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Spanish Language Profile
Home > Languages > Spanish

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Easy, logical and useful language that is on top of most people's language shopping list. Very handy when travelling in the many Spanish-speaking countries, it also brings its own rewards through books, music and films. A must for any language lover.
Other topics on this page: Introduction ¦ Usefulness ¦ Chic factor ¦ Countries ¦ Speakers ¦ Economic Importance ¦ Travel ¦ Variations ¦ Culture ¦ Difficulties ¦ Pronunciation ¦ Grammar ¦ Vocabulary ¦ Transparency ¦ Spelling ¦ Time needed ¦ Ressources ¦ Books ¦


If you are looking for a useful language, Spanish will definitely be on your short list. You can speak Spanish in more than 25 countries and with 330 million people who often speak nothing but Spanish. The language is spoken in a very similar way all over the world, and each hour of study you put in will bring you closer to all 25 countries.

Chic factor

'Chic' has unfair rules. If you are Hispanic, speaking Spanish will not be seen as an especially chic asset, even if you learned it from scratch and speak it with no accent. And if you are Italian or French, people will assume you chose this 'easy' language because that is all you could manage to learn. How unfair.

If, however, you are a non-hispanic American, speaking Spanish will be seem as very chic. And if you speak many languages, people will just assume you speak perfect Spanish anyway.

The bottom line: if all you want is showing off, Spanish is probably not the most secure investment you can make. But I hope readers of this website have better aspirations than becoming show-offs. There are tons of other reasons why you should study this language.


Spanish is spoken in Spain, Andorra, Argentina, Urugay, Paraguay, Chile, Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia, Venezuela, Equatorial Guinea, Colombia, Puerto-Rico, the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Panama, El Salvador, Honduras, Belize, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Gibraltar, Nicaragua, Mexico and by more than 22 million people in large portions of the United States that were taken from Mexico according to the 'doctrine of manifest destiny'. Spanish is also an official language of the US state of New Mexico and the city of Miami, Florida, has the highest number of Spanish speakers outside Latin America.


Spanish is spoken by 100 millions people in Mexico, 44 millions in Colombia, 41 millions in Spain, 39 million in Argentina and 22 million in the USA. There are over 330 million native speakers of Spanish worldwide.

Economic importance

The combined GDP of Spanish-speaking countries is one of the highest for any language, surpassed only by English and Japanese.

If you do business with Spain or the Americas, Spanish is a must, since many businessmen do not speak other languages very well. Furthermore, it is generally true that in hispanic countries people like to get to know personnally their business partners and associates. If they have to talk to you through the narrow funnel of their limited English vocabulary, the ties you will be able to weave together will not be so strong.

Spanish is an important business language in large areas of the United States, the world's biggest economy. Southern California and Florida have important Spanish speaking communities and a knowledge of the language is an important asset.


You could travel the Spanish-speaking world all your life and never see the same city, beach or church twice. The variety of the former Spanish colonial empire is so great that you can find some of the highest mountains, the most immaculate beaches or largest cities in the world within its borders.

The most popular 'Spanish' destinations are Spain and Mexico.

Spain is the world's second most visited country and for good reasons. Not only can you visit the most popular beaches in Europe on the Costas, but you also have with some of the hippest holiday destinations on earth such as Ibiza and one of the most exclusive beach resorts, Marbella. Should you aspire for more intellectual pursuits, Spain is a treasure chest of antique churches, picturesque historical towns, monasteries and moorish palaces. Those interested in contemporary culture will find Barcelona immensely stimulating. The country has a lot to offer, and conversely is very popular with travellers from the world over.

I have myself fond recollections of my trips to Mexico, where speaking Spanish increased my travel experience manifold. Mexicans are nice and often very cultured people, with an immense pride at the great history of their country. You have no idea how many conversation you can start with total strangers, in the street, in shops, in restaurants with people sitting at the next table, in taxis, riding the bus, etc... Mexicans are always happy to converse with a foreigner in Spanish and will explain you the history of the local city, its monuments and its cultural institutions or discuss the relative merits of various brands of Tequila. The interactions I had with people thanks to my command of Spanish are some of the best memories I have from this amazing country, just as potent at the recollections of murals, palaces, food and museums.

