Spanish Language for English Speakers
It is no coincidence that Spanish is one of the most widely-studied languages on earth, second only to English in the number of people who are learning it. Spanish is the main language of over 20 countries and the third most popular in the world in number of native speakers, after Mandarin Chinese and English. Almost 12% of the United States population is Latino or Hispanic by origin, and 34 million people in the country speak Spanish at home.
As a language, Spanish began diverging from Vulgar Latin (not Impolite Latin; rather, the Latin of the common people) at the same time as French, Italian, Portuguese, Romanian, Rumansch, Catalan, and the other Romance dialects. By the 800s, it had taken on its own flavor in the Iberian peninsula and from there spread via the conquistadores to various parts of the world, predominantly Latin America. It is spoken as a native language in Mexico, Central America, and everywhere in South America with the exception of Brazil and Suriname.
While it is impossible to say for certain how easy or hard any given language is for an English-speaker to learn (everyone is different, after all!), Spanish has long been estimated to be one of the easiest. There are a number of reasons for this.
- First, pronunciation is remarkably consistent (within a given variety of Spanish—more about this later). Every Spanish vowel is pronounced the same regardless of where it is found, with few exceptions—once you learn the basic rules of pronunciation, there are almost no surprises. In addition, there are no consonants that are difficult for an English speaker.
- Secondly, Spanish is rich in cognates, that is, words that are related to similar words in English. Because English adopted such a huge percentage of its vocabulary from French after the Norman Conquest of 1066, and because French and Spanish are basically siblings, many words in Spanish are already recognizable by English speakers. Some examples: any word which ends in “-tion” will probably have a counterpart in Spanish that ends in “-cion”. “Association” becomes “asociación”; “discrimination” becomes “discriminación”, etc. Words ending in “-ly” turn into words ending in “-mente”: “finally” becomes “finalmente”. There are thousands of these cognates, making recognition and memorization much less of a burden. Of course, there are some “false friends”—“dirección” does not mean “direction”, but rather “address”—but every language is full of these, and the exceptions are far outnumbered by the rules.
What are some of the challenges for an English speaker learning Spanish?
- While cognates are useful, it should never be assumed that every cognate pair means the same thing in both languages. Embarazada usually means “pregnant” rather than “embarrassed” and a violador is usually a rapist, not someone who merely committed a traffic infraction.
- Pronunciation can make a difference. The “ñ” is pronounced “ny”, as in cañón (canyon), and there are instances where pronouncing a word with “n” instead of “ñ” means the difference between being informative and being very rude.
- Spanish doesn’t use pronouns as much as English, because the pronoun is often included right in the verb. “Hablo inglés” means “I speak English”, and there’s no need to add the pronoun “yo” (I).
- Word order is often similar to English: Subject + Verb + Object. However, this is not always the case. When learning any language, it is essential to pay attention to instances when words come in a different order.
- Spanish is a highly idiomatic language and uses prepositions differently from English. “I’m thinking about you” becomes “pienso en tí” (literally, “I’m thinking in you”), and translating directly from English into Spanish can produce some amusing or incomprehensible results.
- Like all Romance languages, Spanish has a complex verb system with many tenses and moods, some of which are not used in English—particularly the subjunctive mood, used in cases of doubt, or feeling, or opinion, or just because they feel like it. In order to communicate, you won’t use over half of them, but in order to speak well and read literary Spanish, it will pay you to learn them all. Never fear—there are countless resources out there to help you do this.
- Lastly, like the English spoken in New England, or the South, or the UK, or Australia, or Canada, or India, there are many, many varieties of Spanish—and some of them sound quite different from others. In Castile (around Barcelona, for example), the letter “c” is often pronounced “th” (Barthelona); in parts of Latin America, the “s” sound in the middle of words can vanish altogether. Simply be aware of this, and learn whatever variety suits your needs. It won’t take your ear long to attune itself to the differences.
How long is learning Spanish going to take? That will depend entirely on you and how diligently or often you study. Living in a country or area where you are surrounded by Spanish speakers will make a difference as well. As a rule of thumb, plan on six months to a year of intensive study for basic conversations, and two years or so for being able to handle unfamiliar situations. Once you get started, you may never want to stop. As an added bonus, once you have learned Spanish, you will find that learning Italian, Portuguese, or French will be much, much easier—and you could be on your way to being a polyglot before you know it.
Examples of Words in Spanish
teacher: profesor, maestro
Useful Spanish Sentences
What is your name? ¿Cómo se llama (usted)?
My name is … Me llamo…
Good morning. Buenos días.
Where is the toilet? ¿Dónde están los baños?
I don’t understand. No entiendo.
If you’re wanting to learn a language that is relatively easy to learn and will be useful not only in the United States but in a large percentage of the world, Spanish is an excellent choice.
So what are you waiting for? Get started with the Spanish for Beginners section.