Looking to pick up a new language but unsure if you should study Spanish or Italian? This complete guide will cover everything you need to know before you enroll in your first class.
Signing up for Spanish classes or Italian classes can seem daunting at first, especially if you don’t know much about the two. While they may sound almost identical to the untrained ear, the relationship between the two languages is somewhat complicated. Although there is some level of mutual intelligibility — that is, the ability of Spanish speakers to understand Italian speakers and vice versa — they are entirely different languages with many differences.
If you’re wondering just how similar they are, either because you already speak one and are thinking of learning the other or because you’re trying to decide which one to learn, this guide will cover everything you need to know. We’ll go into all the similarities, differences, and things to look out for (like false friends!) between these two languages.
¡Vámonos! Or, should I say, Andiamo!
Table of contents
- Is Italian similar to Spanish?
- What are the main differences between Italian and Spanish?
- Which language is easier to learn, Italian or Spanish?
- Which language will be more useful to learn?
- Italian vs. Spanish in practice
- Italian vs. Spanish: Which one should you learn?
Is Italian similar to Spanish?
Italian and Spanish are remarkably similar languages, in part because they are both Romance languages. And no, that’s not to say that they are both very romantic (although they are!) but rather because they both come from Roman times. As the Roman Empire expanded throughout Europe, Romans who spoke Vulgar Latin settled into different regions. These settlements slowly developed their own dialects, which eventually became the Romance languages we know today, like Spanish, Italian, French, and Portuguese.
According to Ethnologue, one of the most respected reference publications about languages in the world, Italian and Spanish have a lexicon similarity coefficient of .82. That means that 82% of the vocabulary of Italian and Spanish is mutually intelligible, so speakers of either language would be able to understand more than 4 out of every 5 words. That’s remarkably similar, considering that native speakers of either language can start with a massive advantage compared to a non-speaker.
Here are some other specific similarities between Italian and Spanish:
Both Italian and Spanish use modified versions of the Latin alphabet, much like English. That’s good news if you’re a native English speaker, as you won’t have to learn a whole new alphabet or writing system when learning either language. However, each language has some unique features in its alphabet.
The Italian alphabet only has 21 letters — 16 consonants and 5 vowels. The missing letters are j, k, w, x, y, and z, so you won’t find these letters anywhere except for foreign words. The Spanish alphabet, on the other hand, has an extra letter that you should be aware of. Namely, the letter Ñ/ñ (eh-nyeh) is added to the alphabet, resulting in 27 letters including 22 consonants and 5 vowels. The alphabet used to be even longer before, when the digraphs Ch/ch and Ll/ll were considered letters, but the Real Academia Española has since revoked their standing as true letters.
Both Italian and Spanish have an extensive conjugation system, so you’ll have to modify the verb depending on the person who is doing the action. This is similar to English conjugations, where the verb is modified according to the person. For example, I say something, but she says something else. The difference is that English conjugations are usually just minor variations of the word, while conjugations in Spanish and Italian tend to involve more extensive changes.
Both Spanish and Italian have two types of verb conjugations: regular and irregular. An overwhelming majority of verbs fall into the regular category, making it easy to know how to conjugate the verbs. For these kinds of verbs, all you have to do is keep the verb stem and replace the ending corresponding to the verb tense and pronoun. Fortunately, both Italian pronouns and Spanish pronouns are very similar, which also means that conjugating verbs is very similar.
Let’s take a look at the respective verbs for “to eat,” which is mangiare in Italian and comer in Spanish. They’re both regular verbs and we’ll conjugate them in the present indicative tense so you can see how they compare. We’ve bolded the verb stem in each case so you can see the part of the verb that changes.
|English||Italian pronoun||Conjugated verb||Spanish pronoun||Conjugated verb|
As you can see, regular verb conjugations follow a very methodical process: you take the verb stem and add the corresponding ending according to the verb tense and pronoun. However, this all goes out the window when dealing with either Spanish or Italian irregular verbs. For example, let’s compare the verb “to be” in Italian and Spanish. The conjugation of the verb essere in Italian is irregular, as is the conjugation of the verb ser in Spanish. With both Italian and Spanish irregular verbs, the verb stem doesn’t remain unchanged, and the endings may or may not be similar to regular verb endings. Let’s take a look:
|English||Italian pronoun||Italian conjugation||Spanish pronoun||Spanish conjugation|
Both Italian and Spanish have quite a few verb tenses. Italian has 7 modes and 21 verb tenses, while Spanish has 4 modes and 23 verb tenses. For reference, English only has 12 verb tenses, which makes both of these languages much more tense-friendly.
