To live (meaning to subsist), I don’t think anyone NEEDS to speak a language.

The questions surrounding this for me however are; whether the society you are moving into has a right to expect you to understand the local language, and whether you as an immigrant can feel comfortable or happy without it if you cannot not.

The first answer is of course very political and is therefore quite sensitive. I haven’t had many experiences of people showing intolerance of me being obviously foreign (my Spanish is fluent, but I have a very obvious accent) but it does happen.

Recently moved to Spain I asked someone (in my then poor Spanish) to move their car to one side of the road to let me pass as they had stopped in the middle of the only lane and were greeted with “vete a tu p* to país hijo de p*ta”, and recently I was speaking in English to the chef of an Indian restaurant where I was having dinner with my family and a passer-by said out loud “hablad español!” as he passed.

But these are very isolated incidents and they will increase as the political trend moves to the right. At first it will be cultural, as people who think so will feel morally vindicated by the visible growth in support for their beliefs. Then we will see changes in the law to make residency tied to language skills. I think it’s a given and a matter of time, and given that there is already economic discrimination as to whether you can live in Spain or not, is language discrimination really that outrageous? Learning Spanish is easier than getting £20,000 (for most people).

The second question, however, is very personal. I lived three years in Thailand and expatriates (as almost all of us are when we live there) are less expected to speak any Thai, but if I’m being honest the difficulty in communicating would certainly dissuade me from making Thailand my permanent home. I once arrived at a parking lot at Suvarnabhumi airport and the guy at the stand asked me (in decent English) for the license plate of the car I was driving. I had no idea how to say it. I had the car for 2 years and couldn’t even read the license plate.

Even if I didn’t need to work in Spanish, I would still feel compelled to learn it just to feel comfortable. I couldn’t, for example, bear needing a translator or a gestor to handle all my affairs, partly, I suppose, because of a lack of trust. When you don’t speak a language you need for official business, you are really putting yourself in the hands of that third party.

There is also the question of “good manners”. I think it’s rude not to try to speak the host country’s language, but there’s a big difference between trying (to be polite) and succeeding (to communicate effectively). So when the question asked is “do you need to speak Spanish?” one could also ask “and up to what level?” This brings us back to the first question and the policy. Will the level required for residency eventually be the same as the level required for citizenship? Should it be lower?