Spanish vs. English: Which is Easier to Learn?

Spanish vs. English: Which is Easier to Learn?

Inside: Spanish vs. English– which one is easier to learn?

 

My husband and I have a long-standing spat. He’s a native Spanish speaker who likes to complain about how weird and hard English is. I’m always quick to point out how hard and complicated Spanish grammar is.

I’m not sure if we are really arguing over facts; it may be we really just want the other person to understand what’s hard about speaking their language. Perhaps we mean to say: Do you see how hard I’m working to speak YOUR language?

Either way, we’re all fairly blind to the complications of our native languages. This is one of the reasons it’s valuable to study a second language: we develop more self-awareness, and hopefully a whole lot more empathy for immigrants and friends learning our language.

 

 

 

 

That self-awareness is a side-goal of my classes, and I like to show this clip early in the year. It’s a fun reminder that English only seems easy because they unconsciously learned it and use it. (As an aside, I aim for a similar “unconscious” experience and ease in acquisition in my Spanish classes— to the degree it’s possible with older students.)

 

 

But back to English vs. Spanish.

Social media informalIy tells me there’s an overwhelming consensus: English is WAY harder for Spanish-speakers to learn. I’ll concede that the erratic nature of English is obvious. You don’t have to look far for examples:

 

 

think people are right that English is harder, but it is really WAY HARDER than Spanish? Let’s do our best to find out. 

(I doubt this will be a conclusive post. When I decided to research, obviously I starting by googling around. The first two or three pages were almost entirely posts by companies selling language-learning materials. If you have a more scientific, research based article lying around, PLEASE let me know.)

So: IF you’re interested in an amateur examination of Spanish vs. English, read on. 

 

Word Count: Spanish vs. English

 

Which language has more words?

“There is no single sensible answer to this question. It’s impossible to count the number of words in a language, because it’s so hard to decide what actually counts as a word. Is dog one word, or two (a noun meaning ‘a kind of animal’, and a verb meaning ‘to follow persistently’)?” – Oxford Dictionary

Ok, but can we roughly estimate word counts?

“The Second Edition of the 20-volume Oxford English Dictionary contains full entries for 171,476 words in current use, and 47,156 obsolete words. To this may be added around 9,500 derivative words included as subentries.” – Oxford Dictionary

“Current editions of the Diccionario de la Real Academia Española (the dictionary of the Royal Spanish Academy), the closest thing there is to an official list of Spanish vocabulary, has around 88,000 words. In additional, the Academy’s list of americanismos includes about 70,000 words used in one or more Spanish-speaking countries of Latin America. So to round things off, figure there are around 150,000 “official” Spanish words.” – ThoughtCo. 

Approximately (and according to the scant information I could find), English has about 180,000 words in the dictionary and Spanish has about 150,000. You generally use more words to express something in Spanish (English is more grammatically dense):

“…a 300-word document in English will typically be 350 or 400 words in Spanish.’ – Transfluent

How useful are these numbers? I’m not sure. I think the more relevant numbers are how many high-frequency words a native speaker depends on in a day, and I couldn’t track that info down. 

 

Phonetics: Spanish vs. English

 

Historically, Spanish takes foreign words and applies Spanish rules: people here say Goo-glay and Che-vro-let. (Though I wonder if this will change with the advent of social media– “selfie,” anyone?) English, on the other is a mish-mash of Anglo-French and Germanic influences, and evolved significantly from Old English into Modern English. We maintain French rules, for example, when we say She-vro-lay.

Basically, Spanish is a lovely and perfectly phonetic language. English, on the other hand, is VERY hard to read, pronounce, and write. Spanish has 25 phonemes; it’s generally agreed that English has 44 phonemes. (Phonemes are speech sounds.)

So it’s generally harder for a Spanish speaker to pronounce English well. It means learning entirely new sounds. While the English speaker will need to learn “rr” and nuances like “b” and “v,” Spanish speakers have a longer list. “Th” and new vowels sounds are particularly difficult. 

Writing and reading is difficult in English, even for native speakers. Consider that the sound /sh/ can be represented by all of the following: sh, ce, s, ci, si, ch, sci, and ti. 

