Illustration by Ginnie Hsu, courtesy of the Bright Agency.
So, how hard is it to learn Spanish? If a Spanish accent gets your pulse racing, but the word otorrinolaringólogo strikes fear into your heart, read on! Babbel’s expert linguists are here to guide you through the delights and difficulties of the language. ¡Vamos! Let’s go!
Easy As Paella
The good news? Spanish is reputed to be one of the easiest languages for native English speakers to learn, and with over 500 million fluent speakers (50 million of whom live in the US), you’d have to be living in a cave to not bump into one of them fairly often. Which means it’s a cinch to find someone to practice with — on or offline!
So why is Spanish a walk in the parque? Well, although it’s a Romance language and English, on the other hand, is Germanic, both come from the Indo-European family of languages and both have been heavily influenced by Latin and French. Which means that they share a huge amount of cognates (words that look similar and have the same meaning). When a Spanish speaker says ¡No!, they really mean “No!” It’s estimated that 30-40% of English words have a Spanish cognate.
And of course, the worldwide popularity of Spanish and Latin-American cuisine means we’re all familiar with food names such as tapas, tacos, burritos, tortillas and the like. But once you’ve flawlessly ordered dinner and knocked back a margarita (or three), don’t start mixing your sopa (soup) up with soap or tell your partner you are embarazada (pregnant) because you made a mistake with the waiter. Take heed — there are also false cognates!
The More, the María!
What makes Spanish muy (very) easy is that the majority of plurals are formed, as in English, by adding an S to the end of a singular noun. So “girl” is niña or chica and “girls” is niñas or chicas. Simple, right?
And Spanish word order is a piece of cake. It’s an SVO language, just like English. That is, the subject comes first, then the verb, followed by the object. So Pablo sirvió una bebida means “Pablo poured a drink.” But what if you want to ask a question? It stays the same! You say exactly the same thing and raise your voice at the end of the sentence: ¿Pablo sirvió una bebida? — literally, “Pablo poured a drink?”
Speaking of sentences, Spanish conditional sentences are similar to their English counterparts. For example, if I saw my future life partner in the frozen food section of the supermercado, I might go over and use this Colombian pick-up line:
- Si besarte fuera pecado, me iría feliz para el infierno. (If kissing you were a sin, I would gladly go to hell.)
If someone said this to you in an English-speaking supermarket, you might think it rather directo (direct) , if not raro (“bizarre,” not “rare”). But in any case, it’s also good to know that the Spanish present perfect verb tense is, again, formed in a similar fashion to English. ¡Yo he conocido a muchos hombres! means “I have met many men!” (possibly in supermercados).
Sounds Too Easy?
Of all the things Spanish has going for it, the pronunciation has to be a major plus. Because although J, V, Ñ, and the double R and L can be unfamiliar at first, Spanish is phonetic. That is, unlike the hugely unpredictable English language, words are consistently pronounced just as they’re spelled. Simply decide which regional variation you’d prefer to master and plug in to podcasts, radio broadcasts or telenovelas to get your ears used to the sound of all those jóvenes (young people), pandillas (gangs) and perros (dogs).
The Difficult Bits
No one is pretending that learning any language is completely easy sailing. So, what might take a bit of extra effort? Well, in short order:
Spanish does have more tenses, and, consequently, more verb conjugation than English. It also has “masculine” and “feminine” gendered nouns and articles, and adjectives change to agree with the gender of the noun they are describing.
On top of this, there are four forms of “you”: Tú is singular, informal. Usted is singular, formal. Vosotros is plural, informal and ustedes is plural, formal. Got that? But don’t panic. You’ll be relieved to know that Latin Americans throw formality out of the window and just use ustedes for the plural you, meaning you only have to remember three forms for the Mexican ambassador’s next ball!
Although all of those cognates will help, it has to be said that Spanish does boast a huge range of fixed expressions, slang, synonyms, regional variations, etc. In both Spain and Latin America there are many different varieties of Spanish, but this is not an uncommon phenomenon in any major language: English, French, Italian, German, Arabic and Chinese (to name a few) all vary according to the region in which they’re spoken.
How Long Does It Take To Learn Spanish?
“So,” I hear you say, “when will I be flawlessly performing Shakira’s greatest hits at karaoke?” Well, ¿Qué tan largo es un pedazo de cuerda española?* It all depends on you. If you dedicate yourself exclusively to the task, relocate to Cuba, get a Spanish-speaking lover and adopt niños, it’s gonna be a bit quicker.
But even if that’s not the plan, you’ll still make progress learning for 15 minutes a day if you have achievable goals in mind. You don’t need to be entirely fluent in a language to start communicating! In fact, the sooner you start talking, the better and faster your progress will be. Before you know it, you’ll be saying otorrinolaringólogo (ear, nose and throat specialist) like a local!
*How long is a piece of Spanish string? (Disclaimer — don’t seriously consider this question, in any language.)