The 7 Major Languages Spoken in Spain (It’s Not Just Spanish)
Believe it or not, Spanish isn’t the first language of at least several million Spaniards.
Thankfully, most Spaniards do speak Spanish, so knowing the language will serve you well around the country.
But why not find out about what else is out there?
Broadening your knowledge of Spain’s languages is a great way to expand not only your linguistic knowledge, but also your knowledge of Spanish culture.
This guide will introduce you to seven languages spoken in Spain, along with their history and culture.
- 1. Spanish: The Official Language of Spain
- 2. Catalan: The Language of Gaudí and Dalí
- 3. Galician: No, It’s Not Portuguese!
- 4. Basque: Spain’s Most Mysterious Language
- 5. Occitan: Catalan’s Endangered Cousin
- 6. Asturian: Unofficial but Unforgotten
- 7. Arabic: A Language of Spain’s Past and Present
1. Spanish: The Official Language of Spain
Number of Speakers: 45 million
Region: All regions of Spain
The Spanish language is indigenous to Spain’s central region, known as Castilla (Castile). Unlike Spain’s other languages, Spanish is spoken across the entire country.
It’s often called “Castilian” or even “Castilian Spanish” in English. These terms refer exclusively to the dialects of Spanish spoken in Spain. However, the equivalent Spanish-language terms—el castellano (Castilian) and el español (Spanish)—can be used to refer to all dialects of the language.
Nowadays, Castilian Spanish has some unique features that aren’t seen in Latin American dialects. The two most notable are the vosotros form—an informal equivalent to ustedes—and the ceceo, a phenomenon in which the letters c and z are pronounced like th (prompting other Spanish speakers to quip that all Spaniards have lisps).
2. Catalan: The Language of Gaudí and Dalí
Number of Speakers: 9 million
Region: Catalonia, Valencia and the Balearic Islands in Spain
Though often solely associated with Barcelona, el catalán (Catalan) is spoken in several areas of Spain and southern Europe. Major historical figures who spoke Catalan include artists Gaudí and Dalí.
Catalan is also the sole official language of the tiny country of Andorra and is spoken in small parts of southern France and the Italian city of Alghero.
If you already speak Spanish, learning Catalan will be a walk in the park. The two languages are very closely related, to the point where certain words are identical in both. For example, “la tortuga canta” (the turtle sings) is a valid phrase in both Spanish and Catalan, although you probably won’t ever need to talk about a singing turtle.
Though it suffered from decades of repression under the rule of fascist dictator Francisco Franco, today the Catalan language is once again thriving. It’s taught in schools, can be heard on TV and is currently playing a key role in Catalonia’s independence debate.
Those hoping to learn some Catalan can check out Memrise’s Catalan courses or even attempt Duolingo’s Catalan course in Spanish or English.
Here’s a list of basic vocabulary in Catalan:
Hola — Hello
Adéu — Goodbye
Com estàs? — How are you?
Gràcies — Thank you
Català — Catalan
3. Galician: No, It’s Not Portuguese!
Number of Speakers: 2.4 million
Known in Spanish as el gallego, Galician is spoken in the autonomous community of Galicia, the part of Spain located directly north of Portugal.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the language is very closely related to Portuguese and fairly similar to Spanish by association. In fact, Galician and Portuguese are so close that a movement known as “reintegrationism” has emerged to try to officially unite the two.
Among many other important sites, Galicia is home to Santiago de Compostela, known as the end destination of the Camino de Santiago (Way of Saint James). Most residents of the city are bilingual, so if your Galician isn’t up to scratch, you’ll always have Spanish to fall back on.
If you want to try learning Galician, try out this Galician course on Memrise. Alternatively, here’s a sampler vocabulary list:
Ola — Hello
Como estás? — How are you?
Adeus — Goodbye
Grazas — Thank you
Galego — Galician
4. Basque: Spain’s Most Mysterious Language
Number of Speakers: 700,000
Region: Basque Country in Northern Spain
Sometimes known as el vasco, Basque is spoken in el euskadi (the Basque Country), a region that encompasses parts of both northern Spain and southern France.
Interestingly enough, Basque is a rare example of a “language isolate,” meaning it isn’t known to be related to any other language. But even though it isn’t related to Spanish, Basque has contributed a large number of Spanish loanwords over the years, including izquierdo/a (left) and cachorro (puppy).
Basque nationalism is a powerful force in the Basque Country. Many locals will look favorably on those willing to take on one of the world’s most difficult languages.