If this information is making you tense up, don’t worry about it too much (yet). While learning how to use verb tenses can be intimidating at first, you’ll be able to describe events with much more precision thanks to all these extra verb tenses. Want to see how? Check out this extensive guide to conjugating the verb decir in all tenses to see how verb tenses are actually your friend!
The phonemes and graphemes coincide in both Italian and Spanish, which means that words are read exactly as they are written. English, on the other hand, is an irregular language, so letters aren’t always read the same way. Take the words “call” and “cat,” for example. Looking at the IPA spelling, we can see that the “a” isn’t pronounced the same way in both words: ˈkɔl for call and ˈkæt for cat. You won’t have to worry about this with Spanish or Italian, as the pronunciation of letters stays the same across words.
Italian and Spanish are both null-subject languages, meaning that you can often omit the subject as long as the verb is conjugated correctly. As you now know, both Italian and Spanish conjugate verbs differently depending on the person doing the action. That means that specifying the subject often becomes irrelevant, as you’ll be able to tell who is doing the action based on the verb conjugation.
What are the main differences between Italian and Spanish?
They say a language is a dialect with an army and a navy, but that’s not necessarily true for Spanish and Italian. Although they do have many similarities, they are nowhere near close to being the same language, so you’ll have to keep an eye out for the following differences:
Both Spanish and Italian developed from Vulgar Latin after the fall of the Roman Empire in the 5th century. Since the Romans inhabited both present-day Spain and present-day Italian, both languages started off with the same base. However, as the lines of communication disappeared after the end of the Roman Times, both languages developed independently.
Italian as we know it today started to appear after the 7th century. The first recorded evidence of Italian was the Placiti Cassinesi, which was written in the 10th century. Soon thereafter, many of the most famous Italian classics started to appear, including Dante Alighieri’s Inferno, a 14th-century classic that remains one of the most popular books around the world.
Things were institutionalized in the 16th century when the Accademia della Crusca was founded in 1583. Also known as La Crusca, this was the world’s first language authority. It was set up by a group of academics in Florence as a way to standardize the language. The first dictionary in Italian, the Vocabolario degli Accademici della Crusca, was published in 1614 and the rest is history.
Spanish developed in a very similar pattern with one key interruption: the Moor invasion. If you’re familiar with Iberian history, then you might already know that the Iberian Peninsula was under total or partial Muslim control between the 8th and 15th centuries. This resulted in the adoption of thousands of words from Arabic into Spanish. In fact, virtually all Spanish words that begin with “al” come from Arabic, like almohada, alambre, and more.
Although Spain was fully reconquered by the Kingdom of Castile by the 15th century, this period of Muslim occupation made a longstanding impact on Spanish. Italian didn’t experience a similar period of external influence, so it doesn’t have nearly as many words of Arabic origin as Spanish.
Spanish and Italian have many different grammar rules. For example, Spanish, like English, doesn’t use articles for possessives. So, you’d say “I am in my car,” which is “Estoy en mi carro” in Spanish. Italian, however, does use articles for possessives, so you’d say “Sono nella mia macchina,” which is like saying “I am in the my car” in English. That extra “the” in there is something that Italian grammar requires, but Spanish doesn’t.
As mentioned earlier, both Spanish and Italian have very similar pronunciation rules: everything is pronounced exactly as it is written. However, there are a few pronunciation rule differences to keep track of.
Let’s take a look at the “soft c” sound, which occurs when a c is followed by an i or an e. In Italian, the soft c is pronounced as a ch, whereas the soft c is pronounced as a th in Iberian Spanish and an s in Latin American Spanish. Similarly, a soft g is pronounced as a j in Italian, but as an x/h in Spanish. You’ll have to keep track of these differences in pronunciation if you’re thinking about learning both languages.
Which language is easier to learn, Italian or Spanish?
Let’s be real, learning a new language from scratch will always be a challenge that requires commitment and dedication. However, some languages are easier to learn than others, so you might want to be strategic about which language to choose. Luckily for you, both Spanish and Italian are ranked among the easiest languages for English speakers to learn, making it a toss-up between the two.
