If you’re traveling to Spain for the first time, it’s essential to know about the local language. Unfortunately, many people assume that there is only one main language in Spain – Spanish! But the truth is, there are many different languages spoken in Spain. In this article, we’ll talk about the official and unofficial languages in the country, as well as a few language tips to help make your travels as comfortable as possible.
What Languages Are Spoken in Spain?
Spain has five official languages spoken throughout the country, including Spanish (or Castilian), Catalan, Galician, Basque, and Aranese. Spanish is the most popular language, spoken by roughly 99% of the population. 17.5% of the population also speak Catalan, while 5.6% have Galician as their first or second language.
Along with Spanish, you might hear a few other languages during your trip to Spain. And while they may sound similar at first, there are a few distinct differences between the county’s official languages.
With over 500 million speakers, Spanish is the 2nd most spoken native language in the world (after Mandarin Chinese). Around 99% of Spanish citizens speak Spanish as their first or second language. Therefore, it’s regarded as the main official language of the country.
While traveling, you’ll notice that most businesses and signs are in Castilian Spanish. However, Spanish has several dialects itself, including Andalusian, Canarian, and Murcian.
Catalan is the second most widely spoken language in Spain (it’s also spoken in some regions of Italy, France, and Andorra). It’s the official language of Catalonia (in addition to Spanish), the Balearic Islands, and the Valencian Community.
At first glance, Catalan may sound a lot like Castilian Spanish. However, it’s important to recognize that it’s a distinct language and not just a dialect. That’s because there are many different dialects of Catalan as well.
For example, people in Barcelona speak central Catalan, people in the Balearic Islands speak Balearic Catalan, and people in the Valencian Community speak Valencian.
The two main spoken languages in Galicia (northwestern corner of Spain) are Spanish and Galician. It shares many similarities with Portuguese, which should not come as a surprise given the proximity of the two places. More people in Galicia speak Galician at home compared to Spanish.
If you travel to the Basque country, you’ll probably hear Basque spoken by the locals. It’s the official language of the entire region, although only about half the population speaks it as their mother tongue.
Unlike the other official Spanish languages, Basque is not a romance language. In fact, it’s an isolated language not related to any other language in the world! In addition, there are six main dialects of Basque, each of which has a different vocabulary, grammar structure, and pronunciation.
As the native language of only 2,800 people (.007% of the Spanish population), Aranse may be hard to come by during your travels. It’s really only spoken in the Aran Valley, a small region on the border with France.
Other Languages Spoken in Spain
In addition to the five official languages, Spain also has several minority languages that are recognized in the country. Many of these languages are confined to certain regions and are therefore not widely spoken by a large population.
For example, Aragonese is a medieval language that is spoken by around 50,000 people in the Pyrenees. Austrian is one of the main languages in Asturia, which has roughly 450,000 speakers (native and second-language). Spain also has a number of declining or endangered languages and dialects, including Benasquese, Cantabrian, and Leonese.
With over 6 million immigrants (13% of Spain’s population), you also might hear a number of foreign languages. English is the most popular foreign language in the country, followed by French, Romanian, Italian, Portuguese, and German.
Language Tips for Traveling to Spain
Spain is a fascinating country that all travelers should visit at least once in their lifetimes. In fact, it’s the 2nd most visited country in the world, with the majority of travelers coming from the United Kingdom, Germany, France, and Italy. Whether you’re exploring the city or hitting the beaches, there are a few language-related things to keep in mind to help make your trip as enjoyable as possible.
Don’t Expect People to Speak English
You might be surprised to learn that the majority of Spanish citizens don’t speak a lick of English (almost 60% of them!). On top of that, an additional 35% of locals would say that their English isn’t very good.
Although young Spaniards are more fluent (it’s starting to become mandatory in school), you’ll find that older generations or people in rural regions only speak their own language. However, people in the tourism industry or in big cities like Barcelona or Madrid are more likely to speak English. This also applies to the resort towns along the Costa del Sol, Canary Islands, and Ibiza.
The last thing you want to do is be an ignorant tourist who gets frustrated by the lack of English spoken in a foreign country. Remember – you are in their country. Even if you aren’t a Spanish speaker, using this opportunity to learn a few words can help you tremendously during your travels.
Learn a Few Helpful Phrases
Even if you’re traveling in a touristy area with many English speakers, it will still be helpful to speak a few words of Spanish. Not only will this allow you to immerse yourself in the Spanish culture, but it will also be highly appreciated by the locals.
Here are a few basic Spanish phrases that can help you navigate the country:
- Yes – Si
- No – No
- Hello – Hola
- Thank you – Gracias
- Please – Por Favor
- How are you? – Cómo estás?
- Where is…? – Dónde Está…?