Even if you do not plan to travel to a Spanish speaking country in the near future, you will eventually do it. When you do, you will discover your Spanish like a forgotten toy in an attic, and be amazed at the enchanted world it can open. You can take my word for it.


Unlike Arabic or Chinese, with Spanish, you will be able to speak and understand people in every single Spanish-speaking country in the world. Regional variations and accents do not get in the way of understanding after a few hours of practice with a local.

The variations in the Spanish language from one country to another are similar to those of French between Canada, France and Switzerland although slightly more important.

For instance, in Chile and in the Carribean, Spanish speakers eat up the final 'S' in most words. This sounds like the famous Cuban song Todo' lo' negro' tomamo' café, which in regular Spanish would be Todos los negros tomamos café. In Argentina people use an additional person when conjugating verbs, vos, and pronounce the 'Y' as a 'ZH'. In Madrid, people pronounce 'S's in a wet and whistling fashion that recalls mating snakes. Spaniards generally use Vosotros instead of Ustedes.

These differences in accent will not pose you many problems if you recognize that they exist and work for a few hours on learning the differences, and will be a source of great fun when speaking Spanish with people from across the world.

There are also many regional languages in Spain. Within the current political context of Spain, they are called languages and enjoy an important political status.

  • Castellano or Castilian is used to denote the regular Spanish, by opposition to the other languages spoken in Spain
  • Catalan is the official language of Catalunya, the Spanish state around Barcelona. This is a fun language close to Provencal and French. With Basque, it is the 'dialect' with the most political clout.
  • Galego, a language close to both Portuguese and Spanish, is spoken is Galicia, the Spanish state just north of Portugal.
  • Valenciano, very similar to Catalan, is spoken around Valencia.
  • Basque is not at all related to Spanish and is a very difficult language. It is spoken in the Basque country, capital Bilbao, on both sides of the French-Spanish border.
  • Other Spanish dialects/regional languages include Aragonese, Asturian, Murcian, Leonese and Andalusian.

These regional languages should not pose you any trouble as a tourist, but if you travel in Spain you will hear them everywhere. For instance, although everybody in Barcelona does speak Spanish, most people actually converse in Catalan. This will not pose any problem to a visitor, but if you want to speak as the local do, you'll need to learn Catalan.

Labelling some languages 'a dialect' and others 'a language' is a tricky path to walk and by doing so some people will feel offended. This can happen easily in Spain where regional languages often have a long historical tradition and can claim to be direct heirs of  Latin. Spaniards justly proud of their regional language would thus react strongly if you label their mother tongue 'a dialect' whereas you would call Portuguese 'a language'. The language learner should, however, keep in mind that the actual differences between Castellano and any of the regional languages of Spain is probably not larger than that between the many dialects of Italian.

When choosing which Spanish accent to learn, for instance when planning a study trip, I recommend you stay away from the Carribean, Chile and Argentina. These are fine countries, but their strong accents and grammatical particularities will automatically brand you as a native of these countries anywhere you go. If you learn Spanish in Cuba, everytime you open your mouth in Spanish you will come across as a Cuban. Try to choose a country with a neutral accent and no grammatical variations. In my humble opinion, the clearest Spanish is to be heard in Mexico, Colombia and the region of Castilla in Spain. I am sure plenty of people will disagree, so I emphasize that there is no 'right' and 'wrong' accent, but if I was to learn Spanish again, that is the sort of accent I would try to learn.


The culture accessible through Spanish is very rich and rewarding. There are many ways you can use it to enjoy your Spanish from the confort of your home.

Spanish litterature is abundant and of high quality. Some of the most successful writers are Colombian Gabriel Garcià Marquez, Spanish historical thriller master Arturo Perez-Reverte, on whose novel the movie The Ninth Gate by Roman Polanski was based, the Argentinian Geneva-based writer Borgès as well as Vargas Llosa and Sepulveda.

