Imagine walking along picturesque cobblestone streets seemingly untouched by time.
A visit to Toledo, Spain, can easily turn this fantasy to reality.
In Spain, you can also walk in the footsteps of Cervantes’s Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, nibble tapas on the shore and check out the profoundly interesting architecture of Antonio Gaudí.
Think all of this magic couldn’t get any better? You’ll also have luscious Castilian Spanish (castellano) singing in your ear!
Whether you’ve never heard of this dialect before, or you’re already weak at the knees and anxious to learn it yourself, you’re in the right place.
Below we’ll uncover the main characteristics of Castilian Spanish, plus show you the best online resources and real-world content for learning the most widely spoken language in Spain.
The Ultimate Guide to Learning Castilian Spanish
What Makes Castilian Spanish Unique?
Castilian Spanish is the oldest dialect of the language, and from it all other variations of Spanish emerged. Over its existence, many unique aspects of the accent have developed. Some of the quirks you’ll encounter in Castilian Spanish are as follows.
In Spain, vosotros is the informal second person plural subject, basically meaning “you all” or “you guys.” Consider it the informal version of ustedes. In Spain, vosotros is used daily among family or friends.
If you’re not used to seeing, using or conjugating the vosotros form, this fabulous guide will get you all up to speed.
Many of you may have heard of “the Spanish lisp,” which is formally known as ceceo. The “lisp” refers to the fact that most Spaniards say the soft “c” and the letter “z” with a “th” sound: /θ/.
You know a “c” is soft in Spanish when it’s followed by either an “e” or “i,” like in the words cebra (zebra) and diciembre (December). A hard Spanish “c,” on the other hand, makes a sound somewhat like a “k,” in the combinations “ca,” “co” or “cu.”
So the soft “c” and “z” are pronounced like an “s” in other Spanish-speaking countries (seseo), but as “th” in Castilian Spanish (ceceo).
Forvo.com (linked to cebra and diciembre above) is a fantastic tool for hearing this difference. Type in any Spanish word, and you’ll see multiple audios of that word, all recorded by native speakers. Each recorded pronunciation tells you if it’s a man or a woman speaking, as well as their country. So just look for “Spain” to hear the ceceo, and compare it with any other Spanish-speaking country to hear the seseo.
Then, of course, try saying the words after the Castilian Spanish speakers to start getting used to it.
Here are some additional words you can listen to on Forvo, and then try saying yourself:
This list will just get you started—don’t stop there! Throughout the rest of this post you’ll learn of many other sources to hear real-world Castilian Spanish. Dedicate many listening sessions only listening for the ceceo. Jot down these words so you can look them up on Forvo and practice yourself afterwards.
To learn more about the theories regarding the origin of ceceo, check out About Spanish.
What is leísmo, you ask? Princess Leia’s name in Spanish? Another quirky part of the Castilian accent? Nope, leísmo is the frequent use of le to replace a human male direct object. It’s not technically correct, but it happens all the time in everyday spoken castellano.
We’re going to break it down for you, don’t worry: If you recall from standard grammar, singular masculine direct objects can be replaced by the pronoun lo.
So, if I tell you that I haven’t seen Barack in forever, you might reply that, actually, “Michelle saw him yesterday.” We would normally translate that sentence as:
Michelle lo vio ayer.
She saw who? Him (Barack). So “him” is our direct object, replaced by the direct object pronoun lo.
Le, on the other hand, is an indirect object pronoun. It’s used to replace the third person singular indirect objects “him,” “her” and “you-formal,” and answers the questions “to whom?” or “for whom?” (Hint: That means it always replaces a person.)
In the sentence “Barack gave flowers to Michelle,” for example, Michelle would be the indirect object. Barack gave what? Flowers. (Flowers = direct object.) To whom? Michelle. (Michelle = indirect object.)
You following? (You can refresh all your pretty pronouns here, by the way, which is a good idea if you’re having any trouble up to this point. Because we’re about to flip things sideways.)
In Castilian Spanish, though, to say our original sentence, “Michelle saw him yesterday,” you’ll usually hear:
Michelle le vio ayer.
Even though “Barack” is a direct object, and even though it should normally be replaced by lo, they’ll say “le.” This happens so much in spoken castellano when the direct object refers to a human male that the Real Academia Española actually now considers le an acceptable direct object pronoun in that single case.
