Barcelona has earned the right to call itself an international tech hub. It’s super well-connected and it’s doing everything to establish and maintain its international relations in business and entrepreneurship. One of its key efforts is attracting people from abroad and creating an environment where locals and foreigners can work together – which could never happen without an ability and willingness to speak English. But to what extent is English spoken in offices, at events, and in the Barcelona tech and startup scene in general?
Because of the fierce competition for IT professionals, the city needs to import tech talent from all over the world. With so many foreigners living and working in Barcelona, it’s no longer just the offices of international corporations where people speak English on a daily basis. Spanish tech companies have also started to adopt English as a common language for internal as well as external communication.
However, more traditional companies are sticking to the use of Spanish and Catalan, and require their employees, local or foreign, to speak either one or both. Which, of course, makes perfect sense since we are in Spain, after all. So how common is the use of English within companies and just how necessary is it?
Which companies are switching
“Barcelona has a mix of traditional and new companies. I’ve heard of companies changing some of their oral and written communication into English but these tend to be smaller and younger companies. The traditional ones find it harder to speak English. I don’t think this is a priority in Spain yet as it is in Germany for example,” Amber Denton, co-founder of English Accelerators tells me. Amber and her colleagues work with companies to identify communication skills gaps for their employees and provide business English training. They’re specialised in helping startups and entrepreneurs boost their language level.
So we’ve mentioned Germany, but how does the level of English in Barcelona compare to that of other startup hubs in Europe? “I think the level here is quite comparable to the level in the major cities in France. Nowadays most young people speak a little and so this new generation are upping the ante in this regard. However I believe countries like Germany, Sweden and the Netherlands have an overall higher level of English in the world of business,” Amber says.
English for startups
There’s the case of smaller companies that don’t have international people working for them just yet. I’ve talked to startup founders who encourage the use of English in their offices, even though all their employees are Spanish or Catalan. They do so because they’re starting to grow their team and are trying to establish the grounds for a future international company with a mix of employees from different countries. Amber cautions that it may not be the best idea to oblige a team of Spanish-speakers to use English for everything.
“There are advantages to it, like not having to organise English conversation classes with a teacher, and it can help gradually get used to it for the future, but I can also see problems with it if it’s not done carefully. If some employees never use English and will never have to and don’t like speaking or can’t, it could cause insecurity or waste time as the communication will take longer.”
How eDreams ODIGEO does it
After receiving this valuable insight from someone who teaches business English for companies, I felt compelled to find out what companies in Barcelona think and whether they consider the use of English in their offices important. Once a startup, now a large travel tech company with hundreds of international employees working in Barcelona, eDreams ODIGEO seemed like the perfect representative.
“English is our main business language and we cannot be more proud of having over 60 nationalities across our offices, over 40% non-Spanish citizens. We often find ourselves working in cross-functional teams, with people from all over the world. We have teams that speak English exclusively, ?for instance in IT or Product. There are exceptions though – for example, with local service providers where everyone speaks a common language other than English or during a break when no English-only speakers are present,” Anca Stefan, Employer Branding Specialist at eDreams ODIGEO tells me.
The level of English required for someone who wants to work at eDreams ODIGEO is not always the same. “It depends on the team people are part of. For instance in some roles we are looking for native speakers, however I would say that in general we do expect an upper intermediate level of English. For colleagues who want to improve their English language skills we provide on-site English classes, as well as Spanish classes for international colleagues, to help them accommodate with the Spanish culture,” Anca says.
According to Anca, encouraging the use of English is especially important “in the case of international companies, where geographically dispersed people have to work together to meet corporate goals.”
“I’m a techie and I’m moving to Barcelona. Should I study Spanish? Or Catalan? Can I get by if I only speak English?”
I asked both of my interviewees what they think.
“Everyone speaks Spanish so Catalan is not a must although it can really help to integrate and connect better with the people here. I think you could also get away with just speaking English if you stayed to the touristy areas and just mixed with international people. However you might find it difficult dealing with the bureaucracy here, often the police don’t speak English for example,” says Amber.
According to Anca, “Barcelona is the tech epicentre of Spain, and rising fast on global rankings. Every year the city attracts more professionals and international events from all over the world. For this reason, many of the public services are available in English, many locals speak fluent English, however learning the local language gives you great exposure to the culture, history, politics, economy etc. of Barcelona. That knowledge helps a lot with cultural integration.”