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Is Spanish hard to learn?

Berges Institute • Sep 27, 2023 • 6 minutes
Updated Sep 28, 2023
Is Spanish hard to learn?
The Graf Method for Spanish Language

Download a PDF version of The Graf Method for Spanish Language, Vol.1 for free!

In this volume, we discuss the alphabet, definite and indefinite articles, and verbs ser and estar, among other topics.

Learning a second language takes time and effort, but it can also be highly rewarding. Spanish is the official language of 20 countries, and it’s the most commonly learned second language in the United States. 

How hard is it to learn Spanish?

Learning any language is hard

All languages have verbs and nouns. Verbs are words that convey actions. Nouns are words used to name inanimate objects, living creatures, places, or ideas. In order to be able to communicate in any language, you need three basic things, and this is universal for all languages:

  1. You need to be able to use the verbs properly. This can include learning the language’s inflection rules that determine how verbs need to be modified to be used in different tenses, aspects, or any other grammatical categories. The complexity of these rules can vary a lot between different languages.
  2. You need to know at least 2,000 nouns, and ideally 8,000+.
  3. You need to know the syntax of the language and know how to use prepositions, conjunctions, and other linking words.

The further the language is from a language you already speak, the harder it will be

In addition to the universal basics, each natural language will have its own set of difficulties. These are not absolute, but relative. For example, if your first language uses noun declension (i.e. you have to modify nouns based on their grammatical case), learning a second language that also does this will be easier. If your first language and the language you want to learn are phonetically and/or grammatically similar, this will obviously make the process easier. 

No language is easy to learn in absolute terms. Its differences with your first language will be the determining factor.

Is Spanish particularly hard for English speakers?

Yes and no. English and Spanish are both part of the Indo-European language family, but they come from two completely different branches. Spanish comes from Latin, which is part of the Italic subgroup, while English is a West Germanic language. That said, modern English uses the Latin alphabet, and even though it belongs to the Germanic branch, it takes a big portion of its vocabulary from Latin. So Spanish and English are very different, but they also have a lot in common.

Infographic showing some modern languages in the Indo-European family along with their branches.

Examples of some modern languages in the Indo-European family along with their branches

Things that make Spanish hard for English speakers

You have to memorize a lot of verb conjugations

In English, grammatical-person-based verb inflections are fairly simple. With most verbs, in the present tense, we have to add an S at the end if we are using the third-person singular. I play => He plays. I work => She works. This does not happen in the past tense (he played) or the future tense (he will play). 

In Spanish, we have to memorize the conjugations for each grammatical person in each single tense, as they are all unique. This requires an important memorization effort. For example, in the present tense, the conjugations for cantar, to sing, would be:

Yo canto (I sing)

Tú cantas (you sing)

Él/ella canta (he/she sings)

Nosotros/nosotras cantamos (we sing)

Vosotros/vosotras cantáis (you all sing)

Ellos/ellas cantan (they sing)

In English, the past tense for to sing is just sang. In Spanish, again, we’ll have a different version for each grammatical person: 

Yo canté (I sang)

Tú cantaste (you sang)

Él/ella cantó (he/she sang)

Nosotros/nosotras cantamos (we sang)

Vosotros/vosotras cantasteis (you all sang)

Ellos/ellas cantaron (they sang)

Object pronouns are complicated

Some languages have noun declension: you have to modify nouns to match the grammatical case. In Peter calls Mary, you’d have to modify the actual words Peter and Mary to show that they are the subject (the one doing the action) and the object (the one receiving it) respectively.

This doesn’t happen in English or Spanish (thankfully, can you imagine?). It does happen both in English and in Spanish with pronouns. If we want to replace Peter with a pronoun, we’ll have to use he. We cannot use him because Peter is the subject. In the same way, if we want to replace Mary with a pronoun, we’ll have to use her. We cannot use she because Mary is the object.

In Spanish, the same thing would apply: Peter calls Mary. He calls her. Peter llama a Mary. Él la llama.

So both languages behave similarly. No noun declension, but we do have to use different pronouns for subject and object. In this case a direct object. The difficulty comes when we introduce indirect objects. Some verbs can take two objects, one of them usually being an inanimate thing (the direct object) and the other one a person (the indirect object). Some examples would be to give or to show. You give things to people, you show things to people. If Peter gives something to Mary, in English we’ll still use he and her as the pronouns: He gives her something / gives something to her. In Spanish, for indirect objects, we have a different pronoun in the third person. For he calls her we say él la llama, but for he gives her something we say él le da algo.

The subjunctive is tricky

The subjunctive is not a tense, but a mood. It is, basically, an alternate version of a tense that has to be used instead of the standard one under certain conditions. It is sometimes described as a special verb form that expresses unreality, but this is not really accurate. It is not really about semantics. It is a structural construction that needs to be used when a certain subjunctive trigger happens. In a post-hoc analysis, we can see that some of these triggers express unreality, but it is not universal.

Let’s see an example: 

My Mom doesn’t believe I did my homework.

In Spanish, a subordinate clause after the verb creer (to believe) in negative form must use the subjunctive. Instead of saying hice for I did, which is the standard past tense, we’ll have to use hiciera, which is its subjunctive alternative.

Mi madre no cree que yo hiciera la tarea.

Things that make Spanish easy for English speakers

Spanish tenses match English tenses, for the most part

Tenses are verb variations that express a time reference. Some languages are tenseless, and the time of the action is marked in some other way, like using adverbs. English and Spanish have past, present, and future tenses, and they are used similarly. 

We use the present for facts and habits, as in vivo en Boston (I live in Boston) or voy al gimnasio los lunes (I go to the gym on Mondays).

We use the past tense for things that happened at a specific point in time in the past: el jueves pasado a las cinco llamé a Juan (last Thursday at five I called Juan).

We use the future tense for things that will happen in the future: el próximo domingo llamaré a Javier (next Sunday I will call Javier).

Spanish is phonetically narrower

Spanish only has 5 main vowel sounds and about 20-22 consonant phonemes, give or take. English has nearly 20 vowel sounds, and about 25 consonant phonemes, depending on definitions. This objectively makes Spanish less phonetically complex. 

Even though there are some Spanish phonemes not present in English that are often hard to pronounce for anglophones (like the rolling R), it’s usually easier for English speakers to pick up the basic Spanish phonetics than the other way around.

A dictionary showing the phonetic spelling of the word 'dictionary'.

Written Spanish is good at representing the actual sound of the language

Spanish, unlike English, has a highly phonemic orthography. This means that written Spanish tries to consistently give the reader a fairly phonemic representation of the language. This grapheme (symbols)-phoneme (sounds) correspondence only makes sense within the scope of a language, but the fact is that if you learn how most Spanish sounds are represented using letters and accent marks, you’ll be able to read words you haven’t seen before effortlessly, as it’s relatively easy in Spanish to infer the pronunciation of any given word by reading it. 

Written English, on the other hand, is highly non-phonemic. The word read will be pronounced differently in the examples I always read the newspaper and yesterday I read the newspaper. There’s nothing in the word itself that indicates to us that it should be pronounced in one way or another.

Phonemic orthographies make the process of learning how to read and write in a second language much easier.

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