Make sure you know the correct rule first, and then start breaking it to speak true Castilian!
Specific vocabulary and slang
As with many other dialects of Spanish, there are some words used in Castilian Spanish that aren’t used, or which have different meanings, in Latin American Spanish.
There are tons of comprehensive lists of Castilian slang terms like this one, this one and this one. Definitely give those a read, but to get you started, here are a few words you’ll hear on the Iberian Peninsula, followed by their partner terms in Latin American Spanish (AmL).
- coche (car) | AmL: carro/auto
- coger (un taxi) (to take) | AmL: tomar (un taxi)
- conducir (to drive) | AmL: manejar
- gafas (eye glasses) | AmL: anteojos
- piso (apartment) | AmL: apartamento
- patata (potato) | AmL: papa
- móvil (cell phone) | AmL: celular
- ordenador (computer) | AmL: computadora
- refresco (soft drink) | AmL: gaseosa
- zumo (juice) | AmL: jugo
Online Resources for Learning Castilian Spanish
It’s always important to have heaps of well-varied resources in your arsenal. The sites below focus on teaching Castilian Spanish specifically, and can therefore act as ideal guides to use during your Castilian-learning journey.
This site, “Spanish for Foreigners,” teaches Castilian Spanish through interactive online lessons. Click “Menú” in the top left and “Sección 1” to get started. There are five main sections with several lessons in each, beginning with basic greetings in the first lesson of section 1, up to the future tense and some past tense in two section 5 lessons.
It’s not just the lessons that are full of useful information. In “Información general” at the top of the menu bar, click on:
- Enlaces (Links) for helpful sites for Spanish learners
- Fonética (Phonics) for an interactive walkthrough of Spanish sounds
- Imprimibles (Printables) for all the printables, per session
All of the directions on the site are in Spanish, so it’s a fantastic way for beginners to get comfortable figuring things out from context. For example, when you see the directions “Pulsa en una de las dos opciones” above a chart with two options for each phrase, you’ll quickly figure out that you’re supposed to select one of the two options for each phrase.
FluentU is an online immersion platform that takes real-world videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons. You can browse videos by difficulty (beginner to native), topic (arts and entertainment, health and lifestyle, etc.) and format (video blog, news, shows, etc.).
While there are some instructional-type videos in the library, like “Speak Like a Native: The Letters ‘C’ & ‘Z’ in Spain,” where FluentU really shines is in all of the interesting native content—things that Spanish speakers watch on the regular.
A quick search for “Spain” will bring up videos like the compelling “Why This Spanish Lady Goes to the Playground” or this fascinating “One of the Last Knife Sharpeners in Spain,” which has the bonus of exposing you to the Andalusian accent from southern Spain.
Head to the east coast in “A Morning Around Valencia Spain” or explore “Inside a Cava Distillery in Spain” to see what the Spanish sparkling wine is all about. By learning the language through authentic videos, it’s incredibly easy to stay interested—plus the platform has all the support you need to learn based on what you already know.
Pimsleur, the king of audio learning, focuses entirely on getting you comfortable with having fluent conversations in Castilian Spanish. It’s not cheap, as you’ll see—but we have a trick that could get you all the goods for free.
Pimsleur has a much stronger auditory focus than some of the other programs above. Much of language learning with Pimsleur means listening to a conversation and then repeating parts of it, gradually building up knowledge until you can recall the phrases that have been said when prompted.
Pimsleur does come with a reading component, too, but this is secondary and not heavily focused on. The audio is the huge selling point for them—you can use this program to learn easily and effortlessly, wherever you go. Many people use this program for learning while driving! Just let the teachers guide you from basic phrases to complete sentences. It always prompts you to listen, repeat and respond, making it highly interactive.
Each new lesson builds on the previous ones, cleverly weaving what you’ve already learned into new concepts. All in all, this program can help you make a seamless transition from newbie to fluent, with plenty of time and practice.
Here’s our secret, though: Before you take the plunge and buy this program, check to see if your local library has it! We’ve had good success with our local library systems having audio CDs for the Pimsleur language we’ve wanted to learn. If you have the same luck, check them out, pop them in your CD player, and voila!
