All About the Spanish Language

This section has many links to Wikipedia entries. Sometimes these pages are written by experts in their field, at other times they are written by people with a special interest in a topic, but no formal training; there may be errors, and in some cases there are significant and ongoing differences of opinion.

  • Is it hard to learn another language?
    • It is not so much conceptually hard, but very time consuming. It takes thousands of hours to acquire a new language, so be patient and continue to get aural and print exposure to Spanish. Eventually you will become conversational in your new language.

  • Is it easier to learn a language when you are younger?
    • Yes and no. Children appear to be able to acquire languages at a much deeper level. However, motivated adults often acquire languages very quickly because of the vast amount of conceptual knowledge they have built up. It is easier to learn new material when we have previous material already in our brain to which we can make connections.

  • Is Spanish harder than English?
    • Linguists think that for children learning their first language, all languages are relatively easy/hard. Most children acquire their native language at about the same rate.

      If you are a native French, Italian, Rumanian or Portuguese speaker, Spanish will be relatively easy. If you speak English, the grammar will seem a bit difficult at first but there are many cognates and that will help with learning of vocabulary. If you are a monolingual Chinese speaker, Spanish will be relatively difficult, since Chinese and Spanish are not related.

  • Is it possible to study two languages at a time?
    • Linguists think that for children learning their first language, all languages are relatively easy/hard. Most children acquire their native language at about the same rate.

      If you are a native French, Italian, Rumanian or Portuguese speaker, Spanish will be relatively easy. If you speak English, the grammar will seem a bit difficult at first but there are many cognates and that will help with learning of vocabulary. If you are a monolingual Chinese speaker, Spanish will be relatively difficult, since Chinese and Spanish are not related.

  • Is it easier to learn another language if you already speak more than one?
    • Yes. The more linguistic information we hold in our brain, the easier it is for us to learn new linguistic information. It helps if the languages are related, like English and Spanish, but a student who is bilingual in Japanese and English, will have an easier time learning Spanish, than a monolingual English speaker.

  • Why do I mix up my Spanish with the German I took in high school 10 years ago?
    • It is a common experience. I liken each language we study or learn to a track in the brain. Our native language track is very wide with nearly impenetrable walls. Our track for three years of high school German may be much narrower with much weaker walls.

      As we try to learn another language, our brain, searching for words, does not breach the strong walls of our native language, but may go into tracks of other languages and "raid” words or structures. As your Spanish gets better and better, and the track becomes wider, and the walls stronger, this will happen less and less.

  • Is it better to go to the country where the language is spoken to learn it?
    • Yes and no. If you head to Chile speaking no Spanish you will have a hard time getting people to interact with you. It’s better to start with two or three semesters in a protected setting, the classroom, and then travel to a Spanish-speaking country. Then you will speak and understand well enough to enough to allow you to interact and thereby get more practice.​

  • What Spanish are we learning in class?
    • At Irvine Valley College our instructors teach what is called Standard Latin American Spanish. That means that it is an amalgam of the various kinds of Spanish spoken in most Spanish speaking countries in Latin America.

      We do not teach Mexican Spanish or Cuban Spanish or Peruvian Spanish or Argentinean Spanish, not because these are not beautiful variants of Spanish, but because we want our students to be able to communicate with speakers from many different countries.​

  • Is the Spanish I hear at work or in my neighborhood slang?
    • Maybe. It depends on who is speaking. Slang in any language is that group of words and expressions that is localized and possibly stigmatized, that is, looked down upon by other speakers. Students of Spanish should avoid using slang because:

      • you may not know when it is appropriate and you might offend people.
      • it is often not well understood outside of a given region.

  • Which Spanish is correct Spanish?
    • That depends upon which country you live in. If you live in Cuba, you will want to speak educated Cuban Spanish. If you live in Argentina on a farm, you will want to speak the Argentinean Spanish of your peers.

      Like in English speaking countries, each Spanish-speaking country and each region within a country have slightly different ways of speaking. Sometimes that means different words for some foods, clothing, different colloquial expressions, different pronunciations of some consonants, and some slight differences in grammar. Educated Spanish speakers from anywhere in the Spanish speaking world have little difficulty understanding each other.

  • What is the difference between español and castellano?
    • Both of these terms are used to describe the language which in English is called Spanish. The word español is used in Mexico, the Caribbean, most of Central America and Colombia, while Spain and South America prefer the term castellano. So, although the dialect of Argentina and the dialect of Northern Spain are quite different, inhabitants from both regions refer to their language as castellano.

      Spaniards often use the term castellano to refer to the language they speak as opposed to other languages of Spain: Catalan, Galician, and Basque.

      When contrasting their language with those of the rest of Europe, Spaniards may use the term español.

      For more on this subject in English, click on this Wikipedia entry:  Spanish Language. To read about these two terms in Spanish, click on idioma español.

  • Why do Spaniards have a lisp when they talk? Did a Spanish king have a lisp and force all his subjects to lisp?
    • No. Somehow, this folk legend has proved hard to dispel. Spaniards do not lisp any more than English speakers do when they pronounce the words think or thimble.