I remember learning Spanish in Peru and being very frustrated when I would ask for the spelling of a word. Instead of spelling it, my friends would just enunciate the word again: sim-pá-ti-co. I guess there’s a reason Spelling Bees aren’t a big thing in Spanish. 

One more point that sort of fits here: 

“Do you ever feel like speakers of foreign languages are talking really, really fast? If you feel this way about Spanish or Japanese, you’re correct! These two languages were spoken faster than the others, at a rapid 7.82 and 7.84 syllables per second, respectively. On the other end of the spectrum, English and Mandarin Chinese were relatively slow, at 6.19 and 5.18 syllables per second, respectively.” – Transfluent

So while it’s easier to write and read in Spanish, it’s fair to say that listening to spoken Spanish is hard. 

 

General Grammar: Spanish vs. English

 

In terms of general grammar rules, English rules seem harder explain or “make sense of.” Spanish rules are more formulaic but still may take a long time to master. 

Things that make Spanish hard:

Gendered Nouns. On the surface, this is fairly easy to explain: masculine vs. feminine, and here are the exceptions. But it really means knowing the gender of EVERY noun, and applying this knowledge in almost EVERY sentence. It’s a huge extra “layer” that you don’t have to worry about in English.

 

Things that make English hard:

Order of adjectives. Most English speakers probably aren’t aware of this, but there’s a strict order of adjectives. You can say “She was a beautiful young French woman,” but it would sounds strange to say “She was a French young beautiful woman.”

Negation. In Spanish, a “no” in front of the word usually does the trick. In English, there are a variety of pre-fixes to choose from: “un-,” “dis-,” “in-,” and “non-.” Negatives go together in Spanish as well (“No quiero nada”), while we mix them in English. 

 

Verbs: Spanish vs. English

 

This is where Spanish gets significantly more complicated than English. Spanish has 14 complete paradigms for verbs– seven simple tenses, and seven compound tenses. 

Regular Verbs

I think the numbers speak for themselves here. To conjugate the regular verb bailar in Spanish, I counted 56 different verb forms. (Correct me if I’m wrong, hehe. It took several counts. ) In English, I counted 4 (dance, dances, danced, dancing). 

Irregular Verbs

Ser: 48. (soy, fui, era, seré, sido, fuera, fuese, fuese, sé, seas, etc.)
To be: 8. (am, is, are, was, were, being, been, be). 

The Subjunctive

The subjunctive mood isn’t a big deal in English, and generally follows the indicative verb forms. “I hope you get well soon,” “I hoped you would get well soon.” (“I wish _____” is a notorious exception.) In Spanish, however, it introduces an entirely new set of endings– including present, past, and future in the subjunctive. “Espero que te mejores pronto,” and “Esperaba que te mejoraras.” 

The Imperative

The imperative in Spanish means two new sets of verb endings, for positive and negative commands. In English, a positive command is the same as in the indicative, and a negative is formed by putting “don’t” at the front. 

 

Conclusion

 

My sense is that Spanish is more formulaic: it lends itself better to charts and logical explanations. However, the grammar is quite extensive. There are many who will reach intermediate proficiency quickly, and sound extremely natural. Those people might still struggle to express very complex ideas, even after massive input. I suspect Spanish is more quickly comprehensible. Even though learners may not produce highly accurate verb forms, they can grab onto the “stem” and make sense of it. 

English, due to its origins, is more erratic. The rules are quite complex in a sense (especially when it comes to phonetics), but with no gendered nouns and few verb endings. It will be harder to sound like a natural in writing or speaking, but not such a stretch to communicate theoretical ideas. 

IN CONCLUSION: I really don’t know, but I feel better prepared to explain the unique challenges and perks to learning either language, as a native speaker of the other language. 

I WILL SAY THIS: After writing this blog post, I am ever-more committed to language acquisition through comprehensible input. Newbies shouldn’t be getting bogged down in the rules. Period. 

 

Do you have the definitive answer to this? Tell me all about it in the comments below?

Letting Go of Language Fear: Teaching Spanish, When You Don’t Speak it Perfectly

Letting Go of Language Fear: Teaching Spanish, When You Don’t Speak it Perfectly

 Inside: How to find confidence and build your language skills when you aren’t a perfect speaker. 

