Are you considering learning Spanish, but aren’t sure if you can handle it?
Every year, millions of people decide to make the jump and start learning a new language. However, an overwhelming majority of them fail to reach a basic level of fluency, even after years of classes. This leads many people to think that learning a new language is an impossibly difficult project to undertake, and thus steer clear from fulfilling their dream of becoming bilingual.
In most cases, though, people don’t fail to learn a language because of the difficulty level. After all, more than half of the world’s population is bilingual, so picking up a new language isn’t an overwhelmingly difficult skill to acquire. Instead, inexperienced students may not know how to approach a new language, which can make learning it seem too hard to figure out.
So, if you feel like you’re holding yourself back from learning Spanish because you think it’s a difficult language to learn, then keep reading. We’ll go into the details of whether learning Spanish is as hard as it seems, what makes it difficult (or not), and how to learn Spanish the easy way.
Table of contents
- Is Spanish hard to learn?
- Spanish is one of the easiest languages to learn for English speakers
- 5 similarities between Spanish and English
- 10 reasons you might still find it hard to learn Spanish
- How can you make learning Spanish as fast and easy as possible?
- FAQs on learning Spanish
Is Spanish hard to learn?
Spanish is not a hard language to learn for English speakers. In fact, Spanish is one of the easiest languages for English speakers to learn, along with other romance languages like French and Italian. According to the U.S. Foreign Service Institute, Spanish is a “Category 1” language, which is the easiest category of language for English native speakers. This means that you can learn Spanish faster than Category 2–5 languages.
Spanish is one of the easiest languages to learn for English speakers
If you’re looking to learn a new language that won’t require too much effort, then Spanish just might be your best bet. Not only is Spanish one of the easiest languages for English speakers to learn but there is also an abundance of study resources and options available. You can learn Spanish from the comfort of your home with online lessons or self-paced online courses, which can make learning Spanish easier than ever.
5 similarities between Spanish and English
If you haven’t taken Spanish classes before, you might not be aware of just how similar Spanish and English are. Although English comes from the family of Germanic languages and Spanish comes from the family of Romance languages, they’re both part of the Indo-European languages. Because of that, there are some pretty significant similarities between the two languages. Here are some of the main ones:
1. Spanish uses the same alphabet
The Spanish alphabet is almost exactly the same as the English alphabet. The only difference is that Spanish has one extra letter: Ñ/ñ. This letter makes the ɲ sound, which is similar to the gn in “lasagna.” This is a very common letter in Spanish, and it’s even in the name of the language: Español!
2. Spanish and English have many cognates
Even if you’ve never studied Spanish before, you already know many words in Spanish. How could that be, you might ask? Well, that’s because Spanish and English have thousands of cognates, which are words that sound very similar in both languages. In many cases, the words are exactly the same and will be instantly recognizable, such as animal or actor.
These noun cognates can give you a significant head start on your Spanish learning journey, as you will have to spend no time adding them to your vocabulary. Here are some of the most common Spanish and English noun cognates:
3. Similar punctuation and capitalization rules
English and Spanish share very similar punctuation and capitalization rules. In general, only proper names of people, places, and things are capitalized in both languages. This is different from other languages, like German, that capitalize all nouns and have distinct capitalization rules.
Punctuation in Spanish is also similar to English, albeit with one interesting difference: inverted question and exclamation marks. Spanish questions and exclamation sentences start with an upside-down question or exclamation mark, mostly because asking questions in Spanish doesn’t change the general structure of the sentence. Questions in English always start with question words, while Spanish sentences don’t have to. That means that the inverted exclamation point at the beginning of the sentence is your first sign that you’re about to read a question.
Still have questions about Spanish question marks? Check out our guide with 111 interesting Spanish questions to ask if you’re looking for more examples.
4. Similar sentence structures
Both English and Spanish follow very similar sentence structures. Namely, both languages revolve around the Subject-Verb-Object (SVO) sentence structure, so Spanish grammar isn’t too different from English grammar. For example:
As you can see from the sample sentences above, Spanish follows the same general pattern as English. Of course, there are some sentence structures in Spanish that don’t exist in English, but the most basic structures are the same.