Spanish music is manifold and can be enjoyed to a much higher order if you understand the language. Flamenco, although beautiful, uses a barely recognizable language and you'll find it harder to catch what they actually say than managing the swingtap. Tango, unfortunately, is mostly instrumental, but it will help your motivation to learn Spanish if not practice it by singing. Salsa is immensely popular all over South America and makes heavy use of Spanish-language lyrics. Check out Ricky Martin and Gloria Esteban for example. Other artists who sing in Spanish include Julio and Enrique Iglesias and Colombian singer Shakira.

Movies in Spanish do not generally enjoy the large budget of Hollywood productions, but what they don't have in money they compensate by talent. There are many great movies out there, and you can buy them on DVD with Spanish and English subtitles. This makes for a golden opportunity to practice or just enjoy your Spanish in a most entertaining fashion. Some of my favorites are Amores Perros, Darkness, Hollywood action flick Traffic or El by Luis Buñuel. You can now buy these films in the Spanish-language DVD section of

There are more newspapers in Spanish than you could read in a lifetime. Some are very good, and you can read most of them for free over the Internet. In Spain, the most important are El Paìs and La Vanguardia. You can get a searchable selection of article refreshed every hour or so on Google News.

Other topics on this page: Introduction ¦ Usefulness ¦ Chic factor ¦ Countries ¦ Speakers ¦ Economic Importance ¦ Travel ¦ Variations ¦ Culture ¦ Difficulties ¦ Pronunciation ¦ Grammar ¦ Vocabulary ¦ Transparency ¦ Spelling ¦ Time needed ¦ Ressources ¦ Books ¦
 Back to top ¦ Languages Profiles

Spanish is objectively an easy language. It lacks the many difficulties of complex languages like Russian or Japanese. It has way less exceptions than French or English. Apart from the difficulties of word gender and conjugation, Spanish grammar is straightforward. I rate the difficulty of learning this as your first foreign language for an English speaker as .

The difficulty is only if you already speak another Romance language, such as French, Italian, Portuguese, Latin or Romanian. See 'transparency' for more on this.


Spanish is easy to pronounce. There are only two challenging sounds:

  • Rolled 'R': like Italian, Spanish uses manly 'R's that sound like an old tank cranking up. If you get some proper instructions as to tongue position, there is no reason why you should not master this sound after a few days. I like pronouncing those rolled 'R' - they are great fun.
  • 'J' or Jota: this sound found in other languages, such as German 'Ach' or Scottish 'Loch'. It is not hugely difficult to master and you absolutely need to get it as raucous ad the native speakers if you want to speak correctly.

English speakers often have difficulties with the highly regular word intonation in Spanish. In contrast to English, where words are 'sung' in a way that defies understanding, Spanish is spoken like a machine gun, with only one syllable per word spoken stronger, usually the one before last. I strongly caution English speakers not to speak Spanish words with English intonation. You will sound like fools and people will probably not understand what you say.

If you wish to hear these two sounds in one word, ask a native Spanish speaker to say 'Guadalajara', 'naranja', 'ejercicios' or 'Borgès'.


Spanish presents few grammatical difficulties. The main difficulties, shared with other Romance languages, are:

  • Word genders: All nouns are either masculine or feminine . For instance, the famous phrase Arnold Schwarzenegger line, 'No problemo!', is an error in Spanish. The word problema, despite its ending in -a, is a masculine. Students of Spanish tend to 'correct' the felt gender of the world problem (masculine) with a more masculine-sounding -o ending. However, the correct phrase is 'No problema!'. I got myself scolded by the Dominican wife of the owner of a favorite restaurant of mine when I tried my Spanish on her with this innocuous phrase, so I remember it. But there are scores of such mistakes you can make in Spanish. You just have to deal with it if you don't want to sound like a moron.
  • Conjugation: Unlike English, Spanish verbs take many, many different endings depending on the tense, mood and person doing the action of the verb. If this is your first Romance language, it will take some study. If it is your first language with a strong conjugation, it will take more study. It is not immensely difficult and with a good language program and dedication, you should be able to overcome this difficulty.
  • The subjunctive mood is a key point to master in Spanish as in other Romance languages. You absolutely need to have this one right, even if it looks a bit alien, otherwise your Spanish will sound awkward.

