By Sylvan Hardy
Roughly 650 million people speak Spanish as their first or second language. Along with Mandarin (a billion speakers) and English (900 million), Spanish is one of the three most widely spoken languages in the world. It’s also one of the six official languages of the United Nations.
Spanish is the native tongue in 21 nations, not including a few that don’t have an “official” language. It’s now the second most popular business language (behind English) in the European Union.
Unlike a number of European languages, like German and French, the number of people speaking Spanish is growing rapidly.
As a matter of fact, it’s the fastest growing language in the world.
In the United States, Spanish is the second most-used language, spoken by 40 million people as a first language (which has more than doubled since 1990), another eight million who speak Spanish as their second language, and six million students who study it in high school and college. The U.S. has the world’s largest Spanish-speaking community outside Mexico (Mexico’s population is 115 million and while Spain’s with is 47 million).
The importance of speaking Spanish for expats
Closer to home, nearly 15 million Ecuadorians speak Spanish as their first language. And if you’re thinking about or planning to move here, or anywhere in Latin America, and hope to have a prayer of communicating with most of them, some knowledge of Spanish is essential.
Knowing the language of the city, country, and continent where you live simplifies, broadens, and enriches your life.
Unfortunately, there’s no magic pill that enables you to converse in a foreign language. No secret key unlocks the door to Spanish. No wizard lurks behind a curtain to grant you even your most fervent wish of speaking like a local.
Rosetta Stone alone won’t do it for you. Nor will the other computer and audio programs, grammar textbooks, verb workbooks, dictionaries and phrase books, Internet Spanish sites and daily e-letters, community-college conversation classes, private lessons with a native speaker, intensive immersion classes at a language school, watching movies with subtitles, listening to Spanish talk radio, or using Google Translator.
True, many of these can be a step along the Spanish Brick Road. The more learning programs and techniques to which you apply yourself, and the more you practice the closer you’ll get to Oz. Unless you’re a gifted linguist –and a young one at that–, you’ll need to use as many tools as you can put your hands on.
But that’s just the beginning. Then it takes old-fashioned sweat and tears (hopefully without the blood) to study and learn. It also requires overcoming your initial intimidation and embarrassment at sounding dumb when you speak. And you have to accept, and be patient with, the feeling of being lost, for quite a while.
Finally, only by talking to everyone you come into contact with, listening hard, not being ashamed to question what you don’t understand even if it takes ten repetitions, and occasionally taking a “no-English pledge,” which includes not even thinking in English, will you get good enough to feel conversant.
However, when you finally achieve the ability to communicate, however haltingly, in Spanish, there’s no feeling of accomplishment quite like it in this world. And the world expands exponentially right before your eyes.
How easy Is Spanish to learn as a second language?
It’s not like Hebrew or Arabic, where you have whole new alphabets and the vowels are dots and dashes and not even letters. It’s not like Russian, with its Cyrillic letters and complicated noun declensions. It’s not like Mandarin, which uses logograms instead of words and has 16 vowels that, combined with the 21 consonants (same as English), create more than 400 monosyllabic sounds.
On the contrary, the Spanish alphabet is almost the same as the English alphabet (with a few extra letters thrown in). Its pronunciation is almost perfectly phonetic (with the exception of a handful of silent letters). English-Spanish cognates (words that are the same or similar in both languages) abound, so you have a huge head start on vocabulary. And by virtue of your knowledge of Spanish words that have infiltrated English, Mexican-food and tapas terms for example, and the prevalence of Spanglish in our culture, North Americans already know dozens, if not hundreds, of palabras en español (Spanish words).