5. Similar pluralization rules
English and Spanish pluralize nouns by adding an -s or -es at the end. This makes it very intuitive for English speakers to turn single nouns into plural nouns. Although this might sound like a minor similarity, pluralizing nouns can be complicated in many languages.
The only difference is that Spanish articles change when the noun is plural, whereas the English article “the” stays the same regardless. Here are some examples:
10 reasons you might still find it hard to learn Spanish
Despite all these similarities between English and Spanish, they are still significantly different languages. Learning Spanish is still a significant commitment that will require many hours of study — and one or two headaches along the way. Although learning Spanish (or any language!) can be challenging at times, overcoming these difficulties is part of why becoming fluent in a foreign language is so rewarding.
Here are some of the most common difficulties native English speakers face when learning Spanish.
1. Verb conjugations
Spanish verb conjugations are often cited as the hardest part of learning the language. If you’re a native English speaker, then you’re not completely unfamiliar with verb conjugations. You know that you eat, but someone else eats. You know that you ate breakfast this morning and have eaten many delicious things on your travels through Latin America. The way verbs change according to the person doing the action and the verb tense is what verb conjugation means.
However, Spanish verb conjugation is among the most comprehensive in the world. Verbs can take on dozens of forms depending on the verb tense and person, which means you’ll have to memorize dozens of different versions of each verb you study. While regular verbs follow predictable patterns that can make this much easier, there are hundreds of irregular verbs in Spanish that will require individual attention.
To get a more complete example of what we mean, check out our guide to conjugating “decir” in all tenses.
Spanish pronunciation can be one of the trickiest things to nail for non-native speakers. Let’s start with the positives. Unlike English, Spanish only has one phoneme per letter. That means that all letters are pronounced the same regardless of their location in the word.
For example, have you noticed how the “a” in ball and cactus sound very different in English? That’s because the letter “a” alone can have up to nine phonemes in English! Well, that’s not the case in Spanish, as each letter only has one phoneme! There are very few exceptions to this rule, namely diphthongs and triphthongs, but those don’t take a lot of effort to master.
Now, for the bad part. Spanish has hundreds of difficult words to pronounce. Nailing the Spanish accent can be difficult for native English speakers, especially since many phonemes don’t exist in English, like Ñ/ñ and the rolled R. This can make it notably difficult for English speakers to achieve native-like pronunciation.
3. Spanish accent marks
Native English speakers won’t be too familiar with accent marks. Perhaps you’ve used them before in borrowed words like résumé or fiancée, but English doesn’t have an accent mark system. That can make Spanish accent marks a bit intimidating at first since the accent mark can change the entire meaning of certain words.
However, once you’ve gotten a hang of how the Spanish accent mark system works, you’ll be very grateful for it. Unlike other languages that require you to memorize which words have an accent mark and in which letter, Spanish uses a very logical system to determine which words get one and where it goes.
First, you should know that only vowels can get an accent mark in Spanish. Second, there can only be one accent mark per word, as only the stressed syllable gets it. Third, there is a system for establishing which stressed syllables get an accent mark and which ones don’t. So, as long as you know how to parse words into syllables, you will know how to pronounce any word as long as you can read it because you will be able to tell which syllable is stressed — whether it has an accent mark or not!
4. Gendered nouns
You may have heard before that Spanish is a gendered language, which means that all nouns have a linguistic gender. For example, in Spanish, chairs are female and couches are male. If you’re a native speaker, you might be wondering: who cares? After all, you’re not going to hurt the feelings of inanimate objects if you don’t get the gender right. Well, it’s a bit more tricky than that.
Not getting the gender of a noun right is one of the clearest giveaways that someone isn’t a native speaker. That’s because articles, pronouns, and adjectives must all agree with the noun's gender. For example:
|The flower is pretty.
|La flor es bonita.
|la flohr ess bo-nee-ta
|la ˈfloɾ ˈez βoˈnita
|The tree is pretty.
|El árbol es bonito.
|elle are-boll ess bo-nee-toe
|el ˈaɾβol ˈez βoˈnito
As you can see in the example above, there are two important differences here according to the gender:
- There are different versions of the article “the,” namely “la” for feminine nouns and “el” for masculine nouns.
