Marbella is the exception that proves the rule
You always hear that it is important to learn the local language in order to handle everything as good as possible living in a foreign country.
Marbella is located in the South of Europe and here it is basically different.
Marbella is an international city with 50% of Spaniards and 50% foreigners. This lovely bubble is the exception that proves the rule.
The city has – since it came into being – especially in the 60s and 70s with the arrival of the international jet set and Marbella Club Hotel as key point, established itself as a cosmopolitan gathering point for people coming from all over Europe – and in most cases have learned to speak a decent English in their home country.
The international mix of people is the reason why many foreigners in Marbella – at least half – never learn to speak Spanish, except from the usual café level: “Un café con leche, por favour” etc. – even after 10-20 years on the Costa del Sol.
Can you both survive and live a good life in Marbella without speaking Spanish? Easily.
Does life become significantly better, if you speak Spanish? Without the shadow of a doubt!
It makes a huge difference to speak Spanish, even in Marbella
Besides the logical and practical benefits of being able to navigate independently throughout the administrative service system, the difference is that when speaking Spanish one gets recognized and respected by the Spaniards who work in the shops, the restaurants and all the other service businesses that you interact with daily.
The improved communication and connection in Spanish makes a huge difference.
Suddenly, one is associated with the local people, and jokes naturally with people who grew up in a completely different culture than the English-speaking.
When you speak Spanish, you become independent of the longstanding global language monopoly of the British Empire and that feels both liberating, meaningful and expands your horizon. It is worth experiencing.
You become part of a completely different culture and quickly form deeper friendly relations, no matter where you go since the Spaniards are warm, cosy and contact-seeking, especially if you care about them.
With the huge number of tourists and visitors, fully or partially settled in Marbella, largely speaking only English (maybe even for example Russian and little English) and constantly acting according to their own habits and cultural norms but within the Spanish society, you understand well that Spaniards are happy for foreigners who make the effort of learning their language.
To the Spaniards it is a tremendously great recognition that we meet them in their language as not only do we stand on their land, we spend more or less all year round enjoying everything Marbella has to offer. Only then they will take you seriously to heart.
Until you go all in and learn Spanish in many cases you are a relatively indifferent consumer; simply used as a means to and end: To earn as much money as possible money. Although money is important broadly all places, I think that culture is just as important.
After living permanently in Spain for over 5 years we have experienced a long string of fun as well as less funny encounters with the Spaniards.
One of the fun ones
Recently we filled our car with petrol at a gas station. We made an effort to speak Spanish and as a result the gas station attendant made an extra effort to speak English to us and we had to enter a discussion of what language we should speak – usually we would prefer English, and a gas station attendant would prefer Spanish. Now we spoke Spanish and the gas station attendant would do us the favour to serve us in English because we were open-minded and made an effort.
However, we insisted to speak Spanish and after several jokes we ended up getting two bags of free Christmas calendar gifts for kids and honked goodbye and said thank you with a big smile.
It was of course completely unnecessary to endow us with present but a good example of how what could have been a trivial meeting turned into an entertaining encounter.
One should insist on speaking Spanish to learn it because it is too convenient to submit to the usual and speak English.
I will not go into all the details of the countless less funny situations we’ve had, because we have stuck to English and did not make the effort to learn Spanish immediately. We were busy yes but we could have done it if we really wanted.
However, I will mention one scary example.
One of the less funny ones
My three year old son fell off a table on New Years Eve two years ago and hit his head on the floor. His neck was dislocated and his head sat to the left, i.e. it was stuck in that position.
We called a physiotherapist who came home to us and has a look at him. He would not help as he was afraid to do something wrong so he referred us to the children’s hospital in Malaga in order to get x-rays and afterwards apply the correct treatment.
First, we should register him at the Hospital Costa del Sol, which is the largest public hospital close to us. I went there with him.
After approximately an hour of waiting, I saw that the police was removing my car because in my bustle I had parked a place where I was not allowed.
