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The languages of Spain

The languages of SpainSaying that everyone in Spain speaks Spanish would be a statement as simple as saying that all Spaniards do siesta, eat paella and drink sangría. While this may be true for many Spaniards, it is not accurate for all of them.

Even though Spain is a very small country, it is culturally and linguistically diverse. There are many differences between North, South, East, and West, and official languages play an important role in highlighting these regional differences.

The most prominent of the languages in Spain is Spanish, which nearly everyone in Spain can speak as either their first or second language. However, Spain has recognized five "official languages": Castilian (also called Spanish), Catalan, Basque, Galician, and Aranese. Part of the Spanish population is bilingual and in some areas even trilingual.

Throughout its history, Spain was invaded by several different civilizations (Celts, Phoenicians, Greeks, Carthaginians, Romans, Visigoths and Moors) and, as a result, each distinct region of Spain developed its own dialect. Many of these dialects went on to become official languages.

Galician is the language spoken in Galicia, an autonomous community located in northwestern Spain. Galician is derived from Vulgar Latin. Galician and Portuguese were, in medieval times, a single language and they still share many common grammatical features. Galician is spoken by about 3 million people.

Catalan is also a Roman language. It is spoken in the Spanish autonomous communities of Catalonia, the Balearic Islands, and in the Valencian Community, where it is known as Valencian. Approximately 9 million people in Spain speak Catalan.

Basque or Euskara is the ancestral language spoken in the Basque Country, an autonomous community in Northern Spain. Though geographically surrounded by Indo-European Romance languages, Basque is classified as a language isolate. It is the last remaining pre-Indo-European language in Western Europe. About 1 million people speak this language.

Aranese is a variety of the Occitan language spoken in the Aran Valley, which is located in northwestern Catalonia on the border between Spain and France. There, it is one of three official languages along with Catalan and Spanish.

The following table demonstrates the regional differences of Spanish by showing how four common phrases would be translated in each of the unique regions:






Do you speak English?

¿Hablas inglés?

Falas inglés?

Parles anglès?

Ingelesez hitz egiten al duzu?

Two beers, please

Dos cervezas, por favor

Dúas cervexas, por favor

Dues cerveses, si us plau

Bi garagardo, mesedez

Excuse me










The survival and development of these languages in Spain was not always easy. Francisco Franco, the head of state of Spain from the late 1930s until his death in 1975, used language in politics in an attempt to establish national homogeneity. He promoted the use of Spanish and suppressed other languages such as Catalan, Galician, and Basque. The legal usage of languages other than Spanish was forbidden. A transition to democracy began in the last quarter of the 20th century, after Franco’s death.

All official languages and the identities associated with them began a process of recovery and recognition. They now play an important role in the cultural and political life of each region. Culture, language, and politics are closely related in Spain. Each of the regions that has its own official language tries to promote its identity and a feeling of unique regionalism using their language as the foundation on which to build this sense of self. It is importance that we recognize and pay tribute to these distinctive dialects so they continue to thrive and contribute to the world’s linguistic diversity.

[Thanks to Rocío Abelleira for writing this article.]

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