Italian Vs Spanish: Which One Should You Learn?

Important question: Will it be ‘Ciao, bella’ or ‘Chao, guapa’?
woman in red on vacation in spain italian vs spanish

Trying to decide between studying Italian vs Spanish? That’s not always an easy call to make, especially because you’ve already reached a point where you’re trying to choose between two fairly similar languages. Or so you may think.

Assuming you don’t have an obvious connection to either language due to your heritage, a topic you’re studying in school, a skillset you need for work or plans to relocate to a new country, then you’re probably wondering which language might open your world the most, or perhaps be the most useful to learn. Spanish and Italian are close cousins in the Romance language family, they are both embedded in cultures that have given the world a lot of tasty, tasty food, and they’re both fairly accessible languages for English speakers to learn (meaning they’re relatively easy, and you won’t have any issues finding resources, classes and study buddies to help you along the way).

Still, a choice must be made. Or perhaps not. If all else fails, you can always have your torta/tarta and eat it, too (that’s “cake” in Italian and Spanish, respectively).

Italian Vs Spanish

How similar are Italian and Spanish?

We covered this a little already, but Italian and Spanish are both Romance languages, which means they both come from Latin. That means they share tons of cognates, which are words that sound similar and usually have a common ancestor. This sort of makes sense when you consider that Spain and Italy are neighbors on a map. Generally speaking, the closer geographically two linguistic populations are, the more likely that they’re going to be able to understand each other.

So how much mutual intelligibility, or crossover, is there between Italian and Spanish? To some extent, learning one Romance language does give you an easier entry into the others.

Ethnologue came up with lexical similarity coefficients for each of the Romance tongues, or quantifiable percentages that tell you how similar the languages are. Spanish and Italian are 82 percent similar — not too bad. But in comparison, Spanish and Portuguese, the two closest cousins, are 89 percent similar.

Overall, Spanish and Italian share a lot in common, including similar phonology, similar conjugation rules and verb tenses, and an SVO (subject-verb-object) sentence order that will be intuitive to any English speaker. And no, you won’t get out of having to learn grammatical gender with either of these languages.

What are some of the key differences between Italian and Spanish?

A large part of where Spanish and Italian diverge is in their history. While Italian pretty much comes directly from vulgar Latin, Spanish was impacted greatly by the Moorish invasion of the Iberian peninsula in 711. As such, there are actually 4,000 modern Spanish words that come from Arabic.

Grammatically, Spanish and Italian differ a bit in terms of how they talk about things in the past tense. Italian uses the perfect tense more, while Spanish tends to use the simple past tense.

Arguably, the biggest tradeoff is that Spanish pronunciation is more straightforward than Italian, but Italian has more irregular verbs that won’t follow the expected patterns.

Which language is easier to learn?

Technically, we came up with a list of the 10 easiest languages for English speakers to learn, and the great news is that Spanish and Italian both make the cut! If you want to split hairs, though, Spanish is higher up on the list, clocking in at number 3 (versus 7 for Italian). Still, that makes Italian just a little easier than French.

We already mentioned that one of the things that makes Spanish so easy is that it has straightforward pronunciation rules — what you see is what you get, which isn’t quite as much the case with Italian. However, it’s not quite as simple as “Spanish is easier to pronounce than Italian.” Some people would say that Italian is actually easier to pronounce (and understand) because the musical intonation and separation between the individual sounds — in terms of how it’s typically spoken — are easier for learners to process than the relatively faster and monotone Spanish.

That said, Italian comes with more irregular verbs to memorize. And less straightforward rules for grammatical gender.

Ultimately, the question of whether Italian or Spanish is easier or harder depends on what you personally tend to struggle with more: pronunciation or grammar. But the difference in overall difficulty probably shouldn’t be enough to dissuade you or make your decision for you. At the end of the day, they’re both one of the easier languages you could set your sights on.

Which language is more useful to know?

If you’re couching this question in terms of sheer demographics, Spanish will probably win this contest by a long shot. Spanish has the second largest native speaker population in the world (after Chinese), and there are 543 million total speakers around the world that you’ll be able to converse with. Additionally, knowing Spanish will open large swaths of the world to you, including Spain and most of Latin and Central America. Spanish is an official language in 20 countries overall, and is spoken in many more.

In contrast, Italian is the 20th most spoken language in the world, with approximately 66 million total speakers. It is an official language in Italy, San Marino, Switzerland and Vatican City, as well as some parts of Croatia and Slovenia. There are sizable populations of Italian speakers in over 30 countries, so it likely all depends on where in the world you plan on using your skills. Or, you know, what kinds of restaurants you think you’ll be going to more.

But whether Italian or Spanish is more useful to know probably depends on how — and where — you intend to use it. To be able to connect with more people in general? Probably Spanish, then. To connect with more people in the Italian neighborhood where you live? Sounds like Italian is your best bet. To boost your career prospects? Spanish is a top business language thanks to how widely spoken it is, but if you’re working in, say, fashion, it might make much more sense to learn Italian.

All in all, deciding Italian vs Spanish might be an easy or tough call once you consider all the factors. But this is hardly a one-size-fits-all decision. Start by clearly defining your own goals and motivations. The rest should become clear from there.

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