Spanish Language Profile
Spanish is an official language of 20 countries (Argentina, Bolivia, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Chile, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Equatorial Guinea, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Spain, Uruguay and Venezuela) and the American territory of Puerto Rico. In all of those regions, except for Ecuatorial Guinea, it is the most widely spoken language and general lingua franca. It is also a very important minority language in Andorra, Belize, Gibraltar and, at least regionally, the United States. It is estimated to have 410 million native speakers. There are also Spanish-based creole languages, for example Chavacano in the Philippines.
Spanish loanwords can be found in languages that at one time or another have been under the influence of the Spanish empire, like the languages of the Philippines, the Chamorro language of the Mariana islands, the regional languages of Spain, and the indigenous languages of the Americas. The latter two have in turn contributed a great number of loanwords to Spanish. In the case of the languages of the Americas, owing to the cultural influence of the Incan and Aztec empires, an imaginary line can be drawn north of Ecuador, with the Spanish varieties to the south having a greater percentage of Quechua loans and the ones to the north having a greater percentage of Nahuatl loans. The Spanish varieties of the Americas have also been influenced by the languages of European and Middle Eastern immigration during the 19th and 20th centuries. Other languages that have contributed significant amounts of loanwords to Spanish are Greek (usually through Latin), Caló (Spanish Romani), Basque, Arabic, French, Italian and English.
Mutual intelligibility with other Romance languages
Very high: Galician, Asturleonese, Aragonese, Ladino
High: Catalan, Mirandese, written Portuguese
Reasonable to high: Italian, Occitan, spoken Portuguese
Reasonable to low: French, Romanian
Relationship to Latin
Like most Romance languages, Spanish has a verbal system similar to Latin, though slightly more complex, and unlike Latin it expresses the passive voice not through verb endings but through periphrases. In lexical terms, Spanish, like other Romance languages of the Iberian peninsula, preserves many archaic Latin words not used in other Romance languages like French, Catalan, Occitan or Italian. An example of this is the word hablar (falar in Portuguese), from Latin fabulare, as opposed to parler and parlare in French and Italian, from the Latin parabolare.
On the sound level, we can mention palatalization related changes (also present in many other Romance languages) and voicing of intervocalic plosives (Latin apoteca > Spanish bodega). There is also a process where Latin initial f- first became ɸ, then h, then was dropped entirely (which did not happen in Portuguese – see hablar/falar above). This is indicated in the spelling by a silent h, though Spanish h does not always correspond to Latin initial f or even to Latin h – the fact is, sometimes Spanish h is not etymological at all.
Approaching Spanish for speakers of other languages
Speakers of other Romance languages will have the easiest time learning Spanish, both in terms of grammar and vocabulary. However, because of the strong latinate influence on English vocabulary, English speakers should nevertheless be in a good position in terms of cognates with Spanish. There is always the risk of false friends, of course.
Spanish word order is more free than English word order, and does not always correspond to it even in its unmarked/basic form. However, Spanish does not have the V2 word order of most Germanic languages and Spanish word order in subordinate clauses is similar to English. All in all, aside from a few systematic differences, Spanish word order is not that far removed from English word order.
Some common non-pronunciation difficulties for speakers of English when learning Spanish are:
– Widespread use of ser/estar distinction (as in Portuguese, etc)
– Saber/conocer distinction (as in other Romance languages, German wissen/kennen, Dutch weten/kennen)
– Perfectivity distinction in the past: preterite vs. imperfect tense (as in other Romance languages)
– Usage of definite articles when referring to generalities or truisms: la vida es bella (as in other Romance languages)
– Reflexive verbs and verbs like me gusta (as in other Romance languages)
– Subject pronoun dropping (as in many other Romance languages)
– Usage of definite articles instead of possessives (implied possession)
– Matching gender and number of articles, adjectives etc to the nouns they modify (as in other Romance languages)
– Greater complexity of verbal conjugation and differences between the languages in terms of which tenses to use in which context, including the subjuntive tenses
– Differences in usage and form of passive/impersonal constructions
However, don’t let this little list discourage you. As other members of the forum will tell you, provided you invest the necessary time, Spanish is not a particularly hard language to learn for an English speaker by any stretch of the imagination. If you are already proficient in another Romance language, few of the previous things should come as a surprise, and if Spanish is your first Romance language and you plan on learning more later on, you will learn these grammatical features at a discount because of having dealt with them in Spanish.
Speakers of Germanic languages other than English might encounter some of the same hurdles above, but they will probably find the concept of gender and article/adjective/etc variation/inflection less foreign.
For speakers of Slavic languages, many features of the language, like subject pronoun dropping and flexible word order, will not be particularly new concepts. They may encounter some difficulties, however, in the use of articles, ser/estar/haber, and the subjunctive tenses.
Spanish is a pluricentric language with a unified orthography. There is a standard orthography, but no internationally recognized standard form of the language, either spoken or written, whether officially or unofficially. Each country, and sometimes each region within a country, has its own standard version of Spanish. It is important to mention that Spanish varieties are very highly mutually intelligible with enough exposure, without the need for formal study of their differences. Because of this high mutual intelligibility, a learner is advised to pick the variety that best suits their personal needs and preferences.