- Most adjectives have different endings depending on the adjective, such as “bonita” for feminine adjectives and “bonito” for masculine adjectives. Some adjectives, like “grande,” stay the same for both genders.
As you might imagine by now, most nouns that end in -a are feminine and most that end in -o are masculine. However, many nouns break this rule and don’t fall into either category, so you will have to memorize the gender of most nouns.
5. Different forms of “you”
Spanish has two forms of addressing people: formal and informal. When addressing most people, you will use the informal “tú” form, but you’ll want to use the formal “usted” when addressing people you owe deference to or want to show respect to. Simple enough, right? The problem is that the type of pronoun you use will also affect the sentence structure as well as the verb conjugations.
Let’s take a look at some examples:
|How are you?
|¿Cómo está usted?
|How are you?
|Do you want water?
|¿Le puedo ofrecer un vaso con agua?
|May I offer you a glass of water?
|Qué bien te ves.
|You look so good.
|Qué bien se ve usted.
|You look so good.
As you can see in the above examples, using the formal mode involves more than just swapping out the pronouns. Sometimes, you’ll have to use different verbs and even a completely different sentence structure to address someone formally. On top of that, there are also the cultural considerations of when addressing someone formally is appropriate and when it might be overkill. That’s why this is often a tricky topic for non-native speakers.
6. The verb “to be”
The verb “to be” is such an essential part of any language that it must be one of the first things people dominate when they start studying Spanish, right? Well, not quite. Spanish is unique in that it uses two verbs to express the verb “to be”: ser and estar. The difference is quite subjective and could easily become the topic of a philosophical discussion.
In general, you want to use the verb “ser” for things that are difficult to change or integral to one’s character. For example:
|I am Mexican.
|We are architects.
|Arizona is hot.
|Arizona es caluroso.
|ah-ree-zo-nah ess cah-loo-roh-soh
|aɾiˈθona ˈes kaluˈɾoso
The verb “estar,” on the other hand, is used to describe things that could change relatively quickly, like mood, the weather, and locations. Here are some examples:
|I am sick.
|We are in the library.
|Estamos en la biblioteca.
|ess-tah-moss ehn la bee-blee-oh-teh-cah
|esˈtamos en la βiβljoˈteka
|It is raining.
These are just a few differences between these two verbs, so make sure to check out our guide to “ser” vs. “estar” for a full breakdown of these fascinating Spanish verbs!
7. The subjunctive
Dominating the subjunctive mood is one of the hardest parts of learning Spanish — even for native speakers. It is used to express things that could happen, you wish would happen, or doubt would happen. English also has a subjunctive mood, such as when you say, “I wish I were taller” or “If I had a dime every time I heard that,” but it’s much less common and much more straightforward.
In fact, the Spanish subjunctive is used in many ways, which can confuse speakers. Some of the most common uses of the subjunctive include:
- Expressing desire
- Expressing necessity
- Expressing emotion
- Passing judgment
- Expressing wishes
- Expressing doubt or uncertainty
The subjunctive form changes the conjugation of the verb and modifies the sentence structure. Most Spanish subjunctive sentence structures follow the “que + [verb]” pattern. Here are some examples:
|I don’t want you to go to work.
|No quiero que vayas a trabajar.
|noh key-air-oh keh vah-yahs ah tra-bah-hahr
|ˈno ˈkjeɾo ˈke ˈβaʝas a tɾaβaˈxaɾ
|I hope they have tasty food in the cafeteria.
|Espero que haya comida rica en la cafeteria.
|ess-peh-roh keh ah-yah coh-me-da ree-cah ehn la cah-feh-teh-ree-ah
|esˈpeɾo ˈke ˈaʝa koˈmiða ˈrika en la kafeˈteɾja
|I don’t think it’s her.
|No creo que sea ella.
|noh kreh-oh keh seh-ah eh-ya
|ˈno ˈkɾeo ˈke ˈsea ˈeʎa
8. Spanish slang
Spanish slang can be one of the hardest or one of the best things about Spanish, depending on who you ask. With hundreds of millions of speakers across dozens of Spanish-speaking countries, it’s no surprise that there’s such a rich slang vocabulary.
