(Written by Callum Madle and Phoebe Harrison)
If you’re considering taking up another language, Spanish is a good starter option, particularly for native speakers of English or any Romance language, particularly French, Portuguese, and Italian. If you are looking to saber más but are unsure of where to start, we’ve compiled some of the basic facts to help you on your language learning journey!
Spanish – what’s in a language?
Spanish is one of the ‘big five’ Romance languages, with the others being French, Portuguese, Italian, and Romanian, though Ethnologue places the total number of languages belonging to the family as 44. Romance languages are the languages descended from the Vulgar Latin spoken in the regions of Europe under the rule of the Roman Empire. Spanish is an Ibero-Romance language, a term referring to the group of languages in the Romance family spoken on the Iberian Peninsula (Portuguese, Galician, Leonese, and Catalan being the other main family members). Outside of Spain itself, Spanish is also the primary language of South America, being the first language of every country in the region with the exception of Brazil. There are also Spanish speaking pockets across the world in Africa and Asia. On a global scale, it is one of the most widely spoken languages in the world and is one of the six official languages of the United Nations, alongside English, French, Chinese, Arabic, and Russian.
¿Cómo se aprende Español?
When learning a new language, the best approach is to firstly get to grips with general pronunciation and basic grammar and syntax rules – here is an overview of the main aspects of the Spanish language that you should really know.
Alphabet and pronunciation
Spanish mostly uses the same alphabet as English, but W and K aren’t commonly found in the language outside of foreign loanwords, such as ‘whiski’ (it doesn’t take a genius to work out that one). There are 27 scripted letters in the Spanish alphabet, but over 39 phonetic sounds in the language overall. Generally, Spanish pronunciation is fairly straightforward as it is a phonetic language, meaning most words are pronounced exactly how they are spelt – however, there are a few small rules that are necessary to remember…
C has two main sounds – before ‘i’ or ‘e’, it is pronounced like an English ‘s’ or, depending on which region of Spain you’re from, as a ‘th’ noise (I would recommend the former for beginners as it is far easier). Before a, o, u, and consonants, a ‘hard’ c is used, like the English ‘k’ sound.
Examples: campo (KAM-poh), cine (SEE-ney or THEE-ney),
E is pronounced with an ‘ay’ noise, like ‘hey’ and ‘say’ in English, especially at the end of the word – when it is in the middle of a word, it is pronounced slightly more softly.
Examples: leche (LEH-CHAY), noche (noh-CHAY)
G also has two main sounds – before ‘i’ or ‘e’, it is pronounced like the English ‘h’, and before a, o , u, and consonants, like the English hard ‘g’.
Examples: genial (HEN-ee-al), gato (GAH-toh)
H is ALWAYS silent
Examples: hola (OH-lah), hombre (OHM-bray)
I is pronounced as ‘ee’, as in ‘see’ and ‘knee’.
Examples – chico (chEE-koh), tiempo (‘tEE-em-poh’)
J is pronounced like the English ‘h’.
Examples: jugo (‘HOO-goh’) and ojo (‘oHo’)
L and LL – on its own, L is pronounced in the same way as it is in English (alto – ‘AHL-toh’) but LL takes on the role of a ‘y’ in English.
Examples: Amarillo (‘ah-mah-ri-YO’), pollo (‘poh-YO’)
N and Ñ – Spanish uses N like English does, but the Ñ is pronounced like the ‘nio’ part of ‘onion’. The easiest way to remember this is imagining that someone has written a very small ‘y’ next to the n.
Examples: Español (‘ess-pan-YOL’), señor (‘sen-YOR’)
Q is almost always followed by the letter U and is pronounced like the English K
Examples: queso (KEH-so), quien (‘KEE-en’)
R is pronounced as in English, but RR will mean that practicing rolling your ‘r’s is something you may want to consider!
V is pronounced like a very soft ‘b’ in English, which can be occasionally confusing at first.
Examples: vaso (‘BAH-so’), vive (‘BEE-BAY’)
Z is similar to C in that it is pronounced either like an English ‘s’ or ‘th’ depending on your preference or the type of Spanish you want to learn.
Examples: zumo (‘SOO-moh/THOO-moh’), taza (‘ta-SAH/ta-THA’)
Grammar and Syntax
With pronunciation covered, it is useful to consider some of the basic grammar and syntax rules of Spanish, too.
