What Languages Are Spoken in Spain, And What Should You Study?
What languages are spoken in Spain? There are over ten different languages spoken in Spain. Surprise-surprise!
The word Spanish does not mean a thing. Is it really a surprise that a country so large (at least by European standards) boasts language diversity? Nope, you just never really think of it. In fact, most Spaniards will refer to the official language as castellano instead of español. Castellano obviously means Castillian, because, at the end of the day, it began simply as the language spoken in the province of Castilla.
So, What Languages Are Spoken In Spain?
Of course, today the official language is Castilian and this is what most people speak.
It is also what Latin American Spanish evolved from.
Anyways, there are a few more languages than Castillian and some are even locally recognized as official. Here is a list of them, plus some fun facts. At the end, you also get the answer to the million dollar question — which one should you learn. Spoiler alert: it is a bit of an obvious piece of advice.
Basque is the co-official language in northern Navarre (in France) and the Basque country. It is not a Romance language.
In fact, it is pretty much a loner in the family of European languages. It is not related to any other language spoken in Europe. Does that make it unbelievably difficult to learn? You bet it does! For Basque people, however, their language is a matter of identity.
Under Franco, local languages were frowned upon, as he believed in a unified Spain (unified by his dictatorship, that is). Separatism was definitely not his favorite thing. But before we spill the tea on Franco’s atrocities and the repression Basque people had to endure for simply wanting to assert their identity, let’s go maybe a few centuries back.
The Origins Of Basque
Basque (or Euskara as they call it) is believed to be one of the few pre-Indo-European languages that survive to this day.
And you can be sure that Basque is alive and well. In fact, although there has not been much aggression from Basque separatists in last few years, the Basques still have a very strong sense of unity and of being different from the rest of Spain. Preserving the language has always been a top priority.
But here is the thing about Basque — nobody knows where exactly it came from.
There have been several hypotheses, but nothing really seems to offer sound evidence. The trouble with finding the origin of Basque is that it is a language isolate. There are no similar languages spoken in the area. In fact, some argue that there are no languages whatsoever that are in existence today and that can be linked to Basque.
What We Know
What we do know (or at leas we think we know), is that there are Latin inscriptions that include proto-Basque words.
These are mostly names, since guess where these inscriptions come from? Yup, tombstones. These names of people and gods look incredibly like Basque words. Well, proto-Basque. Or at least words that are etymologically similar to what we think proto-Basque might have looked and sounded like.
You see how there are a lot of ifs and very little certainty on this matter? It is what it is.
Romans referred to the language as Aquitanian. If you are not familiar with the geography of the Roman Empire — Aquitania was the region between the Pyrenees and Garonne. It is thought that this was the original language tribes here spoke before the Romans ever arrived.
Since the Roman Empire neglected the region, historians say that Aquitanian managed to survive, while Iberian (which was another pre-Roman language) died off.
Of course, modern Basque does include plenty of Roman words. It was always surrounded by Romance languages, so this is no surprise. But it was not a one-way influence either. For instance, the Spanish word for left, izquierdo, is a loanword from the Basque ezker. Cachorro (Spanish for puppy), conejo (rabbit), and pestaña (eyelash) are some other examples of Spanish words of Basque origin.
Although the name does not explicitly suggest it, Catalan is an official language in the autonomous communities of Catalonia, the Balearic Islands, and Valencia. It is worth noting, though, that Valencian differs slightly from standard Catalan and for that reason, in the community of Valencia it is known as Valencian.
It is still practically Catalan, maybe just a tiny bit different.
Catalan Is A Romance Language
It is very much not unique in it has evolved from Vulgar Latin the same way Spanish, Italian, and French have. There are so many similarities between Spanish and Catalan, but they are still different. If you live in Catalonia, chances are you will have to pick up Catalan. Spanish is simply not enough.
This is because a lot of Catalan people insist on not using Spanish. They understand it and they speak it perfectly. But they will not like you for making them speak Spanish.
Adventures In Catalan
Of course, this does not apply to everyone. One thing a Catalan acquaintance of mine once told me, was that he doesn’t really notice if he is speaking Catalan or Spanish.
Both come naturally.
This was a bit of a confusing thing at first. As you can imagine, Catalan has a quite different vocabulary and if you’re talking somebody in Spanish and they suddenly throw in a Catalan word…it is confusing.
Plus, for me as a foreigner (Spanish is definitely not my native language), I never knew if it was me not knowing a certain word, or them using a word in Catalan. Besides Spanish and Catalan are not mutually intelligible and a lot of street signs are just in Catalan. Technically, this should not happen, but it does. Yup, confusing times. If you will be living in Catalonia — learn Catalan.
To be honest, I had not even heard of this language before researching for my article. It only has around 4,700 native speakers.
However, it is one of the four officially recognized languages in Spain (other than Castillian). In Val d’Aran which is a tiny region in the Spanish Pyrenees, almost everybody understands it, although few people have it as a first language.
Students in Val d’Aran are absolute language champs, too.
They study Spanish, Catalan, and Aranese — each for at least 2 hours a week. Neither of those is considered foreign, so they also throw in French (due to the proximity) or English. Or both. These kids could practically graduate their secondary education as polyglots! And you think that surviving that Spanish class in high school was an accomplishment!
Galician I had heard of. It would have extremely embarrassing if I had not. There are over 2 million speakers of gallego — mainly in Galicia where it is a co-official language, but also in Asturias and Castile and León.
Although Galician is similar to Spanish, it actually has much more in common with Portuguese. They belong to the same language group (West Iberian Romance Languages) and were once practically the same language. Portuguese and Galician diverged somewhere around 14
Portuguese and Galician diverged somewhere around 14th – 15th century.
To this day there are some organizations that claim Galician is nothing more than a variant of Portuguese. In Galicia, this is a rather controversial issue and there are compelling arguments on either side. There is even a Galician Academy of the Portuguese Language, but there are also people who get reasonably offended, as they feel they are being robbed of their identity.
For a country with such language diversity, Spain is trying it’s best to preserve it. This is a fairly recent policy, however. There are plenty of languages that are still not official in their respective communities. For instance, Aragonese, Asturian, and Leonese are three recognized and endangered languages. They are spoken in Aragon, Asturias, and Castilla y León respectively.
On top of that, there are Cantabrian, Extremaduran, Eonavian, Iberian Romani (the language of gypsies), the Silbo Gomero and much more.
By the way, the Silbo Gomero is very weird and wonderful thing and so it deserves a few lines. It is not an actual language, but rather pronouncing Spanish by whistling. It evolved as a way to communicate over long distances.
In 2009 the UNESCO declared it Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. Way to go, whistlers!
What Languages Are Spoken in Spain: Conclusion
Do you have a Basque boyfriend? I know a girl that does. She is learning Spanish for him. Partially because there are not a lot of Basque classes out there, but mostly because the lingua franca is Spanish.
And not only in Spain, either.
Latin American Spanish has it’s quirks and particularities. It is still Spanish.
So my advice is to start with Spanish.
If you end up spending a lot of time in a region where they also speak their own language you will pick it up anyways. Meanwhile, Spanish. (I mean Castillian).