There are quite a lot of Spanish words you will recognize if you speak English. If you speak another romance language, most words will look familiar after a few weeks of study. When learning a Spanish word, you need to remember its gender. It is a must so don't get lazy on this.

You need to pay attention to the few but important false friends or false cognates. There are not so many of those pairs of words that look very similar in two languages, but if you do not study them properly you will sound like a fool.


Learning Spanish should be seen as an investment.

Not only will you speak this beautiful and ubiquitous language, but you will receive a deep discount on other fine languages from the Romance family:

Should you want to learn French, Portuguese or Italian, three important languages, or even mess with Latin, Catalan or Romanian, you will learn them in 50% to 80% less time than it took you to learn Spanish. Those languages have very similar vocabularies, with many words derived from Latin, and almost the same grammar. Learn the dreaded but all-important subjunctive tense and you can use it in all these languages. The differences in grammar are minor and you'll need to concentrate mostly on differences in pronunciation, idioms and vocabulary.

If you do not already speak another Romance language, learning one is an absolute must. Spanish makes good candidate for a first Romance language, because if you stop after you have learned Spanish, you will be stuck with a useful language. If you start by Romanian because you like Vlad Tepezsch, you will still benefit from the 'discount' should you want to later study other, more important Romance languages, but in the meanwhile you will be stuck with a language that is spoken in few countries only. It's like buying one DVD for $19.99 and getting an 80% discount on every other DVD in the store. Or a lifelong all-you-can-eat buffet. French is a close competitor for a good first Romance language.

Click for a list of languages related to Spanish with percentage of lexical similarity and relative grammatical difficulty.

Spanish has the most logical spelling you can find. You speak like you write and you write like you speak. If you know one, you know the other. This is the simplest orthographic system there is and it won't cause you much difficulty.

The main problem is remembering when to write the accents, which is not always easy if you do not have a Spanish-language keyboard. But if you write using a software with a spell checker, it will correct those by itself.

The fine gentlemen who designed the Spanish language were nice enough to include in each and every word a sign to tell you where to accentuate the word when accent is not on the antepenultimate syllable. If you ever meet the people who engineered the monstrous English orthographic system, or that of Arabic or Russian, make sure to let them know how you feel. Spanish is the gold standard of user-friendly orthography and language lovers can only wish other languages will follow suit.

Time needed

If you already speak another Romance language, 6 months of regular one-hour-a-day-sessions or 200 hours should see you fluent in Spanish. This is what it took me and I had absolutely no prior knowledge of the language. Adding advanced vocabulary and getting to speak with great fluency will get easier and easier as you progress. Once you have assimilated the few but important differences between Spanish and the other Romance language you speak, the rest is very similar.

If Spanish is your first foreign language and your mother tongue is not a Romance language, you should be reasonably fluent with 300 hours of study. In my opinion, an hour of serious study every day for a year is more than you need.

Other topics on this page: Introduction ¦ Usefulness ¦ Chic factor ¦ Countries ¦ Speakers ¦ Economic Importance ¦ Travel ¦ Variations ¦ Culture ¦ Difficulties ¦ Pronunciation ¦ Grammar ¦ Vocabulary ¦ Transparency ¦ Spelling ¦ Time needed ¦ Ressources ¦ Books ¦
 Back to top ¦ Languages Profiles
BooksI would use either FSI Spanish (to be ordered from Barron's Educational Series, much cheaper than Audioforum), 2 volumes :

Or Pimsleur Speak and Read Essential Spanish, much more expensive but also more modern. For about $800 you get 90 lessons (45 hours) that you can use in your car without any books. You can buy them from Simon and Schuster who bought Dr Pimsleur's business, but it's cheaper from Amazon :

I can also suggest to non romance languages speakers the following book, which introduces you to words category in order to help you increase your vocabulary :

Other topics on this page: Introduction ¦ Usefulness ¦ Chic factor ¦ Countries ¦ Speakers ¦ Economic Importance ¦ Travel ¦ Variations ¦ Culture ¦ Difficulties ¦ Pronunciation ¦ Grammar ¦ Vocabulary ¦ Transparency ¦ Spelling ¦ Time needed ¦ Ressources ¦ Books ¦
 Back to top ¦ Languages Profiles

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