Before embarking on a language learning journey, it’s good to know what the potential pros and cons will be, so asking yourself “Is Spanish an easy language to learn?” definitely makes sense.
Unfortunately, there’s no straight answer to this question because it involves several factors including your native language, your experience with learning languages in general, your age, your location and specific characteristics of the Spanish language.
So, amigos, let’s start by looking at how the characteristics of each learner is likely to affect their learning journey.
A considerable factor contributing to how easy it will be to learn Latin American Spanish is the learner’s mother tongue. Spanish belongs to the language family known as “Romance languages” which, by the way, had nothing to do with how “romantic” these languages are! It includes Spanish, Italian, Romanian, Portuguese and French and the “romance” part simply refers to Rome, the ancient capital of the Roman Empire and all of these dialects evolved fairly directly from Latin.
On a practical level, it means that there are many similarities between these languages, including vocabulary, pronunciation and word order.
It’s fair to say that if your mother tongue is one of the languages we mentioned, or if it’s an idiom you speak well, that it’ll be much easier for you to learn Spanish.
The next factor is whether the learner has previously learned a foreign language, since it has been proven that as soon as you’ve mastered one foreign language, it becomes easier to tackle a second foreign language. This is because your brain has to use many of the same skills to learn the target language and those skills were already developed during the process of learning the first foreign language.
Another factor which is completely unrelated to which language(s) the learner already speaks is that of their location and social network. If you are an English speaker who has decided to spend six months in Latin America surrounded by Spanish speakers all day, every day, you will certainly learn much faster than if you’re taking two hours of Spanish class in a country where Spanish isn’t widely spoken.
However, if that is your situation, remember you can increase your exposure to the Spanish language by finding Spanish speakers to socialize with. Learning from YouTube channels, TV shows, and podcasts in Spanish will also help you immerse yourself in the language..
Lastly, what about age? This is definitely a factor that cannot be ignored, if we consider infants can easily pick up several languages at a time without much effort. Adults, on the other hand, sometimes feel like language study takes endless hours on end and progress is slow.
The reason for this? Partially due to decreased neuroplasticity from age 25 onward, as well as difficulties with concentration, all of which affect the language learning process. But don’t be disheartened: many scientists agree that the age factor is much less limiting than previously thought.
Pros of learning Spanish
We have to start this section with a little disclaimer: several of the pros mentioned below are not necessarily relevant for every single person learning Spanish, because we have chosen to focus on pros that apply to English speakers.
1. The alphabet
This might be obvious, but Spanish uses the same alphabet used in English (and most other languages). If you currently feel learning Spanish is hard, imagine learning Arabic, Russian, Chinese or Japanese which require you to learn to decipher an entirely new script or characters!
The only additional letter in the Spanish alphabet is the ñ (pronounced enye) which is in words like mañana, señorita and baño.
Cognates are words that are very similar to words in another language in terms of spelling and meaning, and often pronunciation too. Remember when we mentioned the Romance languages earlier?
It will come as no surprise that since they are linguistically related, these languages have many cognates with Spanish. However, you’ll be pleased to hear that 80% of English actually consists of words borrowed from Latin, which means that English and Spanish also share many cognates. Here are a few examples:
- organización – organization
- negociar – negotiate
- interesante – interesting
- exactamente – exactly
- problema – problem
3. Word order
Most languages follow a specific order where the subject, verb and object in sentences generally follow the same order. For Spanish, English, French, Italian, Dutch, German, Japanese and many other languages (45% of languages, in fact), this order is subject, verb, object (S-V-O). Since this order is so ingrained in how we structure our sentences, the fact that Spanish follows one of the most common word orders really makes things much easier!
4. Spanish pronunciation
Okay, that rolling double R in Spanish can be daunting, but apart from that, Spanish is a highly phonetic language, which means that pronunciation of letters (especially vowels) is consistent throughout the language, something which can’t be said about English. (Just consider how you pronounce “bear” and “fear”…)
This helps you remember and use new vocabulary quite quickly because you’ll probably pronounce new words correctly and you’ll likely also be able to discern words you hear verbally and relate them to their meaning.
So, why is Spanish so hard to understand? The fact is that all languages are hard to understand when you’re at the beginning of your learning journey, especially if it’s a language not that closely related to your mother tongue.
But don’t worry, it gets easier over time!
5. Number of Spanish speakers
Once you’ve gotten the basics of Spanish down, it’s time to practice speaking, preferably with native speakers. Did you know that there are actually more people whose first language is Spanish than English native speakers? Incredible, right?
As of 2023, there are about 411 million native English speakers versus a whopping 486 million native Spanish speakers, many of them in Latin America. Fortunately, there are also Spanish speakers scattered all over the world, so it’s not strictly necessary to pack your bags and travel to a Spanish-speaking country if you want to practice your Spanish.
Cons of learning Spanish
That list of pros probably filled you with hope and motivation, and rightly so, but let’s face it, there are some downsides to the Spanish language too. Let’s explore some of those potential pitfalls.
1. Verb conjugation
Of course, the first con had to be related to Spanish grammar, it couldn’t be any other way. To illustrate this point, we’re going to compare Spanish verb conjugations to their English counterpart. (Please note that this con is actually a lot less of an obstacle for learners who speak any of the other Romance languages!)
The big difference between verb conjugations in English and Latin American Spanish is that each verb has five verb endings to memorize in Spanish versus two verb endings in English (except for the verb “to be” in the present tense, which has three: am, are and is).
Here’s the verb hablar (to speak) conjugated in Spanish and English.
- Yo hablo (I speak)
- Tu hablas (You speak)
- El/ella habla (he/she speaks)
- Nosotros hablamos (we speak)
- Ellos/ustedes hablan (They, you (pl.) speak)
(We’ve purposefully omitted the pronoun vosotros because this is used very little in Latin America.)
Another additional factor that creates frustration for learners is the large number of stem-changing verbs.
For example, the U in the verb jugar changes to UE in the present for all pronouns except nosotros: yo juego, tu juegas, el/ella juega, nosotros jugamos, ellos/ustedes juegan. However, this does not apply to past and future tenses! Maddening, right!?
2. Verb tenses and the subjunctive mood
People often ask: what is the hardest thing to learn in Spanish? Well, it does take a while to really get the hang of the difference between the pretérito imperfecto and the pretérito indefinido but the aspect that most learners see as the last hurdle to complete proficiency is most definitely the subjunctive mood.
Verbs in most tenses can be expressed in the subjunctive mood, and they are all conjugated differently than the indicative mood, adding to the list of verb conjugations you have to learn.
The subjunctive is a gigantic beast of a topic and we won’t go into much detail here, but in a nutshell, the subjunctive is a way to express wishes, proposals, suggestions or imagined situations.
Though the use of slang is by no means limited to Spanish, there does seem to be an enormously vast array of expressions and slang in every Spanish-speaking country that can leave learners stumped until they work out the meaning of those dictionary-defying words.
Considering the local nature of slang, you might ask yourself: Can all Spanish speakers understand each other? The answer is: not always! And local expressions as well as regional accents can become barriers for communication between two native speakers.
However, this is usually resolved by the speaker resorting to a more standard set of vocabulary and slowing down their speech.
Is Spanish hard to learn for English speakers? As you read at the start, several learner characteristics contribute to whether it’s easy or hard to learn Spanish, but none of them are absolute obstacles.
Plus, we think that the pros outweigh the cons by a long shot and as with learning any new language, practice and consistency are key. Entonces, vamos muchachos, ¡que sí se puede!