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According to the latest research published by the Cervantes Institute, there are currently around 22 million people who have chosen to learn Spanish. This makes it one of the most popular languages to learn worldwide. There is no doubt whatsoever that if you choose to learn Spanish, its many advantages will make it truly stand out against other languages. However, for anyone not yet convinced, we are now going to look at the different factors that should be taken into consideration before deciding to learn Spanish free of charge today.
According to the Real Academia Española (RAE), the word español comes from the Old Provençal espaignol, which in turn comes from the Vulgar Latin Hispaniolus, meaning ‘from Hispania’ (Spain). Spanish is derived from Latin, making it a Romance language like French, Italian, Romanian and Portuguese.
Up until the 2nd century BC, the Iberian Peninsula had been occupied by a variety of different civilizations: the Phoenicians, Greeks and Carthaginians, for example, all with their different languages and cultures. From around 218 BC, the Roman conquest and colonization of Spain prompted the loss of the pre-Roman languages as they began to be replaced by Vulgar Latin, the popular sociolect of Latin spoken by common people, soldiers and merchants.
Castilian Spanish evolved from Vulgar Latin in the Castile region of Spain. Following the Muslim occupation of the Iberian Peninsula, more than 4000 words of Arabic origin entered the Spanish language, becoming standardized in the 11th century.
In 1492, Antonio de Nebrija published Gramática de la lengua castellana, the first ever book to define the Castilian Spanish language and which led to a period of consolidation of the language. Later, Spanish spread to a number of towns along the North African coast and to the Canary Islands. From there, it hopped across to the Americas, then to the Philippines and, a few centuries later, to Western Sahara and Equatorial Guinea.
When referring to the Spanish language, the RAE currently prefers español over castellano but officially both are accepted.
Currently, there are around 580 million Spanish speakers worldwide; that’s 7.6% of the entire world population. In fact, Spanish is the second most spoken mother tongue in the world and the third most widely used language on the internet, after English and Chinese.
Most important reasons to learn Spanish
There are many reasons that might persuade someone to start studying this popular language. However, the most striking facts about the Spanish language are detailed below.
Nowadays, the number of Spanish students has significantly increased worldwide. One of the reasons why Spanish has made a place for itself as an important second language is because of its increasing dominance in communication as a result of globalization.
Spanish is the most studied language in the world, after English. There are around 22 million people in 110 countries studying the language.
Aside from the importance of Spanish in global communication, there are also more personal benefits. When we study a foreign language and get to know how it works, we also get to know the different cultural characteristics that define its native speakers. This is definitely an enriching process that enables us to understand the cultures and societies around us.
It can be easier to learn Spanish than many other languages. In fact, one of the reasons it is so popular is that it is phonetically easy to learn. Also, as it is a Romance language, it shares many grammatical and lexical features with other Romance languages such as French, Italian and Portuguese. These common features might help you learn these other languages easily as well.
There are over 42 million Spanish speakers in the US alone, making it the country’s second most widely spoken language. If you have a good knowledge of Spanish, you will be able to communicate with almost 500 million people worldwide. Besides this, you will have more employment opportunities, especially in the US where there is a preference for those who are fluent in both English and Spanish. This is because almost 30 million people in the US are Hispanic, a number that will continue to rise. That’s a lot of Spanish-speaking consumers!
At this point, it is essential to point out that Spanish is also one of the official languages of the European Union and is spoken by a significant number of people in many European countries such as France, Germany, Switzerland and also in the United Kingdom. In many places, it is offered as the second language choice in school and university, after English. It will also help you whilst travelling around Spain to make the most of what the country has to offer.
Last but not least, Spanish is the native language for most citizens of Latin America (except for Brazil and some French speaking countries), 20 countries in total. If you speak Spanish as a foreign language, it will be easier for you to discover these countries and their impressive and unique cultural characteristics.
In this section we are going to look at whether it is easy for native English speakers to learn Spanish. The short answer is yes! Of course, there may be more complex aspects such as slang or specific jargon, and perhaps some of the grammar, but even still it is a lot easier to learn Spanish than many other languages. We will set out the reasons why in the following section.