According to the U.S. Foreign Service Institute, both Italian and Spanish are ranked in the lowest difficulty category for native English speakers. If taking full-time courses, you can expect to attain fluency in either of these languages in approximately 24 weeks.
With that said, learning one over the other may be easier for you depending on your personal circumstances. If you have any friends or family who speak one of the two languages, you may be able to practice with them and become fluent faster. Similarly, you may be able to take advantage of any local speakers in your area, as you may be able to visit a Mexican supermarket or an Italian deli to practice your new skills.
Which language will be more useful to learn?
Learning a new language can be an incredibly rewarding skill, not just as a way to enrich your personality but also as a way to make yourself more marketable to employers. Being able to speak a new language will allow you to communicate with more customers, vendors, and clients, which will make you eligible for more jobs and even negotiate higher pay. Fortunately, both Spanish and Italian are considered some of the best languages to learn for business, whether you’re looking for a new job or to strike new deals with international clients.
Italian is spoken by over 60 million people around the world, most of which are, of course, in Italy. However, there are also significant Italian-speaking populations in places like Switzerland, Malta, Croatia, Slovenia, Argentina, and the United States. Italy is also the second-largest manufacturing economy in Europe, making this an invaluable business tool for those looking to go into luxury goods or the fashion industry.
Spanish, on the other hand, is the fourth most-spoken language in the world, with well over half a billion speakers. There are 21 Spanish-speaking countries that span four continents, making this a truly global language. If you live in the United States, it’s also worth considering that there are over 40 million Spanish speakers in the country, making it the country with the second-largest Spanish-speaking population. That means you’ll be able to use Spanish at home without having to fly to a foreign country!
Italian vs. Spanish in practice
Now that you’re aware of the broad similarities and differences between Spanish and Italian, you’re probably looking for some concrete examples of what they actually look like. Below, we’ll cover over a hundred words in Spanish and Italian to see how they compare.
Similarities between Italian and Spanish
First, let’s start with noun cognates. These are nouns that have the same origin and thus sound very similar or even identical. We’ve included 50+ Spanish and Italian noun cognates to give you a solid idea of how similar they are. We’re also including the IPA spelling for all words since the spelling can sometimes make it seem like they don’t sound too similar when they actually do.
|English||Spanish||Spanish IPA||Italian||Italian IPA|
|Port||El puerto||el ˈpweɾto||Il porto||il ˈpɔrto|
|Book||El libro||el ˈliβɾo||Il libro||il ˈlibro|
|Bank||El banco||el ˈβanko||La banca||la ˈbanka|
|Music||La música||la ˈmusika||La musica||la ˈmuzika|
|Art||El arte||el ˈaɾte||L’arte||lˈarte|
|House||La casa||la ˈkasa||La casa||la ˈkaza|
|Telephone||El teléfono||el teˈlefono||Il telefono||il teˈlɛfono|
|Supermarket||El supermercado||el supeɾmeɾˈkaðo||Il supermarcato||il supermarkato|
|Coffee||El café||el kaˈfe||Il caffè||il kafˈfɛ|