 

I have a confession: I am an insecure about my Spanish.

The insecurity mainly comes from people knowing I teach it. Talking with a bunch of old friends, who are native speakers? Fine. Teaching a low-level Spanish class? No problem. 

But sit me down with another teacher who speaks better Spanish, and my proficiency literally crumbles in front of me. My heart races, and I can hear the mistakes falling out of my mouth. I want clarify: I do at least, hear the errors. Somehow I just can’t stop them!

 

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Another confession: I hate writing in Spanish on social media teacher forums. With friends I can text and message all day. But writing in a FB group, where the grammarians are just waiting to help me improve my Spanish? No thank you. 

 

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do realize this isn’t healthy. I do know that I should love and welcome feedback. After all, I ending up learning Spanish, teaching Spanish, and raising bilingual kids without planning any of it. My credentials are not all up-to-speed. I should be wide open to it, grateful to people who help me get better. 

My husband, a native Spanish speaker is like that. He insists on his English being corrected. Thanks to his thick skin, he has that strange ability to separate an honest mistake from his personhood. I get defensive when my story gets interrupted to let me know it’s tenga, not tiene; he’s grateful for the a-ha moment.

Perhaps I should listen to the words I say to my students: I’m so proud of you for trying! Who cares if you mess up? We’re all learning, every day! But I do care, because– accidentally or not– Spanish is now my job. I’m Spanish-speaking mama, making Spanish-speaking kids. My mistakes kinda do matter now.

It’s annoying to be imperfect, but it also means I totally get it when people share they’re afraid to talk to native parents… or teach an upper-level course…or admit they grew up in a Spanish-speaking home… or that they’re Spanish teachers.

 

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In no other subject area are your credentials on the line every. single. time. you open your mouth or say something on social media. Seriously.

So, there’s our situation, us non-native speakers who aren’t where we want to be. I’ve got some thoughts and then some concrete ideas for where to go from here.

 

It seems we need to figure out 3 main areas:

  • Make a plan to improve our proficiency, long-term. 
  • Figure out how make up for our language gap while teaching, in the meantime. 
  • How to become more confident in ourselves, wherever we are.

Working on Your Own Proficiency 

 

Long-term, we want to grow in proficiency. There are fancy and fun ways to do this: travel, do an immersion summer, find friends who will speak with you, or take a class. If you don’t have space to do something like that now, here are some ideas for learning at home. 

  • Find a good Spanish podcast. This is the easiest step to take. Listen in the car, while doing housework or while getting ready in the mornings. 
  • Get hooked on a Spanish show on Netflix. I often multitask while watching, but it’s really better to put everything down and really soak up the language. 
  • Read. You can go straight to an authentic book in Spanish, choose a good YA book translated into Spanish (think Harry Potter), or you read the advanced Fluency Fast readers. I find this particularly helpful, because they often the language I need to provide in class– sort’ve like I’m filling myself up with the language I need to give. 
  • Listen to music in Spanish. Listen to the same songs over and over, til you’ve memorized them!
  • Set your devices to Spanish, and like or follow several social media accounts. 

 

Teaching Spanish, in the Meantime

 

Long-term, we’re growing and getting more fluent. But right now? Right now, you might have been thrown into Spanish 4 mid-year, because that teacher quit. There might be native speakers trying to correct you, and you find yourself reverting to English too much. Their parents chat you up in the hall and you want to die of embarrassment that you can barely understand them. 

Or maybe you committed to teaching your own little kids Spanish, and are now realizing you didn’t learn how to say, “Ew get out the toilet! There are germs and it’s disgusting and if you ever do that again you will be in huge trouble!!!!”

Here are some suggestions.

Teaching a class with lots of heritage/native speakers: 

 

  • If possible, be honest and upfront. Tell them you might stumble at times, but that by being a non-native speaker you understand what it it like for them. I let them know I was still learning; I openly looked up words I didn’t know. When we did silent reading as a bellringer, I tried to get a novel and read– to show them I was still learning, too. 

