Why Learn Spanish ?

Who’s learning Spanish these days? For starters, residents of the United States, a bunch not known for conquering monolingualism, are studying Spanish in record numbers. Spanish, too, is becoming of greater importance in Europe, where it often the foreign language of choice after English. And it’s no wonder that Spanish is a popular second or third language: with some 400 million speakers, it’s the fourth most commonly spoken language in the world (after English, Chinese and Hindustani), and according to some counts it has more native speakers than English does. It is an official language on four continents and is of historical importance elsewhere.

The numbers alone makes Spanish a good choice for those wanting to learn another tongue. But there are plenty of other reasons to learn Spanish. Better understanding of English: Much of the vocabulary of English has Latin origins, much of which came to English by way of French. Since Spanish is also a Latin language, you will find as you study Spanish that you have a better understanding of your native vocabulary. Similarly, both Spanish and English share Indo-European roots, so their grammars are similar. There is perhaps no more effective way to learn English grammar than by studying the grammar of another language, for the study forces you to think about how your language is structured. It’s not unusual, for example, to gain an understanding of English verbs’ tenses and moods by learning how those verbs are used in Spanish.

Knowing your neighbors: Not all that many years ago, the Spanish-speaking population of the United States was confined to the Mexican border states, Florida and New York City. But no more. Even where I live, less than 100 kilometers from the Canadian border, there are Spanish-speaking people living on the same street as I do. Knowing Spanish has proven invaluable in speaking with other residents of my town who don’t know English.

Travel: Yes, it is perfectly possible to visit Mexico, Spain and even Equatorial Guinea without speaking a word of Spanish. But it isn’t nearly half as much fun. I remember about two decades ago — when my Spanish was much less adequate than it is today — when I met some mariachis on top of one of the pyramids near Mexico City. Because I spoke (albeit limited) Spanish, they wrote down the words for me so I could sing along. It turned out to be one of my most memorable travel experiences, and one unlike most tourists have the opportunity to enjoy. Time and time again while traveling in Mexico, Central America and South America I have had doors opened to me simply because I speak Spanish, allowing me to see and do things that many other visitors do not.

Cultural understanding: While most of us (Pope John Paul II may be an exception) can’t hope to learn the languages of more than one or two cultures other than that of our own, those that we can learn help us to learn how other people learn and think. When I read Latin American or Spanish newspapers, for example, I often find that I gain a sense of how other people think and feel, a way that is different than my own. Spanish also offers a wealth of literature, both modern and traditional.

Learning other languages: If you can learn Spanish, you’ll have a head start in learning the other Latin-based languages such as French and Italian. And it will even help you learn Russian and German, since they too have Indo-European roots and have some characteristics (such as gender and extensive conjugation) that are present in Spanish but not English. And I wouldn’t be surprised if learning Spanish might even help you learn Japanese or any other non-Indo-European language, since intensive learning the structure of a language can give you a reference point for learning others.

It’s easy: Spanish is one of the easiest foreign languages to learn. Much of its vocabulary is similar to English’s, and written Spanish is almost completely phonetic: Look at almost any Spanish word and you can tell how it is pronounced. And while mastering the grammar of Spanish can be a challenge, basic grammar is straightforward enough that you can have meaningful communication after only a few lessons.

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Arabic Influence on the Spanish Langauge

If you speak either Spanish or English, you probably speak more Arabic than you think you do. It’s not “real” Arabic you’re speaking, but rather words that come from Arabic. After Latin and English, Arabic is probably the biggest contributor of words to the Spanish language, and a large portion of English-Spanish cognates (words that the two language share) that don’t come from Latin come from Arabic.

The English words you’re most likely to think of as Arabic origin are those that start with “al-,” words such as “algebra,” “Allah,” “alkali” and “alchemy,” and they exist in Spanish as álgebra, Alá, álkali and alkimia, respectively. But they are far from the only ones. A variety of other types of common words such as “coffee,” “zero” and “sugar” (café, cero and azúcar in Spanish) also come from Arabic.

The etymology of English words goes beyond the scope of this article, but the introduction of Arabic words into Spanish began in earnest in the eighth century, although even before then some words of Latin and Greek origin had roots in Arabic. People living in what is now Spain spoke Latin at one time, of course, but over the centuries Spanish and other Romance languages such as French and Italian gradually differentiated themselves. The Latin dialect that eventually became Spanish was highly influenced by the invasion of the Arabic-speaking Moors in 711. For many centuries, Latin/Spanish and Arabic existed side by side, and even today many Spanish place names retain Arabic roots. It wasn’t until late in the 15th century that the Moors were expelled, and by then literally thousands of Arabic words had become part of Spanish.


On the next page are some of the most common Arabic-origin Spanish words you’ll come across. As you can see, many of the words also are a part of English. Although it is believed that the English words “alfalfa” and “alcove,” which originally were Arabic, entered English by way of Spanish (alfalfa and alcoba), most Arabic words in English probably entered English by other routes. Not all possible English translations of the Spanish words are listed.

  • aceite — oil
  • adobe — adobe
  • aduana — customs (as at a border)
  • ajedrez — chess
  • Alá — Allah
  • alacrán — scorpion
  • albacora — albacore
  • albahaca — basil
  • alberca — tank, swimming pool
  • alcade — mayor
  • alcatraz — pelican
  • alcázar — fortress, palace
  • alcoba — bedroom, alcove
  • alcohol — alcohol
  • aldea — village (same source as English word “alderman”)
  • alfombra — carpet
  • algarroba — carob
  • algodón — cotton
  • algoritmo — algorithm
  • alkimia — alchemy
  • almacén — storage
  • almanaque — almanac
  • almirante — admiral
  • almohada — pillow
  • alquiler — rent
  • amalgama — amalgam
  • arroz — rice
  • asesino — assassin
  • atún — tuna
  • ayatolá — ayatollah
  • azafrán — saffron
  • azúcar — sugar
  • azul — blue (same source as English “azure”)
  • baño — bathroom
  • barrio — district
  • berenjena — eggplant
  • burca — burqa
  • café — coffee
  • cero — zero
  • chisme — gossip, gadget
  • Corán — Koran
  • cuzcuz — couscous
  • dado — die (singular of “dice”)
  • embarazada — pregnant
  • espinaca — spinach
  • fez — fez
  • fulano — what’s-his-name
  • gacela — gazelle
  • guitarra — guitar
  • hachís — hashish
  • harén — harem
  • hasta — until
  • imán — imam
  • islam — Islam
  • jaque — check (in chess)
  • jaque mate — checkmate
  • jirafa — giraffe
  • laca — lacquer
  • lila — lilac
  • lima — lime
  • limón — lemon
  • macabro — macabre
  • marfil — marble, ivory
  • masacre — massacre
  • masaje — massage
  • máscara — mask
  • mazapán — marzipan
  • mezquita — mosque
  • momia — mummy
  • mono — monkey
  • muslim — muslim
  • naranja — orange
  • ojalá — I hope, God willing
  • olé — bravo
  • paraíso — paradise
  • ramadán — Ramadan
  • rehén — hostage
  • rincón — corner, nook
  • sorbete — sherbet
  • sofá — sofa
  • rubio — blond
  • talco — talc
  • tamarindo — tamarind
  • tarea — task
  • tarifa — tariff
  • toronja — grapefruit
  • zanahoria — carrot