spanish-vs-italian

Spanish vs. Italian: Differences and Similarities

Do you speak Italian and wonder if it will be of any help once you start learning Spanish?

Or perhaps you already speak Spanish and are toying with the idea of taking up Italian classes? 

Or maybe you can’t make up your mind about which of the two is more recommendable for you to study?

For someone who doesn’t know much about either Spanish or Italian, they sound and spell quite similar. One could even say they are two different dialects of the same language.

Is this opinion real, or is it rather farfetched? Let’s t find out together.

Spanish vs. Italian – Similarities

  • they are both Romance languages derived from the so-called “vulgar” Latin.
  • they share a lot of vocabulary and many grammar rules
  • to some extent, they are mutually intelligible
  • they have the same vowel sounds

The fact that two languages belong to the same family means that they share many common elements. According to experts, the similarity level between Spanish and Italian is about 80%, which implies that if you speak one of these two languages, it should be much easier for you to learn the other one. 

As a matter of fact, even though I don’t speak Italian, my Spanish allows me to follow Italian subtitles or read texts in that language with a surprising level of understanding.

A word of clarification, though: because of differences in pronunciation, I don’t do that well with understanding spoken Italian.

 It is proven, however, that two people (one speaking Spanish and the other one Italian) could make themselves understood as long as they pronounce clearly and speak slowly enough. Some gestures and body language will surely help as well! 

For those of you who have at least some notions of Spanish, here are some words and phrases that look very similar in Italian:

SpanishItalianEnglish
🇪🇸 Buenas noches
🇪🇸 Gracias
🇪🇸 Por favor
🇪🇸 ¡Buen viaje!
🇪🇸 ¿Qué hora es?
🇪🇸 Me llamo…
🇪🇸 ¡Salud!
🇪🇸 ¡Te amo!
🇪🇸 fin de semana
🇪🇸 El gato duerme
🇪🇸 Tu casa es grande
🇪🇸 No importa
🤌 Buona notte
🤌 Grazie
🤌 Per favore
🤌 Buon viaggio!
🤌 Che ore sono?
🤌 Mi chiamo…
🤌 Salute!
🤌 Ti amo!
🤌 fine settimana
🤌 Il gatto dorme
🤌 La tua casa è grande
🤌 Non importa
🇬🇧 Good night
🇬🇧 Thank you
🇬🇧 Please
🇬🇧 Have a good trip
🇬🇧 What time is it?
🇬🇧 My name is…
🇬🇧 Cheers
🇬🇧 I love you
🇬🇧 weekend
🇬🇧 The cat sleeps
🇬🇧 Your house is big.
🇬🇧 It doesn’t matter

It is truly impressive how much alike they are, isn’t it?

On the grammar level, there are also plenty of things Spanish and Italian have in common. 

They both recognize the gender of nouns and adjectives, e.g.:

  • 🇪🇸 un pantalón negro – Spanish
  • 🇮🇹 un pantalone nero – Italian
  • 🇬🇧 black pants
  • 🇪🇸 una puerta negra – Spanish
  • 🇮🇹 una porta nera – Italian
  • 🇬🇧 a black door

In both of them, verbs divide into equivalent 3 categories

These are: (-AR / -ER / -IR in Spanish vs -ARE / -ERE / -IRE in Italian) and follow similar conjugation patterns:

  • 🇪🇸 (Yo) corro – Spanish
  • 🇮🇹 (Io) corro – Italian
  • 🇬🇧 I run
  • 🇪🇸 (Nosotros) esperamos – Spanish
  • 🇮🇹 (noi) aspettiamo – Italian
  • 🇬🇧 we wait
  • 🇪🇸 (ella) escribe – Spanish
  • 🇮🇹 (lei) scrive – Italian
  • 🇬🇧 she writes

In both languages, personal pronouns can be omitted

It is because verbs change their form to indicate the subject. This is why I used brackets to enclose the pronouns in my previous examples. 

Both Spanish and Italian recognize different formality levels:

🇪🇸 ¿Cómo estás (tú)? – informal Spanish, used in conversations with friends or family
🇮🇹 Come stai (voi)? – informal Italian
🇬🇧 How are you?

but

🇪🇸 Señor, ¿Cómo está (usted)? – formal Spanish
🇮🇹 Signore, ¿come sta (lei)?? – formal Italian
🇬🇧 How are you, sir?

