleasantries, and making our way to the meeting room, I was completely floored when he told me that we would be conducting the interview in Spanish.

Why wouldn’t we conduct the interview in Spanish? We were in Spain – sort of – and I’d put down on my CV that I spoke Spanish.

I do speak Spanish. It’s one of my more advanced languages after spending so much time in Spain before, and having some truly outstanding teachers at school. People tell me I express myself well in Spanish. Yet in that interview, I felt like a shadow of myself.

All of my defence mechanisms were gone. As I tried to talk my sceptical interviewers through my scattered and chaotic CV, explaining why, after years of moving from place to place and trying all manner of different jobs, I was now the perfect candidate to start a lifelong career with their company, all I was able to do was produce vaguely coherent sentences.

Gone was the colour. Gone were the wordplays. Gone – effectively – was my personality.

As I made my way back into the city afterwards, I realised I’d never been in that position before. I had only ever worked in my native language, English, within an English speaking environment. I’d never had to suffer the frustration of not understanding nuances in a meeting, or not being able to express an idea. I’d always been completely free to be me.

For my old colleagues back in London, however, it was another story. At my last employer, when I started I was one of just a handful of native English speakers at the company. While everybody else’s English always sounded extraordinarily good to me, I realised that for everything they were saying, there was probably so much that they weren’t saying. That they couldn’t say. Inevitably, that must have translated into fewer opportunities, much frustration, and perhaps even feelings of inadequacy at times.

I remember when one person started working with me, she was incredibly worried about her English. At first, she would stop mid-sentence, ask whether she’d made any mistakes, correct her pronunciation, and sometimes do everything to avoid finishing the sentence. Later, when we became close friends, she told me: “I wish you could get to know who I really am in my own language!”

Perhaps the greatest privilege of all is knowing that if I don’t want to, I never have to be in that situation. I can go back to my own country at any time, and I’ll probably find a good job where I can speak my native language all day and am never expected to do anything else.

For those from countries in the south of Europe where jobs are scarce or barely more than glorified slave labour, that choice is not always as easy. They are forced to head north, to try to integrate into cultural environments that are not familiar to them. To use language that they didn’t grow up with. To constantly struggle with their native speaker colleagues, who did nothing in their lives bar being born in the so-called “right place” at the right time.

As I reflected and watched the Catalan landscape gliding by against the backdrop of the setting winter sun, a man entered the train carriage. He began to distribute cards to all of the passengers. On them, he had written in huge letters: “TENGO HAMBRE! TINC FAM! I’M HUNGRY! ICH HABE HUNGER!”

Privilege, it seemed, was the theme of the day.

Catalan or Spanish: Deciding which language to speak in Barcelona

A few days before my big move to Barcelona, I found myself talking to my now ex-colleague, Jesús. It was late at night, and we were on the Gatwick Express, heading into Victoria on our way back from the Polyglot Conference in Slovenia. Jesús is from Valencia, and so he took a particular interest in my decision to move to Spain. He asked me if I already had any friends in Barcelona.

“Yes,” I said, quickly. “Lots of friends. So many people, from all over the world. I know all of them.” There was a pause, which I interrupted to re-emphasise: “I have lots of friends.”

“OK,” Jesús replied, cautiously. “Just that I know you know lots of people, but just in case you need anything, my sister’s been living in Barcelona for years now, and she lives very close to where you’re going to be, so if you ever need anything just give her a call.”

I was taken aback. Not only was this so incredibly kind and thoughtful of Jesús to suggest, but the reality is that whenever you move to a new country, you never really know as many people as you think. There are fleeting connections that come and go, occasional numbers exchanged at meet-up groups, people you get on with who then mysteriously leave the country without saying a word… Knowing somebody who actually lived there, permanently, and was from there was like finding water in the desert. I graciously accepted.

Meeting the crew from TV3, Catalan TV in London

The next day, a TV crew from the Catalan News Station TV3 had come to find me at work in London and shoot a short interview about why I was moving to Barcelona. When I met them at reception, the journalist greeted me in Catalan. I then turned to greet the cameraman in Catalan too. He turned out to be from Madrid, and although he understood Catalan, he said he didn’t really speak it because, well, he was Spanish.