Here are some Spanish slang words that you likely won’t find in your Spanish textbooks:
- Cool: bakan, bárbaro, chido, chévere, buena onda
- Money: plata, lana, feria, baro, cobre, billete
- Friend: parce, compa, cuate, pana, pata, carnal, tío
So, what’s the best way to learn Spanish slang? By immersing yourself in the language! If possible, go to a Spanish-speaking country and make as many friends as you can. You’ll learn some fun slang in no time. Otherwise, watch movies and TV shows from different countries! Netflix has a wide selection of movies and shows from Spain and many Latin American countries, so don’t let your geographical location stop you from learning slang!
9. False friends
While it’s definitely a good thing that English and Spanish have so many cognates, it can also be deceiving. Some words in Spanish appear to be very similar to English words, but they actually don’t mean the same thing. This could result in embarrassing mistakes, such as saying you’re “embarazada” (pregnant) when you mean you’re embarrassed!
Here are some of the most common false friends between English and Spanish:
|To be embarrassed
|To be pregnant
|To complete something
|A great deal
10. Different accents
Spanish is an official language in more than 20 countries, from Europe to South America and even Africa. As such, there are many different Spanish accents that you will have to learn to recognize and understand. Some accents sound similar enough that you won’t have to pay too much attention to the differences, while others will use different pronouns and verb conjugations.
For example, people in Spain use the second-person plural pronoun “vosotros,” while most people in Latin America use the pronoun “ustedes.” On the other hand, Argentina uses the second-person singular pronoun “vos,” while almost everyone else uses the pronoun “tú.” These changes will result in different verb conjugations, which can make it tricky for a non-native speaker to follow.
How can you make learning Spanish as fast and easy as possible?
If you’ve considered all the similarities and differences between English and Spanish and feel like you’re ready to start learning, we’ve got the best tips to help you learn Spanish in no time.
Increase your comprehensible input
Increasing your comprehensible input is one of the best things you can do to learn a new language quickly. What this means is simply exposing yourself to more Spanish at a level that you can understand. The beauty of this is that there are many ways to increase your comprehensible input, like reading graded readers, watching TV shows and movies for learners, and listening to podcasts.
A study published in the education journal System compared groups of students who used graded readers to study with those who didn’t. It found that the group that used graded reading as a study strategy had significantly outperformed the other group in vocabulary tests.
Immerse yourself in the language
The fastest way to pick up a new language is to take the plunge and immerse yourself in the culture. If at all possible, consider relocating to a Spanish-speaking country, if only temporarily. Although making such an important move can be scary, having the courage to immerse yourself in a foreign environment will pay off tremendously.
The Berlitz Method
At Berlitz, we understand the importance of immersion in any language learning program. That’s why our main teaching philosophy, the Berlitz Method, has centered language immersion since 1878. For close to 150 years, we have helped countless language learners attain fluency through our three main principles:
- Immersion. Your teacher will only address you in your target language.
- Goals. Each lesson has clearly defined goals so you can walk away with helpful phrases that you can use right away.
- Performances. Presenting and role-playing with your instructor will allow you to internalize what you have learned.
Be intentional with your learning
Once you get started with Spanish, you might never want to stop. It can be easy to get a little too excited and want to devour all your vocabulary and grammar textbooks, leaving no stone unturned. However, you must not forget that even native speakers don’t know everything, and there’s no shame in being selective with what you study.
For example, if you’re looking to do business in Spanish, then you should focus on learning business terms and skills, like how to write an email in Spanish. If you’re a medical professional looking to serve your Spanish patients better, then learning the parts of the body and some medical terminology will be essential.
Use spaced repetition software for learning vocabulary words
There was a time when making flashcards was one of the most effective vocabulary acquisition methods. Today, we have spaced repetition software (SRS). There are many apps and online tools that work essentially as a smart flashcard system.
You first make your own flashcard deck (or import one from the internet!) and then study as you normally would with a regular flashcard deck. The difference is that the SRS will ask you to grade how well you can remember a word, and it will magically sort the deck so you study the cards you have a harder time remembering.