What is a cognate? A cognate is a word found in two languages that shares the same etymology and the same meaning.
When you start to learn Spanish, you will soon notice there are many words that are nearly or exactly the same in both languages. These are called perfect or near-perfect cognates. There are around 500 of these words in English and Spanish, for example: auto, agenda, bar, café, cereal, chocolate, etc.
Nevertheless, it’s important to note that there are also a smaller number of so-called false friends (words that appear to be similar but that have an altogether different meaning). One example that causes no end of problems is the word actualmente. Often incorrectly translated as ‘actually’, its real meaning is ‘currently’ or ‘at the moment’.
However, the majority of words are indeed true friends, or perfect cognates.
Spanish and English use very similar sentence structure, and often this is half the battle. Although there are a few slight differences (where to place adjectives, for example: un coche bonito – a nice car), both Spanish and English use the following sentence structure:
Subject + Verb + Object: Yo voy a la playa.
Spanish sentences tend to be quite long. In fact, texts that have been translated from English into Spanish are often between 15% and 25% longer. Spanish words, however, are not much longer than English words and are definitely a lot shorter than German words.
Spanish is sometimes considered to be more poetic, elaborate and expressive than English. More words are needed to describe something in Spanish than in English and greater value is placed on longer, more complex writing in Spanish. The opposite is true in English. Native English speakers tend to look for the most concise and efficient way to express themselves, whereas with Spanish speakers the reverse is true.
It is often said that with Spanish, all you need to do is look at a word and you will know how to pronounce it. Spanish is therefore sometimes referred to as a ‘no surprises’ language. The same can’t be said for English because there is little correlation between spelling and pronunciation.
Each of the 5 vowels in Spanish ([a], [e], [i], [o] and [u]) has one, single pronunciation (/a/, /e/, /i/, /o/ and /u/) and so the vowels are pronounced exactly as you would think. Although consonants can be pronounced in different ways, there are very specific rules about pronunciation which depends on where the letter is in the word or which letters follow it.
C + e > [θe] cerveza
C + a > [ka] casa.
There are no silent letters (except ‘h’), no changes in pronunciation, no surprises.
When you learn Spanish, one of the major advantages is that it is a phonetic language. This means its written form is very close to its spoken form. Spanish is written as and how it sounds, and vice versa.
All words have a stressed syllable, that is the syllable within the word that is emphasized when pronounced. For example, in the word casa the penultimate syllable ca is stressed.
Spanish sounds the way it does because in around 80% of words it is the penultimate syllable that is stressed, as in casa, for example. In 17% of words it is the last syllable that is stressed, as in comer and in the final 3%, it is the third last syllable that is stressed, as in auténtico.
The fact that the penultimate syllable is stressed in so many Spanish words is what gives the language its particular cadence, making it stand out somewhat from other languages, even amongst those who don’t speak the language. However, researchers have been unable to explain this particular phenomenon. Many experts agree that the proliferation of words in which the stress is on the penultimate syllable dates back to the Middle Ages when Spanish was evolving from Latin.
Nosotros vamos a la playa en verano.
All words are stressed but not all words carry a written accent. Although in English the word tilde refers only to the symbol found in the letter ñ, in Spanish tilde refers to all written accents and acento refers to the emphasis placed on a particular syllable in a word. It is therefore important when speaking Spanish not to confuse acento with tilde ( ´ ).
Written accents are only placed on some words to show which syllable should be stressed. There are specific rules about whether a word should carry a written accent or not.
One of the first things you will learn about the Spanish language is that nouns, adjectives and verbs must agree in gender and number, another feature of Romance languages.
La casa es blanca. (feminine and singular) The house is white.
Las casas son blancas. (feminine and plural) The houses are white.
El perrro es negro. (masculine and singular) The dog is black.
Los perrros son negros. (masculine and plural) Dogs are black.
As a general rule, with a few exceptions of course, words ending in -o are masculine and words ending in -a are feminine. The plural is formed by adding -s or -es to the end of the word. This makes it quite easy to work out the gender of a word in Spanish and whether it is singular or plural.