The journalist, Sergi Mulero, then told me that actually, although he was Catalan, he came from a Spanish speaking family in Catalunya as well. He’d learned Catalan at school and grew up bilingually, but actually, his first language was Spanish.

That was that. We spent the rest of the morning speaking Spanish.

The day I arrived in Barcelona, the main Catalan TV channel had been playing that report on repeat pretty much all day. When I logged into Twitter, I found hundreds of messages from people all across Catalunya welcoming me, thanking me for choosing them, and wishing me all the best.

That evening, I got a WhatsApp. It was Jesús. “My sister and her family have been watching you all day on Catalan TV, and they want to invite you to join them for lunch,” he said.

I got in touch with Jesús’s sister, Maria, and we messaged in Spanish and arranged to meet that Saturday at 2pm – lunchtime in Spain – by the newly refurbished Mercat Sant Antoni.

Needless to say, I got totally lost. After 20 minutes of walking in circles around the outside of the gigantic, €80 million crucifix that was the Mercant Sant Antoni, I received a phone call. It was Maria, asking where I was. I explained I had no idea, but that I was by one of the entrances. Eventually we found each other, and walked to the restaurant to meet her, her husband, their daughter and her godfather. After we finished greeting each other, Maria asked a question that nobody would ever ask in London.

“Pues ¿qué idioma vamos a hablar? So what language are we going to speak?

The Mercat Sant Antoni re-opened in Spring 2018 after an €80m refurbishment, offering a more authentic Catalan alternative to markets such as Mercat La Boquería on the Rambla, which locals complain have become to touristy and ‘guirified’.

I was taken aback. Weren’t we already speaking a language? Wasn’t it already decided? Every centimetre of my body began to fill with fear that they were going to ask me to speak English to them. How many times had that happened to me when living abroad? How many friendships had I started that turned out to just be glorified free English lessons? I groaned.

“Bueno, es que el idioma de nosotros es el catalán,” she explained while my head exploded. “Cuando salimos a comer los sábados, siempre hablamos en catalán. It’s just that our language is Catalan. When we go out to eat on Saturdays, we always speak in Catalan.

My head was exploding for lots of reasons. The first, was that I knew Maria was from Valencia. When I lived in Valencia, I remembered distinctly that Catalan (or Valencian, as it’s known there) was always the elephant in every room. Everything – all street signs, all addresses, bus timetables, etc. – was always written in valencià, but nobody really spoke it. I remembered so clearly when I went to the town hall to register my existence in Spain, asking the civil servant behind the desk whether she spoke any Valencian.

Signs in Valencia were generally bilingual, although most people who live in the city could only really speak Spanish. In villages around Valencia, Catalan (valencià) is more commonly spoken.

“Nos obligan a aprenderlo en el colegio, pero… They force us to learn it at school, but…” she leaned closer, to whisper: “Nadie lo habla aquí. Ni palabra. Nobody speaks it here. Not even a word.

The other reason was that I knew that although Jesús was very proud of Catalan and had done most of his school in it, he tended to speak Spanish. I’d just assumed that, like the presenter from TV3, he came from a Spanish speaking family.

“Si, és molt estrany. Yes, it’s very strange,” Maria said, switching to Catalan when I asked her about this. “En Jesús era sempre el meu germà castellanoparlant. Tots parlàvem català, i ell sempre contestava en castellà. Jesus was always my Spanish-speaking brother. We all spoke Catalan, and he always answered in Spanish.”

I told them that I loved Catalan, that I thought it was the most beautiful of all the Romance languages, the missing piece of the puzzle between Spanish, French, Italian and Portuguese. But I apologised, explaining that although I wanted to learn more Catalan, I had just arrived and my spoken Catalan was weak. I asked them to please continue speaking Catalan as though I weren’t there, but that I would feel more comfortable expressing myself in Spanish.

Of course it was no problem, but as the conversation went on, everyone by default shifted into speaking Spanish. I felt terrible. I felt like that one annoying person at a group of internationals in Berlin who all spoke German but who kept saying “Could we just speak English please so everybody understands?” Forcing people to use a major world language instead of their beautiful ‘minority’ language so they could speak to me was certainly nowhere to be found on my list of things to do when I moved to Catalunya. Yet I’d just arrived, and that’s exactly what I was doing.

