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Spotlight on Spanish

About the Spanish Language

The Spanish language is thought to have evolved from Vulgar Latin (the informal, spoken variety of Latin that is thought to have been the precursor to all modern-day Romance languages) and is closely related to other Romance languages such as French, Italian, Portuguese, and Romanian. Gordon (2005b) lists the lexical similarities between Spanish and other Romance languages as ranging from approximately 75% to 85%, a level of similarity that makes it possible to understand parts of one language with knowledge of another. Although estimates are imprecise, Spanish is probably one of the top three most spoken languages in the world, with an estimated 322 million speakers (Gordon, 2005a)1. It has official or national language status in at least 20 countries (Gordon, 2005b), the European Union (Europa, 2008), and the United Nations (United Nations, 2008).

Although the language is most often referred to as Spanish (español) by native and second language speakers alike, it is also sometimes referred to as Castilian (castellano), particularly in contrasting it with Spain’s official regional languages, three of which have large numbers of speakers and enjoy prominent public use: Basque (vascuense, euskera); Catalan (bacavès), which is also known as Catalan-Valencian-Balear; and Galician (gallego). Regional languages with smaller numbers of speakers include Aragonese; Aranese, which is also known as Gascon; and Asturian, also known as Asturian-Leonese.


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Spanish developed in the area that is now Spain and was introduced to other parts of the world, particularly the Americas and Oceania, during Spain’s vast colonization push in the 1500s. Geographic dispersion has continued at a slower rate with the movement of Spanish speakers to different countries. Spanish is now spoken as the primary language in Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Equatorial Guinea, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Puerto Rico, Spain (and the Balearic and Canary Islands), Uruguay, and Venezuela and by large numbers of people in Andorra, Aruba, Australia, Belgium, Belize, Canada, Cayman Islands, Finland, France, Germany, Gibraltar, Israel, Jamaica, Morocco, Netherlands Antilles, Norway, Philippines, Sweden, Switzerland, Trinidad and Tobago, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and the United States (Gordon, 2005b).

The 2006 American Community Survey indicates that more than 34 million U.S. residents over the age of 5 speak Spanish at home (U.S. Census Bureau, 2008). The Modern Language Association provides an interactive language map that displays population data for Spanish language speakers by geographic area within the United States. Both the 2000 U.S. Census data and the 2006 American Community Survey data used by the MLA map (see confirm that the largest numbers of U.S. Spanish speakers reside in California, Florida, Texas, and New York. Increasingly, substantial numbers of Spanish speakers are dispersed throughout the United States, in rural as well as urban areas (Capps, Fix, & Passel, 2002; Jensen, 2006; Kandel & Cromartie, 2004; Suro & Tafoya, 2004; U.S. Census Bureau, 2006). Spanish is by a large margin the most studied foreign language in U.S. elementary schools, secondary schools, and institutions of higher education (Furman, Goldberg, & Lusin, 2007; Rhodes & Branaman, 1999).

Like English, Spanish is an alphabetic language whose alphabet is based on the Roman (i.e., Latin) alphabet. The Spanish alphabet includes all the letters of the English alphabet plus one additional letter: ñ  (pronounced ĔN·yā). Although the Spanish alphabet includes the letter w, it is used almost exclusively for loanwords.

The complete Spanish alphabet is:

A B C D E F G H I J K L M N Ñ O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z 2

Spanish also uses accent marks—including the acute accent ( ´ ) and the umlaut ( ¨ ) — in conjunction with its vowels. Of these, the acute accent is the most common. The marks on accented letters carry pronunciation instruction, and pronunciation differences contribute to meaning differences. Vowels with an accent often form minimal pairs with vowels that lack an accent. For example, the word lúcido (/LOO·sē·dō/) translates to English as “lucid,” but lucido (/loo·SĒ·dō/) means “magnificent.” Spanish has a very regular orthography, so that once its rules for sound/symbol correspondence are known, the correct pronunciation of a written word is very transparent.

