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Barcelona is a multicultural city with two official languages: Catalan and Castilian Spanish.  As an organization that focuses solely on Barcelona, we often are asked “Can you learn Spanish in Barcelona?” by advisors, faculty, parents, and students.  Our answer?  ABSOLUTELY!

With that said, I’d like to share with you a letter from Dr. Carolyn Nadeau, a Spanish professor at Illinois Wesleyan University.  Dr. Nadeau has led faculty-led semester programs with Barcelona SAE for the past two years.

By Dr. Carolyn Nadeau, Illinois Wesleyan University

I too had my reservations about learning Spanish in Barcelona (and the fact that I am at heart a Madrid person!) but I would say that the benefits of learning Spanish in a bilingual-bicultural city are many.

Dr. Carolyn Nadeau

First, to dispel any myths about not being able to learn Spanish here. University undergrads learning Spanish do 95% of it in direct contact situations, that is, they learn by interacting. In my multiple visits to Barcelona and in my current stay as director this semester I have had 100% Castellano interaction with people living in this city. Yes, there are many Catalans whose first language is Catalan but as soon as they hear you speak Castellano, they switch over. And, I may add that there are MANY non-Catalan speaking Spaniards living in Barcelona so that the “background” language you hear on the streets, on the radio, in the metro is as much Castellano as it is Catalan. As you and your colleagues already know, the amount of language a student learns is directly proportionate to how much s/he chooses to engage and anyone who wants to learn Spanish, will learn as much in Barcelona as in any other part of Spain. In addition, I think living in a bilingual city empowers students to become bilingual. They see it in action all around them and that attitude, atmosphere, call it what you will, shows them that they too will be able to communicate fluidly in another language.

For me, the Catalan that will be part of the students’ lives (perhaps signs in the grocery store or a slogan on a billboard) enriches their linguistic diversity and I would say helps them even further to understand how different people express themselves. (What is the drawback of learning how to say “exit” in both Castellano and Catalán?) This linguistic diversity and more so, cultural diversity, offer the student an even richer understanding of the importance of diversity in our lives. One of the most important things about studying abroad is reevaluating one’s values. Living in a culture in which two cultural systems (Spanish and Catalan) live and grow together, facilitates students’ understanding of who they are and what is important to them.

Another thing I have noticed in my short time living in here is that this is a sports-oriented city. More than other Spanish cities, people here run, bike, do a variety of water sports (even in January!), play ping pong (on the public tables scattered throughout the city) and tennis, and other sports.  The city is committed to this type of mind-body health too as is noted by its numerous green spaces and miles of bikes paths around the city. For many students, this connection to physical activity is tremendously valuable as they settle into their new lives. In my program, two women have joined a gym, one runs regularly throughout the city and another is still looking for ways to join a volleyball club.

In short, I would STRONGLY recommend Barcelona as a place to learn Spanish language and culture. It is a vibrant, modern city that is proud of its heritage and aesthetic beauty.  I would also like to add that Barcelona SAE offers an amazing program. Again, I speak as a person who has developed two study abroad programs for our university, directed three study abroad programs and worked with different companies in the process…and Rich and Barcelona SAE are top-notch. He caters to the needs of the individual program. He has hired an excellent team of coordinators and faculty and I know from the group of Illinois Wesleyan students who are taking language classes this semester, all are very happy with their courses.  In addition, his team creates cultural scavenger hunts, takes groups on a hike, organizes excursions both inside and outside the city, and provides weekly “cultural agendas” for the students. And, for those US faculty teaching courses here, Rich is also invaluable for using Barcelona as a live resource for the classes. For example, in teaching about the Spanish civil war, he recommended a bomb shelter visit, which made the events of the war and its effects on peoples’ lives so real for the students. I would not have known about that opportunity had it not been for Rich.

Where I may differ with the decisions of the group is living in apartments. Here, students will undoubtedly speak English. It is the exceptional few that want to maintain Spanish at every opportunity, so that most, when given the opportunity to revert to English, will do so. If there is a way to house them with families, their language learning (and cultural learning) will undoubtedly be all the more intense.

In closing, I would ask your committee to consider the benefits of linguistic diversity, cultural diversity, and body fitness as strengths of studying n Barcelona. I also can speak very highly of the quality of programming that Rich offers. Let me know if you have any further questions. Barcelona is a great city for both students and faculty! Living here with the students, my initial doubts of slowed language learning have dissipated. I am now a big supporter of the advantages of learning Spanish in Barcelona. Who knows, I might have to reconsider where I stand on the timeless Real Madrid-Barça rivalry!


Rich Kurtzman

Currently based in Barcelona, Rich grew up in the great city of Chicago but has been lucky to call Barcelona his home for over 15 years. His studies in Spanish and Russian Language and Culture led him on a path toward study abroad ever since high school. Starting with a summer in St. Petersburg, Russia then a semester in Madrid, Spain, there is no doubt that his study abroad experiences shaped his future. He later did an internship in Milan, Italy, led student groups through Spain, and volunteered in the Philippines. After earning his M.A. in Spanish Applied Linguistics, Rich taught Spanish History and Culture to study abroad students in Barcelona. Since 2002, Rich has organized and directed all aspects of study abroad in Barcelona. Rich regularly presents at International Education conferences on various topics and also works as an intercultural consultant for multinationals in Spain.