It was so lovely to meet Maria and her friends and family, and I really couldn’t have imagined a nicer way to start my new life in Barcelona. I had sudden flashback half way through to last time, when I was living in Valencia, and I used to go out to restaurants on a Saturday for lunch that were always packed full with huge tables of Spanish families and friends eating, drinking, talking and enjoying. I’d always observe them from the tiny table they’d put me on in the corner, thinking that I would never feel the same connection to this beautiful place that they did. I would always be an outsider, a permanent tourist, a guiri. Those thoughts are partly what took me back to the UK, convinced that really you had to live in your own country to be happy. Yet three years later, here I was sitting at the table, chatting away in Spanish and dishing out huge plates of arroz negro.

Yet I felt so bad about forcing everyone to speak Spanish, that I made a pact with myself. From now on, I was only going to use Catalan. Everywhere, and with everyone. Why not? After all, all the signs everywhere were almost always just in Catalan. In most cafés and restaurants you had to play this weird game where you’d decide what you want by reading the menu in Catalan, then translate it back into Spanish so that you could order it from the waiter. Why not make life easier for everyone and just speak Catalan to everyone instead?

In many restaurants and cafés in Barcelona, signs and displays are mainly in Catalan, even if people tend to order in Spanish

Well, almost everyone that is.

Armed with my new Catalanophile confidence, my first target was the new Tim Hortons that had opened up near my house. I’d never heard of Tim Hortons, but apparently it was the place to go in Canada, which is why it made total sense for it to open just off Plaça de Catalunya in Barcelona, where, once again, every single word inside it from the ‘push’ and ‘pull’ signs on the doors to the list of coffees was written in Catalan.

I awaited my turn, and eventually was served.

“Hola, ¿qué te pongo? Hey, what can I get you?” I was asked, in Spanish.

“Bona tarda,” I replied proudly, in Catalan. “Em dones un cafè negre sisplau, i un donut de dolç de llet. Could I get a black coffee please and a dulce de leche donut.”

There was a silence. I had been concentrating so hard on remembering how to say dulce de leche in Catalan that I’d made the whole order focusing on the display case, without making eye contact. Clearly I had made some horrendous grammar mistake. Clearly I had used some kind of Castillian Spanish word. Something had happened. Something had gone wrong.

Eventually I looked up. As my eyes made their way up to meet dark circles of the man behind the till, they passed over a name badge.

First I saw the name ‘Eduardo’. Then I saw the Colombian flag next to it.

“Oh shit,” I thought.

“Molt bé,” he answered in perfect Catalan with the most beautiful Colombian accent. “És per aquí o per emportar? Is that to have here or take away?

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Moving to Barcelona

It was a very simple move. A short, 90 minute hop across the length of France, down over the Pyrenees, and into my new home. Into Barcelona.

I had tried to throw almost everything away. I’d spent the week before the big day hauling huge bags of old clothes, books, unused kitchen equipment and anything that could weigh me down out to the recycling centre. I’d narrowed my life down to just two suitcases and the iMac I’d bought in Budapest. That was everything I packed onto that small plane that morning and brought with me into my new life.

There was nobody to greet me as I walked out of arrivals pushing my trolley. A sea of strangers, waiting for friends and relatives. I walked past them, pushing my life on a single trolley, and headed for the taxi rank.


I made my way to the front of the queue and greeted the taxi driver in Spanish.

Hola, buenas.” I pointed at my bags. “Te pido disculpas, porque llevo toda mi vida aquí, y tendremos que ponerla toda en tu coche. You’ll have to forgive me, because I have my whole life with me here, and we’re going to have to fit all of it in your taxi.”

Buenas,” he replied. “Eso es toda tu vida? Qué guay. Qué honor. Pues la ponemos por detrás. This is your whole life? Wow. What an honour. Let’s put it all in the boot.”

“What are you going to do here?”

We drove off along the motorway towards the city over the turquoise horizon. The taxi driver was keen to talk. He asked me if I had so many things with me because I was moving to Barcelona. I told him I was. He asked me what I was going to do here. I coughed.

