A student of mine, whose native language is Portuguese, asked me an interesting question the other day.
“If I have to choose between studying Spanish and studying English, which one will be easier for me to learn?”
Have you ever wondered that?
Well, my answer was: “It depends.”
There are several factors that determine how fast and with how much effort you are going to learn another language.
What Does Foreign Language Learning Depend On?
- Your Native Language
In the case of Enzo, my Brazilian student, Spanish will surely prove much more effortless than English. Portuguese and Spanish are very closely related, so he will learn it in no time. If he were Korean or Chinese, for instance, he would have a much harder time.
- Your Exposure to The Language You Are Learning
I’ve learned English at school, back in Poland, and it took me years to become fluent in it. That’s because my contact with this language was limited to a few hours a week.
Spanish, however, was much faster for me to learn. Not only did I have a solid base of French (another Romance language, quite similar to Spanish), but since I was already living in Chile, it was like a 24/7 Spanish immersion program. Within a few months, I was able to hold daily conversations and make new friends.
- Your Natural Gift for Languages
Some people are simply more skilled at languages, and they learn almost effortlessly. For others, it implies years of hard work, strong motivation, and perseverance.
- How Many Language You Already Speak
If you already speak at least one foreign language, each subsequent one will get easier and easier. Your brain has already adjusted to recognize more than one language, and you can take advantage of your previous experience.
As you can see, everything that has to do with learning a new language is very subjective, making it impossible to decide which of the two – Spanish or English – is easier.
What we can do, though, is to compare both languages and see what the similarities and the differences between them are.
Spanish vs. English – Similarities
Let’s start with a couple of simple examples to help us to analyze what these two languages have in common:
🇪🇸 La democracia es el sistema político más común en el mundo.
🇬🇧 Democracy is the most common political system in the world.
🇪🇸 Las tradiciones y las costumbres de esta nación son muy interesantes.
🇬🇧 This country’s traditions and customs are very interesting.
So, what do these sentences tell us about Spanish and English?
Both Languages Use the Same Alphabet
You might not realize how important it is, but imagine the extra work you would have to put in if you were learning a language that uses a whole different script (Russian, Chinese, Japanese, Thai, etc.).
Luckily with Spanish, you won’t have this problem, as the only letter that is unique and does not exist in English is “ñ.”
Similar sentence structure
Another feature that makes Spanish relatively easy to learn for native English speakers is that it retains a very similar syntax (word order). You can see that clearly in the examples above.
And I have even better news! In Spanish, you tend to be less rigid than in English about the position of the subject. Take a look:
🇪🇸 Llegó Pedro.
🇪🇸 Pedro llegó.
Both of them translate as “🇬🇧 Pedro came” and are equally correct in terms of grammar.
Would you like to see more examples like that?
🇪🇸 El doctor le está esperando.
🇪🇸 Le está esperando el doctor.
🇬🇧 The doctor is waiting for you.
🇪🇸 El pastel lo hizo Juana.
🇪🇸 Juana hizo el pastel.
🇬🇧 Juana made the cake.
Typically, the more flexible a language is in terms of its syntax, the easier it is to start speaking it.
Let’s go back to the first set of examples. If you take a look at the last two sentences (the one about democracy and the one about tradition), you will immediately see how similar they sound in English and Spanish.
That’s right. Common vocabulary (especially that originating from Latin and Greek) is a valuable wild card for English speakers when they study Spanish.
Those similar words are called “cognates,” and you can find long lists of them on the Internet.
Shared Grammar Rules
When the grammar of a foreign language is very different from your own, the process of learning it gets long and exhausting.
Fortunately, it is not the case with Spanish! It has so many similarities to English:
- they both use articles
- they have similar tenses (present, past, future)
- they both recognize the same subject pronouns (I, you, he, she, etc.)
- they both use adjectives and adverbs in almost the same way
- In most cases, Spanish prepositions (en, dentro, detrás, frente de, etc.) can be easily translated into English.
Trust me, similar grammar and structure that make logical sense to you are huge advantages when learning a foreign language.
Spanish vs. English – Differences
Of course, Spanish and English are not exactly the same. When you compare them, you can also spot certain important differences.
Let’s have a look at another set of examples and then name a few of them.
Problems with Literal Translation
🇪🇸 Tengo hambre.
🇬🇧 I am hungry. (literal: I have hunger)
🇪🇸 ¿Cuántos años tienes?
🇬🇧 How old are you? (literal: How many years do you have?)
🇪🇸 Está lloviendo a cántaros.
🇬🇧 It’s raining cats and dogs
These sentences demonstrate that literal translation between English and Spanish is not always possible. For instance, Spanish uses the verb tener (to have) when referring to being hungry or being of a certain age.
Be careful then when translating from your language. Your message may come out as confusing or plain ununderstandable to native Spanish speakers.
🇪🇸 Yo hablo francés, y mi hermana habla alemán. Hablamos muchos idiomas en mi familia. Y vosotros, ¿cuántos idiomas habláis?
🇬🇧 I speak French, and my sister speaks German. We speak many languages in my family. And how many languages do you speak?
🇪🇸 No puedo levantar esta mesa solo. ¿Puedes ayudarme?
🇬🇧 I can’t lift this table by myself. Can you help me?
Another challenge that you will encounter on your path to fluent Spanish is verb conjugation.