- Like English, Spanish sentences follow the SVO (subject-verb-object) order, though there can be some flexibility.
- As with other Romance languages, nouns are either MASCULINE or FEMENINE, with changes in spelling depending on which group a noun belongs to. This may sound daunting, but the difference between masculine and feminine words is fairly easy to spot, especially in Spanish. Feminine nouns almost always end in a, d, or z, alongside the ‘-ción’ ending.
- Masculine nouns end in o, an accented vowel (such as á rather than just a), or the ending ‘-ma’. Once you learn to recognise these patterns, worrying over masculine and feminine words becomes less of a problem – of course, there are exceptions to every rule, but this is something that can be picked up as your proficiency in the language increases.
- Adjectives come after the noun in about 90% of cases and must agree with the gender and number of the noun in question. Instead of ‘the red skirt’, in Spanish we would have ‘the skirt red’ – la falda roja (‘roja’ is the feminine form of ‘rojo’, or ‘red’).
- Spanish verbs follow slightly more extensive rules than they do in English. They are conjugated (changed in spelling/form) depending on the subject of the sentence (I, you, he/she/it etc). Verbs are separated into three families – those ending in –ar, –er, and –ir, with patterns for conjugating each family. There are a fair number of irregular verbs, but they themselves usually follow a pattern and can be learned as you go along.
- Spanish uses a lot of the same verb tenses as in English, but there are some tenses which are strange to English speakers. For instance, Spanish uses the subjunctive tense to describe hypothetical events that may or may not happen. Although learning the subjunctive cannot be avoided, it is something that beginners to the language do not have to panic about – at the end of the day, it is just another tense, albeit with slightly more specific rules.
- Ser Estar – Spanish uses two verbs for ‘to be’. The first (‘ser’) is used when describing things which are permanent, such as someone’s personality or appearance, (such as ‘ella es alta’ – she is tall) or just generally established fact. ‘Estar’ is used to describe the location of the subject as well as non-permanent states – for example, ‘estoy feliz’ (I am happy) or ‘el perro está en el jardín’ (the dog is in the garden). It may sound irritating, but this is a rule which quickly becomes easy to remember, as often context will make it clear which form of the verb should be used.
These are the main rules of Spanish that anyone new to the language should try and keep in mind – however, it is worth noting that as strange and unnatural as some of these rules may seem, they do become far easier to remember over time! ¡Suerte!
Key Spanish Phrases
- Hola – Hello
- Adiós – Goodbye
- Por favor – Please
- Gracias – Thank you
- Lo siento – Sorry
- Buenos días – Good morning
- Buenas tardes – Good afternoon
- Buenas noches – Good evening
- Me llamo… – My name is…
- ¿Cómo te llamas? – What’s your name?
- Mucho gusto – Nice to meet you
- ¿Cómo estás? – How are you?
- ¿Qué hora es? – What time is it?
Is Spanish a Useful Language to Learn?
Aside from being an incredibly interesting language to learn, Spanish is also the second most widely spoken language in the world, with 471 million speakers globally. Learning the Spanish language could significantly widen your career prospects, by broadening your ability to find work not only in Europe but also in the nine Spanish-speaking countries in South America. As many companies seek to expand their reach in the global economy, Spanish interpreters and translators will be highly sought after, especially considering that Spanish-speaking countries in South America have some of the largest gross domestic product (GDP) in the region. In addition to the benefits of learning Spanish to your career, you can also benefit culturally from learning the language. There are plenty of excellent films, TV series and music in the Spanish language that will be within your reach by learning Spanish, such as Pan’s Labyrinth, Roma, La casa de papel (Money Heist), or the genre of Latin Music. Why deprive yourself of the amazing works of directors like Pedro Almodóvar and Pablo Larraín, or renowned Spanish writers such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez? Consuming media in the language you want to learn can aid greatly in the learning of a language, so you could easily start expanding your Spanish vocabulary today!
There are plenty of practical reasons to learn Spanish, especially as it is the second most widely spoken language in the world. Not to mention the possible financial and career benefits of learning Spanish, choosing to learn Spanish as a second language can significantly widen your cultural and social horizons by introducing you to new films, literature, and new people! If you require translation or interpreting services in any language, you can get a quote here from Crystal Clear Translation.