This was the question that I’d spent so long trying to avoid answering. The fact was I didn’t really have a clear idea. I had dreams, I had some plans, I had some projects, and I’d come to Barcelona because I thought this would finally be the place where I could get to work on them.

Because how do you tell somebody that one day you just woke up and knew you had to go? That you went into work and sat down with your manager and gave her your notice? You put your room up for rent, closed your bank accounts, and booked a one way ticket. Then a few weeks later, you just went.

No, you didn’t know what you were going to. But you knew that you’d never felt any urge as strong as this ever before in your life, and so for the very first time you stopped listening to everybody else, and started listening to yourself. And because you’d done that, you knew everything would be alright.

“I’m a journalist,” I told him. “I write feature pieces about languages, cultures and intercultural communication.” That’s what I’d told the BA cabin crew at Heathrow that morning when I was trying to persuade them to let me take my iMac into the cabin with me. It had worked.

The driver wasn’t really interested, because what he really wanted to talk about was chestnuts. Chestnuts, he told me, were an important symbol for life. They reconnected us with nature, with fate, and they brought us luck.

He grew chestnuts, he told me, but not just any chestnuts, lucky chestnuts: castañas de la suerte. He told me that whenever I needed some luck or inspiration, I should just take one of his chestnuts into my hand and squeeze it tight, and that fate would smile upon me.

As he started listing all the Spanish celebrities I’d never heard of who’d been in his taxi and held his chestnuts, I thought that was exactly what I needed at this point in my life: a bit of luck.


I looked at his measly chestnuts in their cheap cardboard boxes. I knew it was a scam, but I decided I was going to buy one anyway.

Soon, the motorway gave way to the elegant, multicoloured avenues of Barcelona. The billboards that had been offering to fly me back to London for €19,99 had turned into wrought iron balconies, draped with Catalan independence flags and yellow ribbons.

“No me muero por ninguna bandera.”

The afternoon sun began to dance through the autumnal leaves of the trees that lined the street. I suddenly realised that the driver had stopped talking about chestnuts.

“I’m very Catalan,” he said. “I love my country, I love my language, and I love my people.” As we drew up to a red light, he turned around to face me. “Pero yo no me muero por ninguna bandera. But I’m not going to die for any flag.” He let that hang for a moment in the air.

The lights turned green and we drove on, past another sea of Catalan flags. Each one seemed bigger, longer, and stripier than the last.

I told him, in Catalan, that I wanted to learn better Catalan. This delighted him, and he immediately stopped speaking Spanish.

“Everyone who lives in Barcelona should learn Catalan”, he told me. “Everyone complains that Catalans are very reclusive and hard to get to know, but how on earth do people coming here expect to integrate if they won’t even learn our language?”

“Lots of foreigners come here to learn Spanish and then complain that everything is written in our language. There are so many big cities in the world that speak Spanish, and just one that speaks Catalan. Why do they come here? If they don’t like it here, why don’t they go to Toledo or Valladolid or somewhere else?”

Because they don’t really come here to learn Spanish or Catalan, I thought. They come here primarily for the beach. There’s no beach in Toledo.

“Welcome, tourist.”

Eventually we arrived. My new front door was a gigantic glass and iron structure that gushed with natural light from the busy street into the ornate entranceway of my building.

I told the driver I wanted to buy a chestnut. His face looked like Catalunya had just been given independence and granted a permanent seat on the UN Security Council all in the same afternoon.

He helped me lift my possessions out onto the street, and plonked my largest suitcase directly into the path of a passing hipster with perfect designer stubble. He stumbled over it. “Welcome, tourist,” he muttered in English.

I started looking for the right doorbell to ring when suddenly the door was opened by a tall, thin guy with curly black hair and an Argentinian accent. I realised this was the person who was in the process of moving out of the room I was moving into. He had some bad news.

El ascensor no va. Tendrás que subir las escaleras. The lift is out. You’re going to have to take the stairs.”

It was almost a very simple move. But even the slog of lifting 65 kilos worth of possessions up five flights of stairs was made beautiful by the ornate tiles that lined every step of the way.

As I collapsed into the sofa of my new living room and enjoyed the final rays of sunlight of the afternoon streaming through the double balcony doors, I breathed a huge sigh of relief. I had done it. I live in Barcelona now. And I couldn’t be happier.

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