If you’re surprised to learn that Spanish isn’t the only language spoken in Spain, you’re not alone. Spanish (or Castilian) is the only language that is the official language throughout the whole country. Read on to see what the bilingual people in Spain speak along with Spanish.
What is the main language of Spain?
Castilian, which is also known as Spanish, is a Romance language that has its roots in Latin and was developed in the medieval kingdom of Castile. It has also been greatly influenced by Arabic because of the early Al-Andalus era when much of Portugal and Spain was occupied by Muslims. It takes vocabulary and influence from the surrounding Ibero-Romance languages and Western European Romance languages as well. People in Spain more often refer to “Spanish” as Castilian because the term español can refer to any of the other Spanish languages. In some countries in Central and South America, it is called Spanish since Spain is its country of origin. You can read more about the differences between the Spanish of Spain and Latin America here.
Castilian is the only official language shared by all regions of Spain. There are also 5 co-official languages in certain territories as well as a few unofficial, yet recognized, languages and dialects.
What are the other languages of Spain?
Many first-time visitors to Barcelona are confused when they see the main signs for roads, directions and shops in a language that is not Spanish. That is because the more common language is Catalan, which is the co-official language, alongside Castilian, in the region.
Català (Catalan) and valenciano (Valencian)
Catalan has a total of 10 million speakers (4.1 million native speakers), making it the second-most spoken language in Spain. It is a completely different language from Spanish with its own unique grammar and vocabulary and some say it is like a mix of Spanish and French with some influence from the Italian language as well.
It was developed some time in the Middle Ages from Vulgar Latin and continues to be a source of pride for Catalans who are dedicated to conserving it as part of their cultural heritage. If you visit some towns outside the Catalan capital, you may even encounter people that don’t speak Castilian at all.
Catalan is spoken and used as a co-official language in the Spanish autonomous communities of Catalonia, the Balearic Islands as well as Valencia (where it is called valenciano, or Valencian, and is another co-official language in the Valencian community). It is also a recognized minority language in the regions of Alghero (Sardinia, Italy), Aragon (Spain) and the Pyrénées-Orientales (France).
Fun fact: Catalan is the only official language of Andorra.
Galician is spoken by about 3 million people and 58% of the population in the community of Galicia. Because of its proximity to Portugal, both Galician and Portuguese were developed from what modern linguists call the Galician-Portuguese language. Galician today is split into three dialects according to geographical divisions – eastern, central and western Galician.
Galician is spoken and used as the official language in Galicia – alongside Castilian – and is also used in some parts of Asturias, Castile and León, as well as in migrant communities in other parts of the world. Galicians and Portuguese can easily understand each other as the languages are very similar.
Basque is a truly unique language in that it has no relation with any of the Romance languages, or even any other European language, for that matter. It is said to be the oldest pre-Indo-European language in Western Europe. A person who speaks any of the other Spanish languages would not be able to understand someone speaking Basque. Basque has around 750,000 native speakers.
Aranese is another co-official language in Catalonia. It is spoken in northwestern Catalonia in the Aran Valley (Val d’Aran). It comes from the Occitan language spoken in France. There are also some other recognized, however unofficial, languages in Spain. They are Aragonese (spoken in the region of Aragon), Asturian from the Asturias region, and Leones which is spoken in the provinces of León and Zamora.
Are you feeling overwhelmed by all this new information? The good news is that even in the autonomous communities of Spain, you will still be able to communicate with most of the people in Spanish. Of course, as in all countries, the locals appreciate when you know a few of the basic words and phrases of their own language! If you’re interested in learning Spanish, check out our Spanish classes in the heart of Barcelona.