Learning a Spanish verb requires more than learning just one word. Spanish verbs are conjugated according to the pronoun you need which means you need to learn six different endings for each verb tense. The conjugations may also differ depending on whether the infinitive verb ends in -ar, -er or -ir. And that’s not all, the verb tenses (for example, past, present or future) are also conjugated in different ways. It’s no surprise that learning to conjugate verbs is one of the biggest difficulties students face when they learn Spanish.
Although conjugating and using verbs in Spanish is more complex than in English, you can start communicating with others just using the present tense of the verb. Listeners might be a little confused if you talk about the past or the future using the present tense but context will help clarify things a little.
It might be useful initially to learn the following simple terms: hoy (today), ayer (yesterday) and mañana (tomorrow). You can use these to put together some simple sentences in the past, present and future to help you get started.
present tense: Hoy como tortilla,
past tense: Ayer como tortilla,
future tense: Mañana como tortilla.
Of course, these sentences are grammatically incorrect but they can really help you to be understood when chatting to someone. Meanwhile, you can continue learning the conjugations in other verb tenses, starting with an easy past tense (the perfect tense, he comido) and the simple future tense (ir a + infinitivo, voy a comer).
Another thing to consider when you decide to learn Spanish is the subjunctive. In Spanish, the subjunctive is a mood, not a tense. This is because it does not relate in any way to the notion of time. Instead, it conveys a sense of unreality, uncertainty or conditionality.
Although English speakers often find the subjunctive somewhat challenging, English does in fact have a subjunctive mood. It is much less commonly used than in Spanish but is similar enough that it can be used to help understand and use the Spanish subjunctive.
If I were you, I would travel to Cuba this winter.
However, the Spanish subjunctive is used for a much wider variety of purposes than the English equivalent. The 3 most common errors made by students who are learning the Spanish subjunctive are as follows:
- They are unsure how to conjugate the verb correctly.
- They tend to use the indicative where the subjunctive is required.
- They are unsure when to use the subjunctive.
It’s worth remembering that most phrases that require the subjunctive in Spanish will still make sense if the indicative is used in error. Spanish speakers will understand what you are trying to say so don’t get too stressed if at first you struggle to get to grips with the subjunctive.
Correct sentence using the subjunctive: Es posible que venga mañana.
Incorrect sentence using the indicative (common error amongst students): Es posible que viene (or vendrá) mañana.
In Spanish there are two ways to express the verb ‘to be’.
There are a number of rules and, of course, exceptions but as a general rule we can:
- use the verb serto express something permanent.
Ana es una persona simpática. Ana is a nice person. – It’s permanent as it refers to her personality.
- use the verb estar to express a passing state.
Ana está ahora simpática. Ana is now nice. – It’s a passing state because it refers to how she is feeling just now. She may feel differently later.
Admittedly, it can be a difficult concept to grasp initially but this doesn’t mean you won’t gradually begin to master it if you keep practising. Remember, people will be able to understand you regardless of whether or not you use the correct verb form.
In Spanish, there are two different ways to express ‘for’: por and para. It is possible that, in this case as well, reading the grammatical explication won’t help much but, little by little, with enough practice you will begin to develop an understanding of which word to use. Making mistakes with this won’t stop you being understood either.
Esto es para ti. This is for you.
Spanish may be the only language that uses upside down question marks and exclamation marks (¡, ¿) at the beginning of sentences as well as the right way round at the end (!, ?). This shows us where an exclamation or a question starts as well as where it ends. It’s a fairly unique characteristic of the language.
¿Qué hora es? What time is it?
Another reason English speakers, Americans in particular, find it easy to learn Spanish is its overall prevalence in daily life. Unlike other languages, such as Romanian or Finnish, Spanish resources and conversation partners are really very easy to find.
It is very easy to be exposed to the Spanish language and you would be surprised how much you can learn by just listening to how the language is used. The more you are exposed to it, the more it will come together for you.
Maybe you are already jumping for joy at the thought you might learn Spanish pretty quickly. And yes, there are some places that say you can learn Spanish in only a few weeks, or even in just 30 days. Our experience shows us that these approaches do not produce long-term learning and if you do not study and use the language regularly, you can lose what you have learned just as quickly.