As you can see, there is plenty to rely on when you want your Spanish to help you progress quickly in Italian or the other way around.

Yet, let’s not forget about what separates these two languages.

Spanish vs. Italian – Differences

Once you start digging deeper into the language structure you will soon spot things that don’t match:

Italian has only one form of the verb “to be” – “essere”, while Spanish has two: “ser” and “estar”.

SER describes permanent states and facts

🇪🇸 Soy médico – Spanish
🇮🇹 Sono un medico – Italian
🇬🇧 I am a doctor

ESTAR describes temporary conditions, locations, feelings, and moods:

🇪🇸 Estoy triste – Spanish
🇮🇹 Sono triste – Italian
🇬🇧 I am sad

See? For the Spanish “soy” and “estoy” there is only one equivalent in Italian: “sono”. 

Vocabulary differences concerning the so-called “false cognates” can lead to confusion and misunderstandings. 

Here are a few examples:

“pronto” means “soon” in Spanish and “ready” in Italian
“burro” means “donkey” in Spanish and “butter” in Italian
“gamba” means “prawn” in Spanish and “leg” in Italian
“topo” means “mole” in Spanish and “mouse” in Italian
“barato” means “cheap” in Spanish and “cheated” in Italian

Incredible, isn’t it? The exact same words with such different meanings. 

Similar looking words can also be misleading sometimes:

Spanish subir (“go up”) has nothing to do with the Italian subire, which means “to suffer”.

salir in Spanish means “to go out”, but salire in Italian translates as “to ascend, to climb”

What’s the lesson here? Be careful and don’t rely too much on word similarities between two languages. It is better to check twice than to mistake a donkey for butter ;).

Differences in past tense structure:

The most common Spanish past tense is Pretérito Indefinido (simple, with no auxiliary) while in Italian you’d use a so-called “composed” tense, equivalent to the English “have + past participle”.

The Italian verbs “essere” and “avere” appear here as auxiliaries:

Here are a few examples for you to realize the difference:

SpanishItalianEnglish
🇪🇸 Fui al cine ayer.🇮🇹 Ieri sono andato al cinema.🇬🇧 I went to the cinema yesterday.
🇪🇸 Comí pasta anoche.🇮🇹 Ho mangiato la pasta ieri sera.🇬🇧 I ate pasta last night.
🇪🇸 El domingo vimos una película.🇮🇹 Domenica abbiamo visto un film.🇬🇧 We saw a movie on Sunday.
🇪🇸 Finalmente (ellos) no vinieron. 🇮🇹 (Essi) non sono venuti infine.🇬🇧 In the end, they didn’t come. 

Pronunciation differences 

For an untrained ear Spanish and Italian sound very similar, especially when it comes to vowels. When switching from one to the other you’ll mostly hear a change in melody – Italian pronunciation is very sing-songy. 

Yet, with a more detailed comparison, clear differences emerge. The most important ones are related to the following letters:

in Spanish (Latin American)in Italian
C + e, icenadinner the letter C sounds like S in soupcena dinner – the letter C sounds like CH in child
G + e, igelgel the letter G sounds like H in hairgelato ice cream – the letter G sounds like J in jam

***

I hope this summary has helped you to better understand the differences between Spanish and Italian. 

In case you wonder if you’ll get confused when trying to learn both of them at the same time, the answer is “probably you will, but only at the beginning”. 

In the long run, you’ll realize that you are making progress much faster, and the rules you’ve learned for one of these two languages do, in many cases, apply to the other one as well. 

There are even some who believe that all the 5 romance tongues (French, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish, and Romanian) should be studied together instead of separately.

Wouldn’t it be great to get 5 for the price of 1? 🙂

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Joanna Lupa

Joanna Lupa

Polish by birth, Chilean by the turns of life. Has spent 20 years in that beautiful South American country working as a language teacher and translator. Has taught Spanish and English to students of all proficiency levels. Passionate about languages, books, and traveling. A mother of 2 trilingual teenagers.

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