If you’re curious about learning Basque, Ikasten, a website dedicated to Basque instruction, is a good place to start. Here’s a sample vocabulary list:
Kaixo — Hello
Zer moduz? — How are you?
Agur — Goodbye
Eskerrik asko — Thank you
Euskara — Basque
5. Occitan: Catalan’s Endangered Cousin
Number of Speakers: Less than 3,000
Region: Catalonia, especially Val d’Aran
If you know Catalan, then there’s another official language of Spain that you likely already understand—even though you might never have heard of it before!
Occitan is an endangered language that’s spoken in France as well as parts of Spain and Italy. Aranese is the dialect of it that’s mainly in Spain, and it’s very similar to Catalan, to the point that many linguists argue that they’re the same language.
Although Aranese is only spoken by less than 3,000 people in Spain, it’s the official language of Catalonia, which includes Barcelona, Girona, Tarragona and Lleida. Most Aranese speakers are in Val d’Aran, which is a picturesque valley that’s right in the Pyrenees Mountains.
Aranese might be endangered, but it’s doing better than many other Occitan dialects because nearly half of the people in Val D’Aran are fluent in the language! It’s taught in school, and it’s used often in everyday life.
To learn more about Occitan, check out this grammar guide. Here are some example vocabulary words in Aranese:
Adiu — Hello or goodbye (to one person)
Adishatz — Hello or goodbye (to several people)
Com vas? — How are you?
Merci — Thank you
Aranés — Aranese
6. Asturian: Unofficial but Unforgotten
Number of Speakers: 350,000
Spoken in Spain’s Asturias directly east of Galicia, el asturiano (Asturian) is a Romance language that shares many similarities with Spanish.
Sadly, Asturian today is an endangered language with just 110,000 native speakers remaining. If you add in people who speak it as a second language, the total would be around 350,000.
Though it does have some protections, Asturian isn’t an official language of Spain. However, its speakers have refused to allow it to fade into oblivion, and large demonstrations—including one in April 2018 that drew thousands of protesters—occasionally occur in support of finally giving Asturian official status.
If you’d like to help keep this wonderful language alive, Memrise has an Asturian course for beginners. Here are some essential words in Asturian:
Hola — Hello
¿Cómo tas? — How are you?
Hasta dempués — Goodbye
Gracies — Thank you
Asturies — Asturias
7. Arabic: A Language of Spain’s Past and Present
Number of Speakers: 350,000
Believe it or not, Arabic was a dominant language of the Iberian Peninsula for hundreds of years.
In the eighth century, Islamic conquerors gained control of most of Spain and Portugal. Al-Ándalus (Al-Andalus), as the territory became known, was at its peak one of the wealthiest regions of the world.
Though it’s been over 500 years since the end of al-Andalus, the period has left a significant effect on the Spanish language, as is reflected in loanwords like almohada (pillow) and naranja (orange).
Today, Arabic is once again a major language of Spain. It’s widely spoken among residents of Ceuta—which, along with Melilla, is one of two Spanish exclaves in North Africa—and increasingly by Spain’s population of Moroccan immigrants.
For more on Arabic, FluentU has an Arabic blog to help you learn the language. There’s also this list of basic words and phrases:
السلام عليكم (As-salām ‘alaykum) — Hello
كيف حالك (Kayfa hālak) — How are you? (to a male)
كيف حالكِ (Kayfa hālik) — How are you? (to a female)
مع السلامة (Ma’a as-salāmah) — Goodbye
شكرا (Shukran) — Thank you
العربية — Al-’arabiyyah — Arabic
Though Spanish, Catalan, Galician, Basque, Occitan, Asturian and Arabic are among the most prominent of Spain’s languages, there are so many more you can choose from!
Some of these, such as Extremaduran and Aragonese, are indigenous to Spain; while others, such as Romanian and Mandarin Chinese, have been brought by recent immigrants.
While Spain’s linguistic diversity may seem overwhelming, even a few words can go a long way in forging relationships with the local people.
But rest assured: Spanish is spoken all across the country and your efforts to communicate will be warmly received by Spaniards. And a resource like the FluentU language program can boost those communication skills, with the help of its diverse Spanish media clips and interactive captions.
Ultimately, it’s important to see these other languages for what they are: a way to dive deeper into Spain’s fascinating culture.
Check out this post next for a selection of surprising facts about the Spanish language: