Spanish is spoken as a first language by more than 427 million people throughout the world and around 21 million people are learning it. It is the second most common native language in the world. It is the third most studied language in Europe, with 19% of school pupils learning it as a second or additional language. Its speakers can be found in South and Central America, Europe and Africa. Given this diversity of locations, there are also many varieties of Spanish spoken. In the UK you will most likely learn Castellano, Castillian Spanish, as in the Spanish of Spain, but there are other varieties of the languages and ways of pronouncing it. You are also free to choose which variety you learn, perhaps if you have a special connection to one or other variety. Teaching and learning materials may be slightly more difficult to find for them but the internet will be of great help here.
Spanish is a romance language and so shares much cognate vocabulary with languages such as French, Italian, Portuguese and Romanian. Unlike some of these languages, though, following several centuries of Arab rule in the Spanish peninsula, 8% of Spanish vocabulary is derived from Arabic. This can be seen, for example, in words beginning with ‘al’, such as ‘alfombra’ (‘rug’) and ‘almohada’, (‘pillow’), and also one of the words most associated with Spain, ‘aceituna’, ‘olive’. Many place names in Spain and ones that have been transposed to Latin America reflect Arab roots, such as Guadalahara (river/valley of stones).
Spanish is a phonetic language, so once you have learned the sound each letter makes, you will have no problem reading words aloud or spelling words you hear. Spanish has some letters that do not feature in the English alphabet, but most of the sounds do exist in some form, such as ‘ll’, which is a ‘y’ sound (‘sh’ in some parts of Latin America) and ‘n’, a ‘nyuh’ sound, found between some words, such as ‘phone you’ in English. One sound that is more difficult is ‘j’ (‘Jesús’, ‘jornada’) or ‘g’ before ‘e’ and ‘i’, (‘gestión’, ‘gimnasio’) which is pronounced a bit like ‘ch’ in the Scots word ‘loch’. Depending on which variety you choose to learn, the pronunciation can be slightly different. In some parts of Spain, ‘c’ and ‘z’ make a ‘th’ sound, but in other parts of Spain and Latin America, they are pronounced ‘s’.
The stress usually falls on the penultimate syllable of a word, and when the stress is somewhere else, the word is usually spelled with a helpful accent over the syllable to be stressed (guanábano, habitación, inglés).
Again, Spanish grammar depends on which variety you choose to learn. The main differences between the varieties is that some use the ‘tú’ and ‘vosotros’ forms to mean ‘you’ (singular and plural respectively), and others use ‘vos’ and ‘ustedes’ for the same groups, and the associated verb forms change slightly. For example, ‘you have’ can be ‘(tú) tienes’ or ‘(vos) tenés’. There is also more use of the present perfect in Castillian Spanish, whereas other forms tend to use the preterite (similar to UK and US English…).
Why Learn Spanish?
As Spanish is such a widely spoken language and the countries where it is spoken have influence in the world, speaking Spanish can give you a competitive advantage in business, give you access to popular culture such as film and music, enhance your travel experience across the world (you will be able to speak to the locals!), give you a head start in learning other romance languages, help you understand our not-so-far-away neighbours, and let you have fun!
Written by Suzannah Young