Unlike English, where verbs hardly conjugate at all, Spanish requires every verb to adjust its form depending on the subject and tense.
- 🇪🇸 Siempre tomo leche. – 🇬🇧 I always drink milk.
- 🇪🇸 Tú también tomas leche. – 🇬🇧 You drink milk, too.
- 🇪🇸 Ayer no tomé leche. – 🇬🇧 I didn’t drink milk yesterday.
- 🇪🇸 Pero mañana seguro que la tomaré. – 🇬🇧 But tomorrow I will drink it for sure.
See? All these verb forms might really give you some headache.
The Use of Auxiliaries and Subject Pronouns
🇪🇸 No sé dónde están mis llaves.
🇬🇧 I don’t know where my keys are.
🇪🇸 ¿Adónde fuiste anoche?
🇬🇧 Where did you go last night?
🇪🇸 ¿Qué le dirás a tu señora?
🇬🇧 What will you tell your wife?
🇪🇸 ¿Cómo lo supiste?
🇬🇧 How did you find out?
🇪🇸 A mi hija no le gustan las princesas.
🇬🇧 My daughter doesn’t like princesses.
Whenever you make a negative statement or a question in English, you use auxiliaries:
1. 🇬🇧 Do you like ice cream?
2. 🇬🇧 Does he live here?
3. 🇬🇧 Where did you buy it?
4. 🇬🇧 What will you do?
5. 🇬🇧 Would you help me?
In this way, you don’t have to worry about adjusting verb forms – the auxiliary contains all the necessary information for the listener to understand your message.
In Spanish, however, the use of auxiliaries is much more limited, and in most cases, it is the VERB itself that shows the other person what tense you are using and what person you have in mind.
Those same five questions will look like this in Spanish:
1. 🇪🇸 ¿Te gustan los helados?
2. 🇪🇸 ¿Él vive acá?
3. 🇪🇸 ¿Dónde lo compraste?
4. 🇪🇸 ¿Qué harás?
5. 🇪🇸 ¿Me ayudarías?
Another big difference between English and Spanish has to do with the use of subject pronouns. Since verbs hardly change their form in English, you will always have to accompany them with the correct subject pronouns to convey an understandable message.
In Spanish, on the other hand, all the information is in the verb and its form. Therefore, you can easily skip the subject pronoun.
You don’t have to say “Yo duermo” – I sleep. It’s enough just to say “duermo.”
Gender and Adjective Position
🇪🇸 Busco una falda verde.
🇬🇧 I am looking for a green skirt.
🇪🇸 Todas tus carteras son muy elegantes y caras.
🇬🇧 All your handbags are very elegant and expensive.
🇪🇸 Me gustan las casas modernas y espaciosas.
🇬🇧 I like modern and spacious houses.
Ok, so what do we get from these three sentences?
The first difference is instantly visible: Spanish adjectives go after the noun they describe, and not before like in English.
From my experience, it is one of the most common confusions English speakers have when learning Spanish.
What will happen if you say verde falda instead of falda verde? The other person will instantly know you are not a native speaker, but they will still understand what you say.
A little less “obvious” difference is related to the noun and adjective gender in Spanish. All things are either masculine or feminine in this language!
🇪🇸 una manzana – 🇬🇧 an apple – is feminine (the article “una” indicates its gender)
🇪🇸 un escritorio – 🇬🇧 a desk – is masculine (the article “un” indicates its gender)
How crazy is that, right?
Well, it might look weird to you, since in English, only humans and animals have gender, but hey, each culture understands language differently.
Following the same pattern, Spanish adjectives have gender as well. They change their form and number according to the noun they describe.
🇪🇸 un lago pequeño (masculine)
🇬🇧 a small lake
🇪🇸 una flor pequeña (feminine)
🇬🇧 a small flower
🇪🇸 unos zapatos caros (masculine and plural)
🇬🇧 expensive shoes
🇪🇸 unas blusas caras (feminine and plural)
🇬🇧 expensive blouses
Yes, you’ve read correctly.
Despite a large number of words that look similar and mean the same in both languages, there are also many false friends (false cognates) – words that only look similar but have a totally different meaning.
🇪🇸 una carpeta – is not a carpet but 🇬🇧 a folder
🇪🇸 una tarjeta – is not a target but 🇬🇧 a card
🇪🇸 dinero – is not a diner but 🇬🇧 money
🇪🇸 el éxito – is not the exit but 🇬🇧 success
🇪🇸 embarazada – is not embarrassed but 🇬🇧 pregnant
🇪🇸 una fábrica – is not a fabric but a 🇬🇧 factory
Don’t get overconfident when you see a familiar-looking word. Better check its meaning in a dictionary before you start using it. Otherwise, these “false friends” can get you in trouble!
Exclamation and Question Marks
The last difference that I’d like to mention is of no great importance, but it is good to keep it in mind.
Whenever you write an exclamation or a question in Spanish, make sure to put an inverted “¡” and “¿” at the beginning of the sentence.
Why? It is simply a punctuation rule that is different than in English. For some reason Spanish speakers like to know beforehand whether the upcoming sentence is a question or an exclamation.
Who is the winner then in the battle Spanish vs English? Which of the two is easier to learn?
As I said before, it will depend on your individual case, but in terms of grammar structures English is definitely simpler than Spanish.