If we asked you to name which languages were spoken in Spain, we know what your first guess would be.
And you’d be perfectly correct: it’s the nation’s official language and 99% of Spaniards speak it.
But on the streets of Spain, you’ll hear more than just Spanish. There’s neighboring Portugal and Portuguese isn’t uncommon in cities. You’ll hear Castilian, Arabic, bits of Italian, and other languages spoken surrounding the Iberian peninsula.
But what you’ll hear most of are the native tongues. Spanish speakers often speak more than one language, and Spanish is not the only language used in official documents in Spain.
Did you know that Spain actually has four official languages? Spanish is largely thought of by the world as the “national language” of the country, but since the Middle Ages and earlier, this has been a multilingual part of the world.
That’s right. Let’s take a look at them.
As we mentioned, there’s Spanish (also known as castellano), which is the official language throughout the whole country as declared in the Constitution. But there are three others that have official status in various regions:
For much of the 20th Century (during the Francoist regime), regional languages in Spain were repressed. Since the end of the dictatorship, the languages have seen a resurgence in popularity and are now embraced as an integral part of the Spanish nation.
Let’s have a deeper look into these languages.
Catalan is the co-official language (with Spanish) of the Autonomous Communities of Catalonia and Valencia, in Spain’s Eastern regions, and also Autonomous Community of the Balearic Islands.
Català is the second most spoken language in Spain behind Spanish itself. 4.1 million people speak it as a first language, and more than 10 million in total know it. That’s around a quarter of the entire population of Spain!
It’s a Romance language, so is related to Spanish, and even more closely related to the Occitan language spoken in southern France. The Catalan ethnic group reaches beyond eastern Spain with southern France, Andorra and parts of Sardinia in Italy also home to native Catalan speakers.
On the streets of Barcelona or Valencia, you’re more likely to hear Catalan than Spanish. It’s an important part of the regional identity and Catalonians, Valencians and Balearic Island natives are proud to consider it a part of their culture.
In Catalonia, Catalan is the main language of education, so as a result, most people find they prefer to use Catalan in their day-to-day lives.
73% of people in the region speak Catalan, with 95% understanding it. Among young people, only 3% of Catalonians have no knowledge of the regional language.
Galego is the language of 2.4 million people in the autonomous community of Galicia (where it shares official status with Spanish), in the north-west of Spain.
It’s closely related to Portuguese, with the two languages sharing the same roots. Some linguists treat them as dialects of the same language, and they are, for the most part, mutually intelligible. However, there are significant differences in vocabulary between Portuguese and galego that cause many speakers to regard it as a separate language.
Galicians are proud of their language and heritage, butthere isn’t a strong separatist movement in Galicia, as there is in Catalonia and the Basque Country.
Schools provide bilingual education in Galician and Spanish, unlike in the Basque Country and Catalonia, where there is almost no education delivered in Spanish.
This means that around 30% of Galicians speak only galego in their day-to-day lives.
Basque is the language of the Basque Country, the ancestral home of the Basque people, that spans both north-central Spain and southwestern France. The Spanish Autonomous Communities of Basque Country and Navarre are where it has co-official status with Spanish.
Unlike Galician and Catalan, Basque is not a Romance language, it actually pre-dates the Romanization of Europe. This means it’s a language isolate: it isn’t related to any other known living language.
There are around one million Basque speakers throughout the world, with around 750,000 native speakers in the Spanish Basque Country. The language has been heavily promoted through policy since the end of the Francoist era.
Most students receive monolingual education in Basque, and the number of speakers is increasing. Specifically, it thrives among young people: nearly 60% of speakers are in the 16-24 age category.
Because it’s a language isolate, Basque grammar is totally different to the other languages spoken in Spain, which are all related.
It uses a case system meaning that words change with suffixes depending on their role in the sentence. Pronouns, conjunctions and articles are also marked by suffixes. This can make for some intimidating-looking long words in Basque, similar to the structure of Turkish and Finnish words.
So that you can see the difference between all four of Spain’s major languages, here’s an example of text from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
With this comparison, you can clearly see how Spanish, Catalan and Galician all have the same Indo-European, Romance origin. You can also see how Basque is completely unrelated to the others:
Todos los seres humanos nacen libres e iguales en dignidad y derechos y, dotados como están de razón y conciencia, deben comportarse fraternalmente los unos con los otros. (Spanish)
Tots els éssers humans neixen lliures i iguals en dignitat i en drets. Són dotats de raó i de consciència, i han de comportar-se fraternalment els uns amb els altres. (Catalan)
Tódolos seres humanos nacen libres e iguais en dignidade e dereitos e, dotados como están de razón e conciencia, díbense comportar fraternalmente uns cos outros. (Galician)
Gizon-emakume guztiak aske jaiotzen dira, duintasun eta eskubide berberak dituztela; eta ezaguera eta kontzientzia dutenez gero, elkarren artean senide legez jokatu beharra dute. (Basque)
All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and in rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood. (English)
The co-official status with Spanish means that residents have the right to access public services in either Spanish or the local language, whichever they feel most comfortable with.
In all three regions, though, the local language is legally the lingua propia – the first language of local government and services.
In all the regions, large urban areas are where you’re most likely to hear Spanish, whereas in rural towns, local languages tend to be more commonly used. This makes sense, as people from other, monolingual regions of Spain often move to cities for work.
For anyone moving to a Spanish city for work, you’ll need to learn phrases for the business world. Check out this article for the phrases you’ll need to survive your first few meetings in Spain.
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Siobhan Wood is a marketing professional who works with language schools to get more people learning languages! Having spent twenty years studying French, Spanish and more, she knows the common roadblocks that people create that prevent them from following their dream of learning another tongue. Contact her for help with your school’s marketing.
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