The differences between the local varieties of Spanish are largely lexical or having to do with pronunciation and intonation/prosody, though some grammatical differences do exist, particularly regarding third person object pronouns, second person pronouns, second person verb conjugation and frequency and usage of some verb tenses. In other words, the differences are comparable to those existing between the different regional varieties of English.
For more information, (a link to be included to a profile on varieties to be worked on later).
As mentioned before, Spanish has a unified orthography. When it comes to decoding (reading), Spanish is remarkably transparent once one is familiar with the spelling rules. Both pronunciation and word stress are 100% inferrable from spelling in almost every case.
When it comes to enconding (writing), things are not as easy as Italian, but still easier than other languages with more conservative orthographies, like French or Greek.
When writing informally, especially in electronic form, native speakers are likely to omit the diacritics on á é í ó ú, which represent stress, and on ü, and to sometimes replace ñ with some other alternative, like nn, ni, ny, nh. If you are unable to write ñ because of technical reasons, we advise you to use a native replacement instead of just using n. There are many words distinguished only by n versus ñ and while in context this may not necessarily cause a communication problem, it might cause a lot of snickering.
Common spelling mistakes made by natives are omitting or overusing stress diacritics, omitting or overusing h, which is always silent, and mixing up y/ll (not distinguished in pronunciation in most varieties), b/v (not distinguished in pronunciation in any variety, except in cases of bilingualism, for example Catalan/Spanish bilinguals, as a difference does exist in some accents of Catalan; and as a function of style in some speakers in very careful speech), ge/gi//je/ji (not distinguished in pronunciation), and s//c/z (for speakers who don’t distinguish them, i.e. speakers of every region except northern/central Spain and parts of southern Spain).
Pronunciation: Most varieties of Spanish only have the 5 vowel phonemes common to many world languages /a o u e i/. Vowel reduction involving phoneme neutralization is not present in most varieties of Spanish. While Spanish stressed vowels are generally longer, louder and higher in pitch than unstressed ones, Spanish does not have phonemic vowel length. Spanish distinguishes between voiceless and voiced plosives, /p t k/ versus /b d g/. The voiceless plosives are unaspirated and the voiced ones are generally fully voiced, unlike in English; also, the voiced ones systematically weaken to approximant or fricative pronunciations – usually transcribed as β ð ɣ. On the other hand, Spanish does not distinguish between voiced and voiceless fricatives (as in the difference found in English between the sounds of z and s). Spanish is a syllable-timed language and has no pitch accent. Stress can fall on the last, second to last or third to last syllable in base lexical items and on the fourth to last in some verbs when an unstressed pronoun is attached to the end of it. Most words ending in a vowel, s or n are stressed on the second to last syllable and most words ending in any other consonant are stressed on the last syllable. Exceptions to this take stress diacritics in the spelling.
Grammatical gender: Spanish has two grammatical genders: masculine and feminine. There are some patterns that make guessing the gender of a noun relatively easy, but those have exceptions, and sometimes the word presents no hints at all. As an example, most nouns ending in -o are masculine (taco) and most nouns ending in -a are feminine (mesa), but there are exceptions (día, sistema are masculine, foto is feminine on account of being a short form of fotografía), and with nouns ending in -e or a consonant there is no way to tell unless you look at the articles, adjectives, etc around them. This is similar to many other Indo-European languages. Third person personal pronouns have distinct gendered forms, and definite and indefinite articles, demonstratives, adjectives, possessive pronouns and nouns are inflected for gender as well as number. When referring to mixed gender groups of people or animals, the masculine is used. There is a limited use of the neuter gender in the words esto, eso, aquello, lo and the lesser-used ello. Definite articles precede the nouns they modify.
Case: Spanish only distinguishes case in personal pronouns, with pronouns having nominative, accusative, dative, possessive, reflexive and prepositional forms. The accusative-dative-reflexive distinction is only observed in the third person and there is a lot of overlap between the nominative and prepositional forms.
Politeness/honorifics: Spanish has a T-V distinction observed in the singular in all varieties, and in the singular and plural in varieties from Spain. In some varieties from the Americas, a three-way distinction is present in the singular, with Chile having a four-way distinction.
Verbs: Spanish verbs conjugate according to person and number, with 6 distinct forms per tense in varieties from Spain and 5-6 in varieties from the Americas. Spanish verbs also indicate tense, aspect, volition and evidentiality to some degree. Usually, Spanish verbs are described as having three moods, indicative, subjunctive and imperative. Sometimes, the conditional tense is described as belonging to a separate mood. The somewhat complex conjugation patterns are reminiscent of other Romance languages like for example Italian.
Word order: basic Spanish word order is generally (S)VO. Negation and yes-no questions do not modify this basic order. Subject pronouns are dropped most of the time, as verbal conjugation tends to render them redundant. The word order can easily and often deviate from the basic order to indicate nuances and emphasis. This is par for the course for most Romance languages, Italian for example.