      The Spanish spoken in most parts of Spain, (a notable exception includes areas of Andalucia in southern Spain), distinguishes between the sound of “s” in casa (house) and the sound of “z” as in caza, (hunt[s]), using a voiceless alveolar fricative [s] for casa and a voiceless interdental (between the teeth) fricative [] for the pronunciation of the “z” in caza or for the pronunciation of words with “ce” or “ci” like cero (zero) or cima (peak).  This voiceless “th” sound, [],  is similar to the “th” in English words think or thin.  In some areas of Southern Spain speakers use the [s] pronunciation for “s”, “z” and “ce”/ “ci” while most of the rest of Spain observes the distinction. This distinction only began to develop in the language after the colonization of Latin America, so Spanish in Latin America does not make use of the [] for “z”, “ce” / “ci” and words like tasa (rate) and taza (cup) sound identical.

  • Is Spanish related to English?
    • Yes. Spanish and English are both Indo-European languages.  Linguists often use the analogy of a family to describe languages. The Indo-European family is a large family of languages extending from India and Afghanistan across Europe and eventually to the Americas. The Indo-European Mother (proto Indo-European, spoken about 5,000 years ago in Anatolia) gave birth to many daughters, Albanian, Balto-Slavic, Indo-Iranian, Hellenic, Italic, Celtic and Germanic.

      These daughters in turn gave rise to newer languages: Russian, Lithuanian, Gujarati, Pashto, Hindi, Persian, Greek, French, Spanish, Scots Gaelic, Welsh, Dutch, Danish, English; these could be called cousin languages.

      Spanish is part of the Italic branch, which includes French, Portuguese, Rumanian, Provençal, Catalan, Italian and many less commonly known languages. English is part of the Germanic branch which includes German, Dutch, Swedish, Danish and Norwegian, among others.

  • Why are there so many words in Spanish that look just like words in English?
    • Spanish and English share a large vocabulary of cognates, words that are similar in pronunciation and meaning across two or more languages. This is because French speaking William the Conquerer invaded and conquered England in 1066. For the next 300 years French was the language of government and prestige, while the common folk continued to speak English.

      So, in English we often have two words, one more formal than the other: commence (from the French commencer) and begin (from the German beginnen). The “elegant” word commence will usually have a counterpart in Spanish, comenzar, because Spanish and French are cousins.

      Other cognates in Spanish are general, estación, universidad, gubernamental, civilización, normal and thousands more. Some cognates are false cognates, that is they look like the same words, but they have very different meanings: embarazada in Spanish does not mean embarrassed, but pregnant, and a private school is not an escuela privada, but an escuela particular

  • In which countries is Spanish spoken as an official language?
    • Spanish is the official language of Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, (a Free Associated State of the United States), Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama, Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Chile, Paraguay, Uruguay, Argentina and Equatorial Guinea (on the west coast of Africa).

  • Is Spanish the language of Brazil?
    • There are 21 Spanish-speaking countries and Brazil is not one of them. In Brazil and Portugal, people speak Portuguese. Spanish and Portuguese are both Romance Languages. Spanish and Portuguese are both descended from Vulgar Latin and are close in both grammar and vocabulary, but the pronunciation is very different. Spanish speakers have a harder time understanding Portuguese than the other way around.

  • Are there other languages spoken in Spanish-speaking countries?
    • Yes. In Spain on the Mediterranean coast there are millions of speakers of Catalan, (in Spanish: el catalán) and in the northwest, there are speakers of Galician, (in Spanish: el gallego). Both Catalan and Galician are Romance languages, (descended from Latin). There are many other Romance dialects/languages in other parts of Spain, all in decline due to the homogenization of culture in Spain.  On the Atlantic coast of northern Spain and in the Pyrenees Mountains there are many speakers of  Basque, (in Spanish: el vasco or el euskera).  Basque is classified as a language isolate and is not related to any European languages.  Linguists think that it may be a descendant of the original language of the Iberian peninsula long before Indo-European speakers arrived in Europe.  Here is an interesting look at early Indo-European, called Proto-European by linguists who have painstakingly reconstructed it.

      Mexico has millions of speakers of indigenous languages like Nahuatl, (in Spanish: el náhuatl ),  Totonac, (in Spanish:el totonaco), Zapotec, (in Spanish: el zapoteco), Mixtec, (in Spanish: el mixteco),  and various languages of the Mayan family of languages, (in Spanish: el maya).

      Central America also has many indigenous languages, languages from the Mayan family of languages, as well as Miskito,  and KunaGarifuna,  (in Spanish: el garífuna), is an indigenous language that has adopted large numbers of loan words from the indigenous language Carib as well as from European languages.

      Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia and Paraguay also have large numbers of speakers of various indigenous languages. The most well-known of these are languages from the Quechua family of languages, (in Spanish: el quechua or el quichua), spoken in parts of Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Chile and Argentina, and Aymara, (in Spanish: el aimara), spoken in Peru, Bolivia and Chile.  Paraguay is a bilingual country with both Spanish and Guarani, (in Spanish: el guaraní), officially recognized.

      Many of these indigenous languages are endangered and will not outlive this century.  This interactive website is part of the Alliance for Linguistic Diversity and presents many aspects of endangered languages.


Brooke Bui, PhD
Dean, Languages & Learning Resources

O: LA 209

Erika Arendts
Sr. Admin. Assistant, Languages & Learning Resources

O: LA 207