The official and universal language in Spain is Spanish (español), which belongs to the Romance language family (the other languages are Portuguese, Catalan, Italian, French and Romanian). Many people, especially outside Castile, prefer to call it Castilian (castellano).
However, there are a number of languages (Catalan, Basque, Galician, Asturian, etc.) spoken in different regions of Spain. Some of these languages are predominant in their respective regions and, following their legalisation in the 1978 Constitution, they are official alongside Castilian in the respective territories. Among them, Catalan, Basque and Galician are recognised as official languages under the Spanish Constitution. Apart from Basque (whose origins are still disputed), the languages of the Iberian Peninsula belong to the Romance language family and are relatively easy to learn if you have a good command of Castilian. People in these regions can also speak Spanish, but learning a few words in the languages of the locals where you are travelling will help you win them over.
- Catalan (Catalan: català, Castilian: catalán), a distinct language similar to Castilian but more closely related to the Oc branch of Romance languages and considered by many to be part of a dialectal continuum that spans Spain, France and Italy and includes other Oc languages such as Provençal, Beàrnais, Limousin, Auvernhat and Niçard. Various dialects are spoken in the north-eastern region of Catalonia, in the Balearic Islands and Valencia (where Valencià is often spoken), in eastern Aragon, and in Andorra and southern France. To the casual listener, Catalan appears superficially as a cross between Castilian and French, and although it shares features of both, it is a language in its own right.
- Galician (galego in Galician, gallego in Castilian), which is very close to Portuguese, is spoken in Galicia and the western part of Asturias and León. Galician precedes Portuguese and is considered one of the four main dialects of the Galician-Portuguese language group, which also includes Brazilian Portuguese, Southern Portuguese, Central Portuguese and Galician. While the Portuguese consider it a dialect of Portuguese, the Galicians themselves see their language as distinct.
- Basque (Euskara in Basque, Vasco in Castilian), a language unrelated to Castilian (or any other language known in the world), is spoken in the three provinces of the Basque Country, in the two bordering provinces on the French side of the Franco-Spanish border and in Navarre. Basque is not related to any Romance language, nor to any branch of the Indo-European or Indo-Iranian language family. It is currently unclassified and considered a linguistic isolate, apparently unrelated to any branch of the linguistic family tree. How it got to where it is now, and whether it can be related to a living or dead language (even if it is distant), is one of the most debated topics in linguistics, and streams of ink have been and will probably be spilled on the subject for the foreseeable future.
- Asturiano (Asturiano: asturianu, Castilian: asturiano, also known as bable), spoken in the province of Asturias, where it enjoys semi-official protection. It was also spoken in the rural areas of León, Zamora, Salamanca, in some villages in Portugal (where it is called Mirandes) and in villages in the far north of Extremadura. While the Spanish constitution explicitly protects Basque, Balearic, Catalan and Valencian under the terms Catalan, Galician and Castilian, it does not explicitly protect Asturian. Nevertheless, the province of Asturias explicitly protects it and Spain implicitly protects it by not opposing it in the Supreme Court.
- Aragonese (Aragonese: aragonés, Castilian: aragonés, colloquially also fabla), is spoken in northern Aragon and is not officially recognised. This language is close to Catalan (especially in Benasque) and Castilian, with some Basque and Occitan influences (southern France). Today, this language is only used emphatically in some villages near the Pyrenees, while most people mix it with Castilian in their everyday speech.
- Aranese (Castilian: Aranés, Catalan/Occitan: Aranès), is spoken in the Aran Valley and is recognised as an official language in Catalonia (not in Spain) alongside Catalan and Castilian. This language is a variety of Occitan Gascon and as such is very close to Provençal, Limousin, Languedoc and Catalan.
In addition to the mother tongues, English and French are often learned at school. English is generally the most widely spoken of the two languages, although knowledge of this language is generally low among the general population.
That being said, most staff in Spain’s major tourism industry tend to have a good level of English, and especially in popular resorts like the Costa del Sol, you will find people fluent in several languages. English is also generally more widely spoken in Barcelona than in the rest of the country. As Portuguese and Italian are closely related to Spanish, it can be difficult for locals to understand you if you speak one of these languages. In some areas frequented by German tourists, such as Mallorca, you will probably be able to communicate in German. In addition, there has been migration from Spain to Germany since the arrival of the first guest workers in the 1950s, and today many young people leave Spain to study or work in Germany. Today, many young people leave Spain to study or work in Germany. Many of these migrants have since returned to Spain, and there are also a number of German retirees.
Castilian Spanish differs from the Latin American varieties in pronunciation and other details. However, all Latin American varieties are easily understood by Spaniards and are recognised as different versions of Spanish by the Royal Academy of Madrid, the barometer of the Spanish language. While some Spaniards believe that their version is the “purest” version of Spanish, most Spaniards acknowledge that there is no such thing as “pure” Spanish, even in their own country. While differences in spelling are virtually non-existent, differences in words and pronunciation (as well as some aspects of grammar) between “Spanish-Spanish” and “Latin-Spanish” are probably greater than those between “American” and “British” English.
French is the most widely understood foreign language in north-eastern Spain, as it is in Alquezar and Cap de Creus, as most travellers come here from France.
The locals will appreciate any attempt you make to speak their language. For example, you should at least know the Castilian words “bonjour” (buenos días) and “merci” (thank you). (gracias).
I am so pregnant!
Many English words have their origin in Latin, which makes it easy for English speakers to guess the meaning of many Spanish words. However, there are also a number of false friends in Spanish and English that you need to know in order to avoid embarrassing mistakes.
-embarazada – pregnant; not embarrassing
-suburb – shanty town; not suburb
-condom – condom; preservative-free
-bizarro – courageous; not strange.