Interesting aspects: Spanish is rare among Romance languages in having some use of neuter gender forms while on the whole having no neuter gender nouns – a trait it shares with Portuguese. Regarding pronunciation, in the case of most varieties in Spain, c before e/i and z are pronounced as a voiceless interdental fricative similar to the th in English think, which is an uncommon sound cross-linguistically. Several varieties of central and northern Spain also feature a pronunciation of s which sounds to English speaking ears as closer to the English sh sound. This apical pronunciation of s can otherwise be found in Modern Greek and in some accents of Scottish English (think Sean Connery).
Ubiquitousness and resources
As an international language with millions of native speakers, Spanish has wide availability of all forms of media. Learning resources are easy to find for speakers of English and to a slightly lesser extent speakers of many other European languages.
Audio-only self-learning courses
Learning Spanish like crazy
Spanish behind the wheel
Other self-learning courses
Spanish for reading
Monolingual: DRAE (includes verb conjugations)
Multilingual: wordreference.com (Eng-Spa and Spa-Eng with example sentences, Spa-Fre, Spa-Por, monolingual, synonyms, verb conjugations), spanishdict.com (Eng-Spa, Spa-Eng, verb conjugations)
Reference: Gramática descriptiva de la lengua española (three volumes, monolingual), A New Reference Grammar of Modern Spanish
Gramática de uso del Español (three volumes: A, B, C)
Gramática Anaya ELE (three volumes: A1-A2, B1, B2)
Other online resources
Youtube: EuroNewsES, CNN en Español (news), Fútbol Para Todos (Argentinian football/soccer)
Podcasts: Desde el baño (Argentina), La casa Rojas (Peru), News in slow Spanish, Notes in Spanish, Amnistía Internacional
Conversational podcasts*: Rafael & Álvaro (Uruguay), Cabreados, Cosas curiosas (Spain), Algarabía radio, Blog de lengua, Crimen digital, Cuadriga (video), L de lengua, Radio ambulante
Misc podcasts: Audiria, Catástrofe ultravioleta, CienciaEs, D todo, GeoCastAway, Ivoox, Voz de América, Spanishpodcast.org
Spanish proficiency exercises from the University of Texas at Austin
Radio CNN en Español
* More than one speaker speaking Spanish
Argentina: Nueve reinas, La historia oficial, El secreto de sus ojos, Historias mínimas, Un cuento chino, Cama adentro, Esperando la carroza
Spain: anything by Almodóvar and Alex de la Iglesia (see below), El laberinto del fauno, Viridiana, El milagro de P. Tinto, Torrente: el brazo tonto de la ley
Uruguay: 25 watts
Mexico: Como agua para chocolate, El ángel exterminador, Los olvidados, Amores perros, El mariachi
Famous directors: Luis Alberto Almodóvar, Alex de la Iglesia (Spain), Eliseo Subiela (Argentina), Luis Buñuel
Famous actors/actresses: Carmen Maura, Maribel Verdú (Spain), Federico Luppi, Adrián Suar, Diego Peretti, Cecilia Roth (Argentina), Gael García Bernal, Diego Luna (Mexico)
For learners: Destinos
Mexico: El chavo del ocho, El chapulín colorado
Argentina: Los simuladores, Casados con hijos, Mujeres asesinas, Hermanos y detectives, Viento de agua, El garante, La condena de Gabriel Doyle, Botines, El hombre de tu vida, Ruta misteriosa, Miedometrajes
Spain: Águila roja, El ministerio del tiempo, Cuéntame cómo pasó, Gran hotel
Colombia: Yo soy Betty, la fea
Broadcast/cable channels: TN, C5N, TV Pública (Argentina), TVN, Canal13, CNN Chile (Chile), CNN en Español (USA), NTN, Caracol (Colombia), Telesur (Venezuela), Univisión (Mexico)
About Spanish: Breaking out of beginner’s Spanish
Classical literature: Cantar de Mio Cid (Old Spanish), El ingenioso hidalgo Don Quijote de la Mancha by Miguel de Cervantes, Lazarillo de Tormes, La celestina (renaissance Spanish), the chronicles of the Indies by El inca Garcilaso de la Vega, Hernán Cortés, Bernal Díaz del Castillo, Bartolomé de las Casas, Guamán Poma de Ayala, etc (colonial era Spanish)
Famous recent authors: Gabriel García Márquez, Jorge Luis Borges, Julio Cortázar, Arturo Pérez-Reverte, Juan Rulfo, Isabel Allende, Roberto Fontanarrosa, Adolfo Bioy Casares, Ernesto Sábato, Manuel Puig, Miguel de Unamuno, Carlos Ruiz Zafón
“Young fiction” authors: Adolfo Birjamer, Elsa Bornemann, Pablo de Santis
Other reading resources
This profile draws inspiration from the original profile by FX and a higher degree of inspiration from the Romance profile by Chung, both found at the old HTLAL site. It has also benefited from great suggestions and feedback from our forum members.
Written by Ignacio (getreallanguage)