|Library||La biblioteca||la βiβljoˈteka||La biblioteca||la bibljoˈtɛka|
|Disgrace||La desgracia||la ðezˈɣɾaθja||La disgrazia||la diˈzɡrattsja|
|Action||La acción||la akˈθjon||L'azione||latˈtsjone|
|Announcement||El anuncio||el aˈnunθjo||L'annunzio||lanˈnuntsjo|
|Response||La respuesta||la resˈpwesta||La risposta||la risˈposta|
|Sack||El saco||el ˈsako||Il sacco||il ˈsakko|
|Battle||La batalla||la βaˈtaʎa||La battaglia||la batˈtaʎʎa|
|Beuaty||La belleza||la βeˈʎeθa||La bellezza||la belˈlettsa|
|Beeginning||El principio||el pɾinˈθipjo||Il principio||il prinˈtʃipjo|
|Bottom||El fondo||el ˈfondo||Il fondo||il ˈfondo|
|Circle||El círculo||el ˈθiɾkulo||Il circolo||il ˈtʃirkolo|
|Color||El color||el koˈloɾ||Il colore||il koˈlore|
|Company||La compañía||la kompaˈɲia||La compagnia||la kompaɲˈɲia|
|Contest||El concurso||el konˈkuɾso||Il concorso||il konˈkorso|
|Commitment||El compromiso||el kompɾoˈmiso||Il compromesso||il komproˈmesso|
|End||El fin||el ˈfin||La fine||la ˈfine|
|Contact||El contacto||el konˈtakto||Il contatto||il konˈtatto|
|Cube||El cubo||el ˈkuβo||Il cubo||il ˈkubo|
|Death||La muerte||la ˈmweɾte||La morte||la ˈmɔrte|
|Dream||El sueño||el ˈsweɲo||Il sogno||il ˈsoɲɲo|
|Business||La empresa||la emˈpɾesa||L'impresa||limˈpreza|
|Entrance||La entrada||la enˈtɾaða||L'entrata||lenˈtrata|
|Force||La fuerza||la ˈfweɾθa||La forza||la ˈfɔrtsa|
|Government||El gobierno||el ɣoˈβjeɾno||Il governo||il ɡoˈvɛrno|
|Heat||El calor||el kaˈloɾ||Il calore||ilkaˈlore|
|Hope||La esperanza||la espeˈɾanθa||La speranza||la speˈrantsa|
|Tongue||La lengua||la ˈlenɡwa||La lingua||la ˈlinɡwa|
|Language||El lenguaje||el lenˈɡwaxe||Il linguaggio||il linˈɡwaddʒo|
|Life||La vida||la ˈβiða||La vita||la ˈvita|
|Love||El amor||el aˈmoɾ||L'amore||laˈmore|
|Machine||La máquina||la ˈmakina||La macchina||la ˈmakkina|
|Number||El número||el ˈnumeɾo||Il numero||il ˈnumero|
|Person||La persona||la peɾˈsona||La persona||la perˈsona|
|Plant||La planta||la ˈplanta||La pianta||la ˈpjanta|
|Politics||La política||la poˈlitika||La politica||la poˈlitika|
|Remedy||El remedio||el reˈmeðjo||Il remedio||il reˈmɛdjo|
|Thanks||Las gracias||laz ˈɣɾaθjas||Le grazie||ˈle ˈɡrattsje|
|Thing||La cosa||la ˈkosa||La cosa||la ˈkɔza|
|Truth||La verdad||la βeɾˈðað||La verità||la veriˈta|
|Value||El valor||el βaˈloɾ||Il valore||il vaˈlore|
|War||La guerra||la ˈɣera||La guerra||la ˈɡwɛrra|
|Wealth||La riqueza||la riˈkeθa||La ricchezza||la rikˈkettsa|
|Weight||El peso||el ˈpeso||Il peso||il ˈpezo|
|World||El mundo||el ˈmundo||Il mondo||il ˈmondo|
|Word||La palabra||la paˈlaβɾa||La parola||la paˈrɔla|
Like noun cognates, verb cognates are action words that sound very similar. Here are 50+ Italian and Spanish verb cognates:
|English||Spanish||Spanish IPA||Italian||Italian IPA|
|To be able to||Poder||poˈðeɾ||Potere||poˈtere|
|To enjoy oneself||Divertir||diβeɾˈtiɾ||Divertire||diverˈtire|
|To allow to||Permitir||peɾmiˈtiɾ||Permettere||perˈmettere|
|To put together||Armar||aɾˈmaɾ||Armare||arˈmare|
|To be born||Nacer||naˈθeɾ||Nascere||ˈnaʃʃere|
|To come into||Entrar en||enˈtɾaɾ en||Entrare in||enˈtrare in|
Differences between Italian and Spanish
As you already know, Italian and Spanish are very similar. However, that doesn’t mean that all words are the same. There are many words that are completely different in both languages, so you won’t be able to fully understand both languages just by learning one. Below, we’ll go over some of the most common vocabulary words that are different in Spanish and Italian.