This is something that we have seen evidence of throughout our professional career. Despite having studied Spanish at school or university previously, many students who come to our classes have forgotten almost everything they had previously learned, sometimes only remembering the odd word or phrase. They pretty much have to start all over again.
The Pareto principle, also known as the 80/20 rule, states that 80% of the benefit can be achieved by 20% of the effort. Consequently, the last 20% of the benefit is achieved with 80% of the effort.
Linguistic studies have shown that knowing the 1000 most common Spanish words will allow you to understand about 80% of a conversation. So, your priority should be focusing on learning this vocabulary in a meaningful and long-lasting way.
If you decide not to practise Spanish until you learn it perfectly, you’ll never utter a word! A need for perfectionism and a fear of mistakes often prevents people from speaking a language but we learn from our mistakes so don’t be afraid to make them!
If you start practising bit by bit from the outset, you will be more likely to learn from your mistakes and from the people you chat to. You will learn much faster if you have the opportunity to practise with someone who is also happy to correct your mistakes.
You might feel a little embarrassed when you make a mistake but you’ll remember that feeling and will be less likely to make the mistake again.
If you are an English speaker, the answer is a very firm yes. Certainly at the start, it’s easy to learn Spanish. Beginners rarely have any difficulties with pronunciation and often find they progress quickly in their learning. Eventually, Spanish grammar does get a little more complex and certain aspects require a bit more dedication.
Essentially, if you decide to learn Spanish, there are a variety of factors that make the process a relatively easy one for you. Of course, this doesn’t mean you won’t need to put in some effort. With the right approach and tools, being able to learn Spanish in a sustainable, long-term way is absolutely within your reach.
Some people take years to learn Spanish and end up feeling that they haven’t made the progress they’d hoped or that they’ve hit a brick wall. Others use creative and innovative techniques to learn Spanish in the space of a month. So, how do we work out how long we are going to need to learn Spanish? We believe there are five things to take into consideration.
Why do you want to learn Spanish and why do you want to learn it right now? There could be a variety of reasons. You might want to visit, work or live in a Spanish-speaking country. Perhaps you have Spanish-speaking relatives. Maybe you are just interested in the language because you like how it sounds or maybe you just want to learn Spanish for fun.
There is a slightly different motivation in each of these reasons. To maintain your motivation you need to make sure you don’t get bored when you learn Spanish. To do this, you need to step out of your comfort zone and try out new ways to learn. If you do get bored, it’s probably because you’re using an approach that isn’t right for you or because you need different resources.
With good time management, as well as the right course and resources, a motivated student can reach an intermediate level of Spanish within just a few months.
If your native language is very different to Romance or Germanic languages, you might initially find it a bit tricky to learn Spanish, but it is certainly not impossible!
The US Foreign Service Institute (FSI) has published research on the number of hours required by a native English speaker (beginner, level A1) to achieve general professional proficiency in a variety of different languages. This research is based on 70 years experience in teaching languages to US diplomats.
According to the chart, it takes 24 weeks to learn Spanish, that’s around 600 hours. So, if you were to learn Spanish for three hours every week, you would become fluent in around six months. If you reduce that time to an hour a day, it would take around a year and a half to learn Spanish. As you can see from the chart, Spanish is one of the easiest and most accessible languages for native English speakers to learn. One of the biggest advantages is how similar the vocabulary is. Learning new vocabulary is the most time-consuming aspect of learning a language. However, lots of words in both Spanish and English are derived from Latin and so can be found in both languages.
Both the quality and quantity of the resources you use will influence the amount of time you will need to learn Spanish. Many of the best online Spanish courses offer a wide variety of ways to widen your knowledge of vocabulary and grammar, as well as pronunciation resources, listening comprehension, etc. These can be fantastic tools to get you started, to develop your confidence and to show your progress, particularly if you like your learning to be structured.
However, if your aim is to speak Spanish quickly and easily, you will need to look for resources and opportunities that will allow you to practise and polish your skills.
Wanting to learn Spanish can mean different things to different people. You might just want to pick up a few handy phrases for your holidays so you can book a room, hire a car and order in a restaurant. Maybe you just want to be able to say a few words to the local Spanish speakers in your area. If this is the case, it’s not going to take you long.