Video ELE (español como lengua extranjera — Spanish as a foreign language) is a free online course that covers levels A1 (complete beginner), A2, B1 and B2. It’s best for beginners or early intermediate learners who want to add some structure to their learning. From the course page (linked above), simply select a level to get started.
Each level has between 30-40 video lessons, and each lesson comes with a video, a transcript, a PDF guide with solutions and interactive on-screen activities.
It’s not the flashiest site out there, but all of the content is in Castilian Spanish, and it’s all free—so if this looks helpful to you, take advantage!
The Wikitravel Castilian Spanish Phrasebook is a guide chock-full of useful information for anyone learning Castilian Spanish. It begins with a simple pronunciation guide and continues with phrases for a variety of handy categories.
There are basic phrases, phrases for problems you might encounter, numbers, seasons, days, colors, transportation, shopping, eating and more. You can learn a substantial amount of vocabulary from this resource alone.
Does a phrasebook give you the urge to take off and travel to Spain? Your next step should be finding a great Lonely Planet travel guide about Spain. They offer some excellent phrasebooks for general Spanish which can help you in Spain, but none that are specific to Castilian Spanish. Lonely Planet exists to guide you through your travels and get you through simple conversations with natives.
How to Learn Castilian Spanish from Real-world Sources
Regularly watch Spanish YouTubers
When learning Spanish specific to a certain region, it’s important to familiarize yourself with the local accent. Actually hearing the accent is a great way to do this. Aside from the FluentU clips linked to above, here are a few more places on YouTube where you can swoon over that suave Castilian accent. (Plus pick up tons of real-world slang phrases!)
- Here’s a video of Alberto Jorrin’s voice samples.
- Dulceida posts a new YouTube video every miércoles (Wednesday).
- YellowMellow’s “Draw My Life” video is a creative, visually stimulating way to learn about the Spanish YouTuber.
- Gamers will especially like aLexBY11’s channel, which also has some fun vids everyone will enjoy, like this lip-reading challenge.
- AuronPlay keeps it real, from jokes and interviews to entertainingly recounting events that happen in his days.
If you get hooked on one vlogger, still mix it up from time to time. This will help ensure you’re getting exposure to both men and women, old and young (some TV shows below will help with this too). There are lots of different styles of voices within all the lovely humans who speak castellano, so it’s great ear training to hear a variety.
Read Castilian literature
Whether it be classics like “Lazarillo de Tormes” or modern novels like “La sombra del viento” (“The Shadow of the Wind”), getting lost in a good book written by a Spanish author will surely benefit your Castilian studies. Especially if you listen along with an audiobook recording while reading!
While there are lots of ways to get ahold of Spanish audiobooks (your local library being one!), one possible site is iVoox. In iVoox’s search filter, select “castellano” and “audiolibros y relatos” for audiobook results in Castilian (and don’t forget to set the country to “España” up in the top right corner).
Classic books will have the advantage of more support materials online (summaries, audiobooks, free e-books, translations, discussion questions, etc.), as they’re often taught in literature classes both to native Spanish speakers and Spanish learners, whereas contemporary novels will have more current language. Go for whatever interests you most!
Here are a few contemporary Spanish books to consider, just to get you started. After each Spanish title, you’ll find the English translation in parentheses. These aren’t necessarily the book titles in English, though, which is why they aren’t capitalized.
- “El Testigo” (The witness) by Juan Villoro
- “El juego del ángel” (The angel’s game) by Carlos Ruiz Zafón
- “La resistencia (Memorias de Idhún, #1)” (The resistance) by Laura Gallego García
- “Los días que nos separan” (The days that separate us) by Laia Soler
- “Un hijo” (A son) by Alejandro Palomas
- “El corazón de Hannah” (Hannah’s heart) by Rocío Carmona
And here are a few popular authors from Spain to check out as well:
- Antonio Muñoz Molina — Contemporary
- Dolores Redondo — Criminal thrillers
- Javier Marías — Protagonists are often interpreters and translators
- Laura Gallego García — Young adult fantasy
This is only the tip of the iceberg! Remember to do your Googling in Spanish to more easily find recommendations that suit your tastes.