Because English also includes many words of Latin origin, Spanish shares many cognates with English, as in the above example of lúcido and lucid. The combination of cognates with English, the regularity and transparency of Spanish spelling, and English-similar factors such as word order make Spanish a relatively easy language to learn for many English speakers. The U.S. Department of State’s Foreign Service Institute classifies it a Category 1 language, the group of languages most closely related to English and thus easiest for native English speakers to learn.3

For information about CAL's activities and resources related to the Spanish language and Spanish language education, read Spotlight on Spanish Activities and Resources.


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1 Spanish is often recognized as the second most widely spoken native language in the world behind Mandarin Chinese (Central Intelligence Agency, 2008; Gordon, 2005a), but sometimes it is estimated to have slightly fewer native speakers than English. The way in which language nativity is defined can vary, as can the method of estimating populations. Spanish also tends to rank among the top three to five most spoken languages in estimates that include both native and nonnative speakers.

2 Former Spanish learners may remember learning a slightly different alphabet from the one presented here: The 4th letter was ch and the 14th was ll. However, in 1994, the X Congreso de Academias de la Lengua Española (10th Congress of Spanish Language Academies) decided that both ch and ll would thenceforth be considered digraphs (i.e., two successive letters whose phonetic value is a single sound) rather than independent letters, (Asociación de Academias de la Lengua Española, 2008).

3 The Foreign Service Institute categorizes the language difficulty of the languages that they teach, based on data from their particular population of students.


Asociación de Academias de la Lengua Española. (2008). X Congreso (Madrid, 1994). Retrieved March 4, 2008, from

Capps, R., Fix, M. E., & Passel, J. S. (2002). The dispersal of immigrants in the 1990s (Immigrant Families and Workers: Facts and Perspectives Brief No. 2). Washington, DC: The Urban Institute. Retrieved May 30, 2008, from

Central Intelligence Agency. (2008, May 15). World. In The world factbook. Retrieved May 30, 2008, from

Europa.(2008). Languages in the EU. Retrieved May 30, 2008, from

Furman, N., Goldberg, D., & Lusin, N. (2007). Enrollments in languages other than English in United States institutions of
higher education, Fall 2006.
New York: Modern Language Association. Available from

Gordon, R. G., Jr. (Ed.). (2005a). Ethnologue: Languages of the world (15th ed.) Dallas, TX.: SIL International.

Gordon, R. G., Jr. (Ed.). (2005b). Ethnologue: Languages of the world (15th ed.) [Electronic version]. Dallas, TX.: SIL International. Retrieved February 28, 2008, from

Jensen, L. (2006). New immigrant settlements in rural America: Problems, prospects, and policies (Reports on Rural America Vol. 1 No. 3). Durham: University of New Hampshire, Carsey Institute. Retrieved May 30, 2008, from

Kandel, W., & Cromartie, J. (2004). New patterns of Hispanic settlement in rural America (Rural Development Research Rep. No. 99). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service. Retrieved May 30, 2008, from

Rhodes, N. C., & Branaman, L. E. (1999). Foreign language instruction in the United States: A national survey of elementary and secondary schools. Washington, DC, and McHenry, IL: Center for Applied Linguistics and Delta Systems.

Suro, R., & Tafoya, S. (2004). Dispersal and concentration: Patterns of Latino residential settlement. Washington, DC: Pew Hispanic Center. Retrieved May 29, 2008, from

United Nations. (2008). United Nations member states. Retrieved February 28, 2008, from United Nations Web site:

U.S. Census Bureau. (2008). S1601. Language Spoken at Home. Retrieved July 28, 2008 from U.S. Census Bureau American Fact Finder Web site:

U.S. Census Bureau, Population Division, Ethnicity and Ancestry Branch. (2006). Hispanics in the United States [PowerPoint]. Retrieved May 29, 2008, from U.S. Census Bureau Web site:

Compiled by Cate Coburn, Center for Applied Linguistics, Washington, DC.

External references and links do not constitute endorsement by CAL. External links are correct as of July 22, 2008.

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