Keep in mind though that this level of Spanish has its limits and you may well find you need to work on a more comprehensive approach to the language. You might need to send a text to a friend (writing in Spanish), read their reply (reading in Spanish), meet them for a coffee and a chat (speaking in Spanish) and understand what they say (listening in Spanish). This more comprehensive learning will take you longer.
Are you going to spend some time in a Spanish-speaking country? Do you have any Spanish-speaking friends you can chat to?
Few activities require being around other people as much as language learning. There is nothing more effective than finding yourself in a real-life situation in which you need to speak Spanish. You might feel shy at first but if you manage to get over that feeling, you will have taken a big psychological step forward in your learning. These real-life experiences give you an opportunity to see where your weaknesses are while at the same time providing you with the motivation and renewed determination you need to continue to learn Spanish.
If you are a beginner, we recommend you first spend a few months trying to learn Spanish on your own. Once you have reached a certain level of independence, if you can, set yourself the goal of going to a Spanish-speaking country as a reward and visiting a Spanish language school. By then, you will have enough (passive) understanding of Spanish to be able to convert that knowledge into solid speaking skills. If you are planning a Spanish immersion trip, it is worth waiting until you can do more than just order a beer. It really helps to be able to hold a conversation, even just a short one.
How often you use the language will have a big impact on how much time you need to learn Spanish. The keyword here is use.
Most students want to be fluent in Spanish but what this means changes from one person to another. In order to achieve the eight set objectives in each of the six courses we offer, all of which follow the Common European Reference Frame (CEFR) guidelines, we recommend between 80 and 140 hours of study.
As an example, here are the objectives set by the CEFR at level A1:
Can understand and use familiar everyday expressions and very basic phrases in order to satisfy specific needs. Can introduce him/herself and others and can ask and answer questions about personal details such as where he/she lives, people he/she knows and things he/she has. Can interact in a simple way provided the other person talks slowly and clearly and is prepared to help.
At level A2:
Can understand sentences and frequently used expressions related to areas of most immediate relevance (e.g. very basic personal and family information, shopping, local geography, employment). Can communicate in a simple way and perform routine tasks requiring a simple and direct exchange of information on familiar and routine matters. Can describe in simple terms aspects of his/her background, immediate environment and matters in areas of immediate basic need.
All in all, your attitude will greatly determine your progress. Your determination to succeed will very much depend on whether or not you can imagine yourself speaking the language fluently, even before you are able to. This is the reason why language students who have already learned other languages are often more successful. They have done it before, they already have experience. They know they can do it and they know how to move forward.
So, how much time do you need to learn Spanish?
The answer depends entirely on you.
As a beginner, the most important thing is getting off the starting blocks and learning enough to begin speaking. Based on our experience, you should prioritise the following when you learn Spanish:
1- Spanish pronunciation;
2- develop knowledge of basic vocabulary;
3- develop an understanding of basic grammar.
Listen to how Spanish sounds and follow the transcriptions to get an idea of how to pronounce written Spanish. Remember that good pronunciation starts with good listening skills.
One of the major benefits when you learn Spanish is that it almost always sounds exactly as it is written and vice versa.
This is one of the most important initial steps to take when you learn Spanish. When building your vocabulary, you need to consider both the what and the how. By the what, we mean the type of vocabulary you need to learn at each level, and by the how, we mean the approach you use to learn Spanish vocabulary that will ensure long-term retention.
We also recommend you learn the 108 most common verbs as these will appear time and again over the course of your learning. We also recommend that you learn verbs in context along with a few useful phrases that you might make use of.
When you come to learn Spanish vocabulary, we recommend you use the following approach. If, for example, you want to learn the verb desayunar, then we suggest you add a simple phrase to your personal vocabulary trainer that includes the verb, preferably a phrase you are likely to use. For example, ‘Yo siempre desayuno cereales.’ would allow you to communicate what you eat for breakfast and how often. As it relates to you and your own experience, you are much more likely to remember it and your learning will progress more rapidly.
Grammar is absolutely fundamental to language learning and cannot be avoided. We recommend you begin by learning a little grammar to allow you structure sentences correctly. Even after you have learned a new aspect of grammar, it will be some time before you are able to use it correctly. This is because you must internalize a concept first, and you may need to get it wrong a few times before getting it right.
A dialect is a variation of the main language used locally in a given geographical area. Spanish regional varieties differ from each other for a number of reasons, including the following:
When saying the words cereza or cebolla, for example, most speakers of Castilian Spanish (Spain) pronounce the /c/ and the /z/ like an English th [θ]. However, in Latin America they are pronounced like a [s]: [seresa] and [sebolla].
A well-known difference between Castilian Spanish and Rioplatense Spanish is the pronunciation of the letters y and ll. Whereas other Spanish dialects pronounce these letters as if they were vowels (that is, the y in yo is pronounced like an [i]) speakers of Rioplatense Spanish pronounce it like a /ʃ/ which sounds a bit like a softer ch sound in words like chaqueta.
When it comes to grammar, the most noticeable difference is el voseo. In Spain, the following second-person pronouns are used: tú (singular, informal), vosotros (plural, informal), usted (singular, formal) and ustedes (plural, formal). However, in Latin America speakers use vos and ustedes, which means there is a difference in how the verbs are conjugated. In fact, the form vosotros is not used at all in many Latin American countries.
In terms of vocabulary, different words can be used to describe the same concept, depending on the country or social group in question. This is especially true when it comes to the names of fruit and vegetables, clothes and everyday items, as well as for many colloquial expressions and insults. In Spain, for example, we say coche while in Argentina and Mexico they say carro, and something that is bonito in Spain would be lindo in Mexico.
In Spain, there are eight dialects: Aragonese, Leonese, Asturian, Andalusian, Canarian Spanish, Extremaduran, Murcian and Spanish Romani.
In Africa, there are five dialects: Ceuti Spanish, Melillan Spanish, Canarian Spanish, Saharan Spanish and Equatoguinean Spanish.
In Latin America, there are 26 dialects: Amazonian Spanish, Andean Spanish, Antioqueño Spanish (from the Paisa region of Colombia), Camba Spanish, Caleño Spanish, Cundiboyacense Spanish, Llanero Spanish, Caribbean Spanish, Cuban Spanish, Dominican Spanish, Maracucho Spanish, Panamanian Spanish, Puerto Rican Spanish, Venezuelan Spanish, Central American Spanish, Chilean Spanish, Chilote Spanish, Equatorial Spanish, Mexican Spanish, Paraguayan Spanish, Peruvian Coastal Spanish, Andean-Coastal Spanish, Rioplatense Spanish, Santandereano-Tachirense Spanish, Tolimense Spanish and Yucatan Spanish.
Lengalia offers Castilian Spanish, in other words European Spanish.
Before you decide whether or not to learn a Spanish dialect, you need to learn the basics of the Spanish language. While there are notable differences between dialects across the Spanish-speaking world, those differences won’t matter for the most part until you become a relatively advanced speaker or until you know you need to become familiar with a certain dialect for a particular reason. It’s important to note that there are very few websites that offer courses focusing on these dialects when you learn Spanish.
Once you are at a more advanced level and begin to notice different verbs taking different meanings depending on the place, then you can concentrate on an individual dialect. Generally speaking, Cuban, Puerto Rican and Chilean Spanish are known for being quite challenging. Guatemala, Peru and Ecuador have more neutral dialects because for many speakers, Spanish is their second language.
The most important thing to emphasize as teachers of Spanish is that there is no such thing as "the right Spanish" or "the wrong Spanish". The dialectal variations of Spanish simply enrich the language, and give us the opportunity to feel linguistically and culturally represented. We don’t recommend you start trying to learn all the different words that exist for a single concept. The word ‘bus’ can be referred to as colectivo, chivilla, guagua, buseta, micro, camioneta... And ‘beer’ can be cheve, chela, birra, biela, fría, cristal, etc. Instead, just remember that context plays a very important role in comprehension.
Spanish speakers are all able to understand one another so there's no need to worry too much… You will be understood no matter where in the world you are!