Watch television shows from Spain
Luckily, you already have a complete guide to TV in Spain here, which you should check out now to pick the first show you’ll start watching. They’ll really get your ear used to the Castilian accent.
“Los Protegidos,” which is gushed about in the link above, is especially great for learning the Castilian accent. Here’s why: One of the main characters, Jimena, is played by Colombian actress Angie Cepeda. All of the other principal roles are played by Spaniards, so in every episode you can compare and contrast Jimena’s Colombian voice with the Castilian Spanish of the other actors and actresses.
You can use a TV show’s Wikipedia page in español (like this one for “Los Protegidos”) to quickly check where main actors and actresses are from before watching. Or, for a fun little game, go into it blind and make those predictions as you watch.
In addition to getting your ear accustomed to the accent, remember that you can always pause and repeat to use TV shows for speaking practice as well. Another idea is to turn watching into a game with a friend: One point for every ceceo, two points for each Castilian slang word/phrase, and five points for each leísmo you hear!
Sing along to music from Spanish pop stars
Play music sung by artists from Spain during spare moments throughout the day—while you’re getting ready, showering, working, cooking, etc.—to help hone your ear in on the sounds and words used in Castilian Spanish.
Singing along is a fantastic way to work on your ceceo! Find a particular song you like riddled with the famous lisp and sing along while using it yourself.
You could also grab a copy of the lyrics and first try to highlight which words will have the ceceo. Then listen to the song and see if you were right.
Here are just a few names and tunes to help you get started:
- David Bisbal: Rock out to his hit “Esclavo de sus besos” (Slave of her kisses), or slow it down to “Mi Princesa” (My princess), which is full of great ceceo words.
- El Canto del Loco: This group has lots of awesome songs, including “Un millón de cicatrices” (A million scars) and “Peter Pan.”
- Enrique Iglesias: The catchy “Bailando” (Dancing) will certainly get you moving!
- “Frozen”: Don’t forget about musicals! Check out “¡Suéltalo!” (Let it go) from Disney’s “Frozen” for a melody you probably already know.
- Juanes: Start with “Juntos” (Together) from this popular band.
- Malú: Born in Madrid, the pop singer of “Quiero” (I want) and “Blanco y negro” (White and black) also sings flamenco.
- La Oreja de Van Gogh: This is a group from San Sebastian, which falls more in the “indie pop” category. Try the clear and slower “Jueves” (Thursday) or “Mariposa” (Butterfly) to start. The lead female, Amaia Montero, left the group in 2007 for a solo career, so she’s another female singer you can search for!
- La Quinta Estación: The lead singers from this group are both from Madrid. “Recuérdame” (Remember me), featuring American singer Marc Anthony, is a powerful tune with wicked harmony.
Speak with actual Spaniards
Lastly, but one of the most effective methods, is to speak with native speakers from Spain. So when you’re using these sites to look for a conversation partner, search for someone in Spain who speaks castellano!
Same goes for when you’re searching through pages of potential Spanish tutors online. Look for someone who hails from Spain. Even better, look for someone from the particular region of Spain where you’d like to travel one day! The best place to find an online Spanish tutor who’s currently sitting in Barcelona or Madrid is Verbling, hands-down. There you’ll easily be able to sort and filter by region of origin, meaning that you’ll find the Spaniard you need to teach you Castilian Spanish.
You might not feel “ready” for conversing with a real, live Spaniard, but that’s completely normal—it means that starting now will only help you to grow and learn, because there are many unknowns at this point. The more you do it, the easier it will get, and the more comfortable you’ll get understanding and speaking Castilian Spanish.
You just have to take action, allowing your curiosity and desire to learn Spanish be stronger than your fears of making mistakes. Because the truth is, you will make so many mistakes! Each one is a beautiful learning opportunity, so there is nothing to be worried about.
In addition to speaking practice, don’t forget to use your Spanish language partner to get recommendations for more native content. What are they watching on YouTube? Which sites do they visit daily? What books are their friends raving about? What TV shows are they hooked on? Etc. A Spanish exchange partner is a valuable resource on so many levels!
By engaging in a variety of these learning methods, you’ll be well on your way to walking the cobblestone streets of Toledo, confidently conversing with Spaniards. Enjoy your journey turning fantasy into reality with Castilian Spanish!
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