Living in a country where you don't speak the language.

Some children on the pavement

I have to confess we moved to Catalunya on a bit of a whim. It wasn't that it wasn't planned but it wasn't exactly well researched. That is to say, I didn't realise that people actually spoke catalan here. (Having come from the south of Wales, I thought it would be like there, where people speak welsh but you can work in most places without it.) It wasn't until after we'd signed the contract that it dawned on me that my children would be taught in catalan and not spanish. So, not just one language to learn, but two.

When we first got here, I could hardly tell the two apart. When listening to the radio, there were some tell tale words, like the number 8 which are quite different in each language ('ocho' in spanish or 'vuit' buit in catalan). These little golden words held the key. Until they casually switched to the other language that is.

We've been here over 2 years now and I've been learning both spanish and catalan. My spanish is reasonable and my catalan is basic, approaching elementary. I understand enough to get by, enough to go to the doctor, give birth, sort out problems. But it does leave me at a disadvantage. I don't have that elegancy of language that we have in our mother tongue. Often, when standing at the school gate with familiar faces but no known names, I struggle to open conversation and make a pleasant but throw away comment. When going to the dentist or doctor, I often leaving thinking, "I should have asked this or that". In my own language, I would have made a passing comment, quizzed them closely. Here, I have to think before I talk.

Having said all that, I do find it hugely rewarding and exciting being able to communicate in different languages. I was always lazy with languages at school. My school french has now faded into oblivion and every time I go to France, I open my mouth and spanish accidentally jumps out.

Living in a country where they speak another language is like all sounds being slightly out of focus. I hear the melodic spanish and pick up a few words. The guttural, lilting catalan and then the crystal clear notes of a British tourist. I can even place their accent, from Wolverhampton, complaining about the lack of taxis round here and wondering why the shops are all closed at lunch time.

As time goes on and I learn more, the focus gets clearer and clearer. I love catching different languages as I walk through town. Often it's arabic or romanian, both complete blurs, I don't understand a word.

And I love meeting up with people and chatting to them. Caught between amazement that they understand what I'm saying and frustration that I make such elementary mistakes all the time. Hardly a sentence goes by without me correcting myself in my head.

The kids seem to pick up both languages like a sponge. Galen, now 5, is nearly fluent in catalan. I suppose his vocabulary is limited to what he hears at school as we speak english at home. Dante, now 3, is building his confidence after 3 months at school. But it hasn't been easy for them either. Galen struggled when he started school and after the long summer break, he was reluctant to go back. And Dante fell out of love with nursery, I think because he was frustrated at not being able to talk.

A boy in a school track suit

So, it has been an up hill struggle, but one that I think will be worth it in the long run. The children will all speak 3 languages and I will have to keep going to catalan class to keep up with them.

2 little boys holding hands