I left my little boy and ran out to stop the unfortunate séance. My car already stood on a truck. I paid the fine on the spot, got the car down, parked it somewhere else and went back inside to continue the procedures.
Then after a prolonged confusion (in the reception area) about whether our private insurance or the public insurance should cover (as we had entered in a public hospital but with a private insurance), we were transported in the ambulance with emergency to the children’s hospital in Malaga.
Here again at the reception they found a deficiency in my papers, where there was no shortage or lack. Something that often happens in paper-driven and relatively old-fashioned systems and it was again no help that I did not speak Spanish well enough. We waited for 4 hours.
A female doctor should see my boy. She was tight in the cover and closed all the way when I could not conduct the conversation and attendance in fluent Spanish.
Remember, we are now in Malaga (Spain). Marbella is an exception. There you can speak English everywhere.
The doctor was mad at me because I could not speak Spanish. She was giving me a lecture and said that since we lived in Spain we should speak Spanish only. In a non-friendly manner.
My boy cried and was frightened as his head was fixed and he had pain at the slightest touch.
The doctor jerked his head and asked him as if we had been in the military to do some rolling around and various gymnastic movements that he could not possibly do.
My patience ran out. I asked the doctor in front of her many passive observants and less empathetic colleagues if she: 1) would focus on helping my son, 2) and I dared to ask her how many languages she spoke.
She replied that she only spoke one language, Spanish. I let that statement stand in the air as I focused on helping my son.
It was 2:00 at night and they announced that they could not help. My son was crying and they said he should be hospitalized and spend the night in a room with 3-4 other children.
I was asked to leave the hospital, as they did not have any space for me. So I said stop. I spoke English and I spoke loudly. You can treat me with a lack of respect but you do not mess around with my kids.
I asked to speak to the main responsible person since I did not want to leave my son as he did not understand and they did not understand him – he was in a critical state of pain and frustration so I wanted to be there for him.
I repeated myself until the message could not overheard or avoided. A doctor came with some papers and I signed that I took responsibility.
I walked away with my son in his arms through the hospital and the staff looked at me as if I was an alien since I had stood up against the system, the doctor’s orders. I was picked up and we drove home.
Our luck was that the head naturally fell into place after two days.
I just wanted to illustrate one of many examples of how the chain can jump completely in a foreign culture.
This was not one of the experiences that motivated me to learn Spanish, on the contrary, I wanted to go back home to Denmark and never come back.
One must remember the following about Marbella.
Firstly, the British are the largest minority on the Costa del Sol – “Brexit” has not yet changed that. The table below shows the registered property purchases by nationality and just one of may statistics illustrating the same fact.
Second for historical reasons, English has gradually been recognized as the primary world language.
Thirdly, the vast majority of Englishmen and Americans only speak one language. These lucky few “world citizens” did not grow up with a need or a demand to learn other languages and cultures and this for many has become laziness and for some a sense of superiority, among other things, arising out of the historic arrogance of the British Empire.
Flexibility versus rigidity
As a Dane, I learned five languages (Danish, English, German, French, Spanish). We, in Denmark, grew up with a different humility than the British, Americans and the French as no one else than ourselves speak our own language.
We therefore had to learn other people’s languages and cultural habits and have always been used to keep our minds open. We have had to make a great effort of understanding others, their culture and values without having any expectation that they could and would understand us. That requires energy.
The described logic makes a bigger difference to the positive outcome of meetings of the international space than many might be aware of and it’s one of the reasons behind the fact that most Danes who live or work outside Denmark have some kind of success in their work and social relationships.
The other day I was interviewed on TV by another Dane but in English. I have yet to experience an Englishman who is interviewed by a patriot in a foreign language.
An open, humble and flexible mind makes a big difference. Therefore it is said also that the Danes can collaborate broadly with everyone.
Once the language and communication drift naturally, you get a unique insight into the culture and one’s interest in the story sharpened.
I therefore now prepare myself for my next Spanish lesson at Spanish Teacher Marbella