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Languages of Spain

Spanish

One of the questions you might be asking yourself as you plan your trip to a non-English-speaking country is how useful your high school Spanish will be. Well, you don't need to be fluent to make yourself understood pretty much anywhere in Spain. With immigrants in substantial numbers, many from Latin America, people in Spain are generally quite tolerant of variations on the "standard" language known as castellano, or Castilian Spanish—the official language of the country, by royal decree, since 1714. The Spanish you learned in school is a Romance language descended from Latin, with considerable Arabic influence—the result of the nearly eight centuries of Moorish presence on the Iberian Peninsula. The first recorded use of Spanish dates to the 13th century; in the 15th century, Antonio de Nebrija's famous grammar helped spread Spanish throughout the empire's sprawling global possessions. Pick up a Spanish phrase book, dust off that Spanish accent your high school language instructor taught you, and most Spaniards will understand your earnest request for directions to the subway—and so will some 400 million other Spanish speakers around the world.

Spain's Other Languages

What Spaniards speak among themselves is another matter. The country has a number of other significant language populations, most of which predate Castilian Spanish. These include the Romance languages Catalan and Gallego (or Galician-Portuguese) and the non-Indo-European Basque language, Euskera. A third tier of local dialects includes Asturiano (or Bable); Aranés; the variations of Fabla Aragonesa (the languages of the north-central community of Aragón); and, in Extremadura, the provincial dialect, Extremaduran.

Catalan is spoken in Barcelona, in Spain's northeastern autonomous community of Catalonia, in southern France's Roussillon region, in the city of L'Alguer on the Italian island of Sardinia, and in Andorra (where it is the national language). It is derived from Provençal French and is closer to Langue d'Oc and Occitan than to Spanish. Both Valenciano and Mallorquín, spoken respectively in the Valencia region and in the Balearic Islands, in the Mediterranean east of Barcelona, are considered dialects of Catalan.

Gallego is spoken in Galicia in Spain's northwestern corner and more closely resembles Portuguese than Spanish.

Euskera, the Basque language, is Spain's greatest linguistic mystery. Links to Japanese, Sanskrit, Finnish, Gaelic, and the language of the lost city of Atlantis have proven to be false leads or pure mythology. The most accepted theory on Euskera suggests that it evolved from a language spoken by the aboriginal inhabitants of the Iberian Peninsula and survived in isolation in the remote hills of the Basque country. Euskera is presently spoken by about a million inhabitants of the Spanish and French Basque provinces.

Asturiano (or Bable) is a Romance language (sometimes called a dialect) spoken in Asturias and in parts of León, Zamora, Salamanca, Cantabria, and Extremadura by some 700,000 people.

Aranés (or Occitan), derived from Gascon French, is spoken in Catalonia's westernmost valley, the Vall d'Arán.

Fabla aragonesa is the collective term for all of Aragón's mountain dialects—some 15 of them in active use and all more closely related to Gascon French and Occitan than to Spanish.

Extremaduran, a Spanish dialect, is spoken in Extremadura.

Updated: 03-2014

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