- Do you speak English? – Hablas Inglés?
- Good morning – Buenos días
- Good afternoon – Buenas tardes
- Good evening – Buenas noches
- I don’t understand – Yo no comprendo
In addition to learning the basic greetings, it is also important to know words to help you ask for directions, order in a restaurant, or go shopping at the market.
If you are planning to travel to rural or remote parts of the country, you might need to pick up a few more words or phrases to get by. Taking a Spanish course or class before your trip can significantly improve your language speaking skills by the time you arrive in Spain. You may also choose to learn Spanish using one of the many language learning apps out there (we can recommend Duolingo and Babbel).
It will also be helpful to carry around a Spanish-English dictionary or to download a translating app like Google Translate. This can make communicating with locals either (without forcing you to memorize as many words or phrases as your brain can handle!).
Download Google Translate
As we just mentioned, Google Translate is an amazing tool that can help you get around Spain (or practically any other country for that matter!). Not only can it translate words, phrases, and sentences, but it also has a few other nifty features you might find helpful.
Google Translate also has the ability to speak whatever phrases or sentences you type into it. Not only can this help improve your pronunciation, but it can also be used to communicate with other people.
Simply press the speaker button after typing in a sentence and let the app speak to the locals for you!
We also love that the app can translate images using text recognition software! This is extremely useful if you’re in a restaurant with a non-English menu or if you’re trying to read signs or instructions around the city.
Just open the app, click the camera icon, and the image will translate into your desired language in real-time! This can also work with still photos too.
Don’t Be Afraid to Speak!
It’s perfectly normal to feel self-conscious about speaking another language. Maybe you’re worried people won’t understand your pronunciation or that you’ll use the wrong grammar structure or word gender (yes – Spanish nouns have genders!).
However, there are a few simple steps you can do to help you overcome second-language anxiety.
- Practice speaking in front of a mirror
- Record yourself speaking
- Use flashcards or flashcard apps to help with memorization
- Speak slowly and clearly
One of the most important things to remember is that it’s okay to make mistakes! You’re not a native speaker, and the locals understand that. They don’t expect travelers or foreigners to speak perfectly, and the majority of them are patient and willing to help you while you’re practicing.
Talking with native speakers is one of the best ways to improve your language skills. And the more you speak with others, the more confident you’ll feel about your abilities.
Join English Tours
Even if you don’t speak Spanish, you can still have a wonderful time exploring the beautiful country of Spain. As one of the biggest tourist destinations in the world, Spain sees its fair share of non-Spanish speakers and has developed a robust tourist industry. Therefore, there are numerous ways to experience the culture and see the main sights and attractions even as an English speaker.
If you’re traveling to a large city like Madrid, Barcelona, Valencia, or Seville, you’ll likely find English-speaking tours for various activities.
Many walking tours, food tours, nature tours, history tours, etc., are conducted in English, giving you a taste of some of the best things Spain has to offer.
If you prefer something more personalized, you can also hire a personal English tour guide or driver. They can craft a unique itinerary based on your interests while also providing information, insights, and history to help you better understand the culture.
Don’t forget that most people in the hospitality and tourism industry will have some level of English. So don’t be afraid to ask them questions or for advice!
When is the Best Time to Visit Spain?
Choosing when to visit Spain will likely depend on what you’re planning to do during your visit. Weather-wise, spring is a popular time for city dwellers, cultural lovers, and beach goers.
The temperature isn’t too hot or humid, and there are a number of exhilarating festivals to take part in, including Holy Week, April Fair, and Feria de Caballo.
Fall is another good time to visit. Although you can expect a few rain showers, the weather is generally warm and pleasant throughout the country. However, there are quite a few bank holidays during this time, which means there will be fewer activities going on.
Summer is peak time for vacationers, especially around the coast and on the islands. This is the most crowded, most expensive, and most humid time to visit. August is also vacation time for many Spaniards, so it’s not uncommon for family-run shops and restaurants to close down during this time.
If you’re on a budget, winter can be a great time to visit. Although this is the coldest time of year, it’s surprisingly still manageable especially compared to other European countries. Beaches won’t be open, but you can still enjoy the cities, museums, and cultural opportunities around the country. And you’ll have no problem finding cheap flights or accommodation!
How Many Days Do I need in Spain?
Spain caters to all types of travelers. You can go for a weekend getaway in the city, a weeklong vacation on the coast, or a multi-week adventure around the country. If you’re staying in one location or city, you should plan to spend at least three days in Spain (this could be longer if you’re visiting a big city like Barcelona or Madrid).
With one week or more, you’ll be able to see multiple places in the country. Some popular one-week itineraries include Madrid and Barcelona, Seville and Granada, or Malaga and Marbella.