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Want to learn Spanish? You're in good company. By one estimate, nearly 100 million people worldwide speak some level of Spanish as a second language, and that number is growing fast.
Spanish is the language that got me started on this whole language-learning adventure over a decade ago, so it's definitely a language that has had an enormous impact on my life!
With so many possible languages you could learn, why learn Spanish?
Here are some ideas that I hope will appeal, whether you're a seasoned polyglot looking to add another notch to your belt or a language newbie thinking about dipping your toes in the agua:
1. Become More Expressive
Does this make any sense to you:
Spanish is eaten bread! But sometimes when I'm talking to someone who doesn't have any hairs on their tongue, I wonder if they're just playing the Swede. Maybe they have more wool than a lamb and feel like throwing the house through the window, but maybe they're just being like a goat and pulling my hair.
That probably looked like nonsense! But if you learn a bit of Spanish you'll see that these are just a few of that language's many colourful idioms which aren’t directly translated into English. There are countless other examples, and as you learn them you'll find all kinds of interesting new phrases and perspectives that you'll wish you could also use in English… if only English speakers would understand them.
So unless you have “bad milk” (mala leche) or a “mood of dogs” (humor de perros), if you learn Spanish you definitely won't be “throwing water into the sea” (echar agua al mar). 😉
2. Join a HUGE Family
How big is your family? What if I told you that you actually have millions of nephews? Or at least if you spend time in Spain you might feel that way, since people will keep calling you tía or tío, which literally mean “aunt” and “uncle”. These words are commonly used in Spain as a term of endearment and a greeting, like “dude/chick” or (for the Brits and Aussies) “mate”.
Practically every Spanish-speaking country has its own version (or versions) of tío, like the Colombian guevón, the Mexican vato or morro, the Chilean weón and more. As they say in Spanish, ¡qué rico! – how rich! With some Spanish under your belt you'll never run out of fun ways to address people. Just be careful with the word marica, which in some places (such as Venezuela) can mean “dude”, but in other places is a derogatory term for a gay person.
Talking of a big family…
3. Have Double the Fun
By number of native speakers (there's over 400 million of them), Spanish is the second most commonly spoken language in the world, as well the official language of 21 countries. That's about 5% of the world's population and 10% of its countries currently not truly accessible to you if you haven’t learned the language yet! I've been to a few of those countries and met many of those people, and I assure you, you're missing out.
What… were you thinking about travelling to those countries and meeting those people through English? I suppose you could try, but why watch a black-and-white movie on your phone when you could go to the Imax cinema and see it in 3D? As I've said again and again, travelling with English alone is an extremely limiting experience, and it's hard to appreciate this until you've broken out of the anglophone bubble and seen it for yourself.
Learn a bit of Spanish and your world map will double in size. All kinds of new adventures, friends, and fond memories are awaiting you – all you have to do is say sí.
4. You’ll Find it Easy to Get Help
As much as I try to avoid categorising languages by how “easy” or “hard” they are, I have to give Spanish some credit. Even before you consider the intrinsic aspects of the language itself (which aren't the hardest), Spanish is made considerably easier by its popularity.
The sheer number of wannabe Spanish speakers out there means that there's a lot of money to be made in this space, and the market has responded: there's an ENORMOUS amount of Spanish learning material out there. Whatever your specific learning style or language goals, you're very unlikely to have any trouble finding the exact product, course or resource to meet your needs. Plus it's never hard to find another speaker to practise with!
Compare this to a language like Egyptian Arabic. As I've said before, despite having more than 80 million speakers, possibly the hardest thing about this language was not the language itself, but the difficulty of finding good teaching materials (since the courses tend to favour Modern Standard Arabic, which isn’t actually spoken in Egypt). If only there were as many good Arabic dialect resources as there are Spanish ones, my life would have been much easier.
5. Unleash Your Inner Party Animal!
The Spanish know how to party, and apparently they exported this tendency with them when they were colonising the world. Get to know the Hispanosphere and you'll be introduced to a montón of new celebrations that'll keep you up all night and dancing all day.
There's Día de los Reyes Magos in January, Carnaval (it's not just a Brazilian thing) in March, and San Juan in June. You can celebrate the Feast of El Salvador del Mundo in (you guessed it) El Salvador in August, Grito de Lares in Puerto Rico in September, the infamous San Fermín (running of the bulls) in Spain in July, Señor de los Milagros in Peru in October, or Día de los Muertos in Mexico in November, and the list goes on. (I told you that you're missing out.)
Whew! I'm exhausted just reading that list.