That way, you’ll spend less time working on words you already know and maximize the time you spend hammering out those difficult words! Anki is one of the most popular SRS apps among language learners everywhere, and it’s completely free!
Make friends and have fun!
As you now know, Spanish isn’t a hard language to learn. However, as with all languages, it does require a significant time commitment. That’s why the biggest reason why people stop learning Spanish isn’t that it’s too hard for them but rather because they don’t want to put in the hours required to learn it.
So, how can you make sure you stay the course? By making studying fun!
Here are some examples of helpful and fun study strategies:
- Make friends: Speaking with native Spanish speakers is one of the best ways to improve your Spanish quickly. Try attending a language meetup to make new friends, have a great time, and practice your Spanish at the same time!
- Watch Spanish media: From Spain to Latin America, there are countless TV shows, movies, and telenovelas that you will surely love.
- Sign up for dance lessons: With Spanish music taking over the world, you can likely find a local dance studio to learn reggaeton, bachata, cumbia, salsa, or any other Spanish dance style.
FAQs on learning Spanish
How long does it take an English speaker to learn Spanish?
According to the US Foreign Service Institute, it takes approximately 660 class hours to learn Spanish. Accounting for another 2–3 hours of self-study per class hour, we get a grand total of 1,980–2,640 hours to study Spanish. Studying part-time at just 20 hours a week would result in up to 132 weeks, equivalent to about 31 months. Studying full-time would take 66 weeks or about 15 months.
Can I learn Spanish in 3 months?
Spanish takes more than three months to learn. Taking the most conservative approach of 1,980 hours to learn Spanish, it would take just under a full year of full-time study. However, you can still learn a lot in three months, especially if you immerse yourself in a Spanish-speaking environment.
Am I too old to learn Spanish?
You are never too old to learn Spanish. The main reason why there is a common misconception about losing our ability to learn new languages as we age is that it used to be believed that neuroplasticity — our brain’s ability to form new neural pathways — significantly diminished after age 25.
However, new studies have found that neuroplasticity doesn’t stop after 25. This suggests that there might be sociological rather than neurological reasons that make us think that adults have a harder time learning a new language. For example, work obligations might prevent adults from spending enough time in the classroom to learn a new language.
How many words do you need to be fluent in Spanish?
At a bare minimum, you need around 2,500 words to have conversations in Spanish. This will allow you to discuss most topics, albeit in a simple and somewhat unsophisticated way. Natives speak between 10,000 and 20,000 words depending on formal education levels, so you’ll need at least 10,000 words to approach the levels of native speakers.
What type of Spanish should I learn?
A good rule of thumb is to study Spanish from Spain if you plan to spend most of your time in Spain, and Spanish from Latin America if you’re going to spend most of your time in Latin America. The truth is, all Spanish accents are mutually intelligible, so you won’t have too hard of a time communicating with people who speak a different version of Spanish. So, even if you learned Spanish in Buenos Aires and picked up an Argentine accent, you’ll still be able to communicate with people in Spain, Mexico, and anywhere else.
How can I improve my Spanish pronunciation?
The best way to improve your Spanish pronunciation is to practice speaking as much as you can, ideally with a native speaker. If you are speaking with friends, let them know that you are trying to improve your Spanish pronunciation so they can stop you if you pronounce something incorrectly.
Other ways to improve your Spanish pronunciation are:
- Read out loud and pay close attention to accent marks
- Practice your vowels to get rid of the English vowel sounds
- Hammer out the rolled R
Ready to start learning Spanish?
Now that you know all the advantages and disadvantages that you have as an English speaker learning Spanish, you’re in a great spot to dive head-first into this exciting new language. Remember that learning Spanish isn’t about pure intelligence but rather about consistency. As long as you find your study rhythm and stick to it, you’ll be able to learn Spanish with ease!
If you want to learn more about Spanish and how it compares to English, why not take a look at a few more Spanish blog posts? You can check out a blog on flowers in Spanish, or perhaps learn a few ways to ask “What’s your name?” in Spanish!