Words that are completely different
After covering 100+ words that are almost identical in Spanish and Italian, you might be surprised to hear that there are words that not only aren’t identical but are actually quite different. Here are 35 examples of words that sound nothing alike in Spanish and Italian:
|English||Spanish||Spanish IPA||Italian||Italian IPA|
|Pillow||La almohada||la almoˈaða||Il cuscino||il kuʃˈʃino|
|Bed||La cama||la ˈkama||Il letto||il ˈlɛtto|
|Tablecloth||El mantel||el manˈtel||La tovaglia||la toˈvaʎʎa|
|Apple||La manzana||la manˈθana||La mela||la ˈmela|
|Cucumber||El pepino||el peˈpino||Il cetriolo||il tʃetriˈɔlo|
|Pepper||La pimienta||la piˈmjenta||Il peppe||il peppe|
|Living room||La sala||la ˈsala||Il soggiorno||il sodˈdʒorno|
|Watermelon||La sandía||la sanˈdia||L’auguria||lau̯ˈɡurja|
|Fork||El tenedor||el teneˈðoɾ||La forchetta||la forˈketta|
|Tomato||El tomate||el toˈmate||Il pomodoro||il pomoˈdɔro|
|Cup||El vaso||el ˈβaso||Il bicchiere||il bikˈkjɛre|
|Apology||La disculpa||la ðisˈkulpa||La scusa||la ˈskuza|
|Ball||La bola||la ˈβola||La palla||la ˈpalla|
|Cleanliness||La limpieza||la limˈpjeθa||La pulizia||la pulitˈtsia|
|Trust||La confianza||la komˈfjanθa||La fiducia||la fiˈdutʃa|
|Develpment||El desarrollo||el desaˈroʎo||Lo sviluppo||ˈlo zviˈluppo|
|Discovery||El descubrimiento||el deskuβɾiˈmjento||La scoperta||la skoˈpɛrta|
|Equality||La igualdad||la jɣwalˈdað||L'uguaglianza||luɡwaʎˈʎantsa|
|Expenses||Los gastos||loz ˈɣastos||Le spese||ˈle ˈspeze|
|Food||El alimento||el aliˈmento||Il cibo||il ˈtʃibo|
|Future||El futuro||el fuˈtuɾo||L'avvenire||lavveˈnire|
|To give advice||Aconsejar||akonseˈxaɾ||Consigliare||konsiʎˈʎare|
|To ask for||Pedir||peˈðiɾ||Chiedere||ˈkjɛdere|
|To be amazed by||Asombrarse||asomˈbɾaɾse||Stupirsi||stuˈpirsi|
Just as there are hundreds of cognates in Spanish and Italian, there are also many false cognates. Also known as “false friends,” these are words that sound like something in one language but mean something completely different in another. For example, “burro” means butter in Italian (yum!), but “burro” means donkey in Spanish (yuck!). Don’t make a silly mistake by confusing some of these fake friends!
|Spanish||IPA||Spanish meaning||Italian||IPA||Italian meaning|
|Guardar||ɡwaɾˈðaɾ||To keep||Guardare||ɡwarˈdare||To look at|
|Salir||saˈliɾ||To go out||Salire||saˈlire||To go up|
|Parar||paˈɾaɾ||To stop||Parare||paˈrare||To adorn|
|Sembrar||semˈbɾaɾ||To sow||Sembrare||semˈbrare||To seem|
|Subir||suˈβiɾ||To go up||Subire||suˈbire||To endure|
|Tener||teˈneɾ||To have||Tenere||teˈnere||To hold|
|Demandar||demanˈdaɾ||To sue||Domandare||domanˈdare||To ask|
|Prender||pɾenˈdeɾ||To light||Prendere||ˈprɛndere||To grab|
|Esposar||espoˈsaɾ||To handcuff||Sposare||spoˈzare||To marry|
Italian vs. Spanish: Which one should you learn?
Ultimately, both Italian and Spanish are wonderfully romantic and useful languages to learn. You should learn the language that appeals most to you, as being excited about the learning process will dramatically increase your chances of sticking to it through mastery.
If you’re looking for the most pragmatic choice, then learning Spanish is surely it. Not only are there almost 10 times as many speakers of Spanish but it’s also spoken across four continents and in almost two dozen countries.
However, the choice will be tied to your personal goals, motivation and drives, and at the end of the day, it’s just that – YOUR choice. If you’re driven by matters of the heart and have a stronger connection to all things Italy, then you do you!
Still unsure about which language to pick? Take a look at our Spanish blog and our Italian blog to keep learning about these beautiful languages. We cover all types of content, from how to wish someone a Merry Christmas in Spanish to writing an expert cover letter in Italian. Give our articles a look to see which one resonates with you more and, if you’re still undecided, don’t hesitate to take a few classes of each to see which one you like best!