6. Get a Head Start on Other Languages
Do you want to be a polyglot? If you want to learn another Romance language once you're done with Spanish, you'll find you’ll have a big head start.
In fact, several big Romance languages are so similar to Spanish that they're largely mutually intelligible – a Spaniard and an Italian who have never studied each other's languages could still just about communicate with a bit of effort. Learn Spanish and you'll find you can understand large chunks of Italian, Portuguese, Catalan, and (to a lesser extent) French, especially in their written forms, without having ever even studied them. Is that cheating? I prefer to think of it as “more bang for your buck”.
(A common next destination after Spanish is Brazilian Portuguese – if you want to go down that route, you might enjoy this article where I explain the basic differences.)
7. Learn Some New Tricks with Your Tongue
Many learners of Spanish are intimidated by its rolled R sound, which isn't unique to Spanish by any stretch of the imagination but still is very foreign to most English-speaking tongues. (Pro tip: the single “tapped” R as in pero is not only much more common than the double “rolled” R, as in perro but much easier to pronounce).
But fear not! While some people convince themselves that they simply can't learn the rolled R and will never learn, the truth is that it's not that difficult, it just takes practice. And once you figure it out, you might find that trilling your tongue is a bit addictive. It feels so satisfying to finally nail this skill after all that practice!
8. Feed Your Language Brain
Spanish developed from the dialect of “Vulgar Latin” that was originally spoken in the kingdom of Castile, part of modern-day Spain. (This is why Spanish, español, is actually called Castilian, or castellano in the language itself in Spain, Argentina and several other countries). In the journey from veni, vidi, vici to vine, vi, vencí, Spanish mixed and mingled with a whole host of other languages and cultures, giving it some very distinctive features and vocabulary.
For example, over 4000 Spanish words have their roots not in Latin but in Arabic, thanks to the Arabic-speaking Moors who ruled what's now Spain for a whopping seven centuries. Perhaps the most famous of these words is the hard-to-translate exclamation ¡ojalá!, which roughly means “let's hope so!” or “I hope to God!” – alá, of course, being the Spanish way of writing the Arabic word “Allah”.
In fact, as Spanish was spreading to the western hemisphere during colonial times, some indigenous American words managed to make it back east: such as cancha (football field) and carpa (marquee), which both come from the native South American language Quechua.
The point is that, if you're a history or an etymology nerd, Spanish is an extremely rich language, and there's a lot to geek out on.
Spanish is descended from Vulgar Latin, and if vulgarity is your thing, Spanish can certainly help. You can start with the ubiquitous joder, which means “fuck”, and, like its English equivalent, has zillions of different uses and translations, but be sure to move on quickly, there's much more.
Again, it varies from country to country. A very common expletive in Spain is ¡hostia!, which literally means “host”, as in the communion wafer that Catholics eat at mass, and can roughly be used in the same way that a blasphemous English speaker would exclaim “Christ!” or “Jesus!”. (Cristo and Jesús aren't used this way in Spanish, although someone might say Jesús! to you when you sneeze, similar to the English “Bless you!”). If you darle la hostia (give someone the host), that roughly translates as “beat the crap out of somebody”, but if you simply say something es la hostia (“it's the host”), that means it's very good.
But that's just the tip of the obscenity iceberg. Spanish is chock-full of ways to indulge your potty mouth. ¡Joder!
10. La Tierra de la Libertad…
In all my travels, there's one Spanish-speaking country that stands out as very, well, distinctive. Spanish isn't even the official language, yet in large chunks of the country you hear it everywhere. And it's a weird dialect they have there – kind of a mix, and you'll often find people who have completely different accents even though they grew up in the same area! Maybe it's because this country is so huge and has such a rich heritage; a total melting pot of all kinds of different cultures, not just Latin ones. Whatever the case, it's an exception to point #3 above – you can get by in this country without Spanish. But if you do learn it, you'll find that it can give you a whole new perspective on this country and open many new doors.
I'm talking, of course, about the United States of America – which has over 40 million native Spanish speakers, making it the 2nd biggest Spanish-speaking country in the world, behind only Mexico – and it's likely to overtake Mexico and clinch the number one spot within our lifetimes! Who knows what the future has in store for the Spanish language, but clearly its influence is spreading fast and wide beyond its “official” borders. Maybe in the future you just won't be able to avoid it.
Spanish is so prominent in the Estados Unidos that I actually spent a whole month almost exclusively speaking it when I lived in south San Francisco city, and I use it very often here in New York.
One thing's for sure: I've heard many people say that they wish they spoke Spanish, but I've never heard anyone say that they wish they hadn't learned it. If I've inspired you to give Spanish a try, go ahead and check out this list of resources.