 

  • Set the boundaries for when native and heritage speakers can help you. You need to decide if you welcome suggestions during class or not. If it’s happening a lot, consider pulling the students aside to understand why they feel the need to correct. Establish when and where it’s okay, and when it’s not. 

 

  • Explain the many regional differences right off the bat (ask, “How you do you say ______ in _____?). Also, it’s worth it to explain that some street terms are different than what’s often taught in class. (“Ya’ll” and “gotta/gonna” are used, but not found in English books, for example.)

 

  • Acknowledge but downplay their “corrections.” Perhaps say “Muy interesante” nonchalantly and add it to a vocab list or word wall posted somewhere. It may be these students are feeling insecure elsewhere, and use Spanish class as a way to show off. Try to channel that in a positive direction. (If it’s rude and needs correction, that’s another matter.)

 

  • Give them something else to do. If the students are truly at a higher level than you, consider putting them in direct contact with books, music, and podcast that will challenge them. It’s some work upfront, but it will allow you to focus on the class. 

 

 

Not Feeling Confident to Speak 90% in Class

 

  • You can only start where you are. Are you at 50% Shoot for 60%. You may need to do some extra prep for a while– write out your PPTs, write a story ahead of time, script out your MovieTalk. 

 

  • If you are grammar-based, I HIGHLY recommend looking into comprehensible input. There are tons of resources out there. It is MUCH easier to stay in the TL when you are using materials in the TL. Study novels together in class. The language is there, and you are only facilitating the discussion. If it’s an upper-level class, just stay one chapter ahead. Study authentic songs in Spanish, use stories that other teachers have written, and bring listening resources right into the classroom. You will grow with your students!

 

Speaking Spanish with Your Kids at Home

 

This is REALLY hard to do (so kudos to you!!). Parenting your kids means saying very complicated things. And, you are also trying to build an emotional connection that lasts a lifetime.

 

  • Consider setting aside certain parts of the day to be Spanish-only (like bedtime), or a certain night of the week. Lean heavily on book and songs (learn together), watch movies together, and play games where the vocabulary is handy. I wouldn’t worry about mistakes (I make them all the time), as long as your children are in contact with some native speakers or materials. 

 

Speaking Spanish as a Latino

 

It’s really common that kids grow up hearing Spanish their entire lives, but feel really insecure about speaking it. Maybe you got teased about errors from older siblings or family members, and clammed up. Maybe you had a time in life when speaking Spanish wasn’t cool, or your parents didn’t surround you with as much language as you needed. Your Latino last-name probably makes it worse when your language doesn’t come out impeccably. 

 

  • Be honest with your family (if you can). Explain that the jokes or teasing makes you more self-conscious. OR maybe you need to explain that you want family time to be real, honest communication. No error-correction, just help if you ask for it. 

 

Being Confident in Yourself

 

Ah, this one is hard. The worst thing that can happen is that you abandon Spanish (at home or as a career) due to perfectionism. Here are a few things to remember:

  • Your imperfections can be quite inspiring to your students and kids. (She laughs at her own mistakes and moves on? Wow.)

 

  • There will always be someone better, and being native won’t always fix it. Some of you reading this actually have quite good Spanish, but every mistake still kills you. Hey, guess what? Even native speakers make mistakes. There are entire debates on Spanish teacher forums about a ser vs. estar nuance (yeah, that thing we teach the first month of Spanish 1). 

 

  • Sometimes differences are regional. Spanish is a big language, geographically. I’ve been mortified over an error on facebook, only to be find out it was just a difference between countries. 

 

  • If you find yourself cornered in a conversation that’s making you flustered, ask questions! Point the conversation away from yourself, give yourself a minute to breathe, and try to understand the other speaker. 

 

  • Sometimes, ignore. Sometimes, people are insecure in themselves and are looking trouble (whether it’s students, parents, or even fellow teachers). I’ve heard horror stories of teaching walking into other classes and correcting something in front of all the students, or a Spanish-speaking parent “testing” the teacher’s Spanish. At some point, you can’t do anything about that sort of toxicity and you have to let it go. Believe me, I’m bad at it. But I’m working on it!

 

 

I would love to hear your best advice for building confidence as a Spanish speaker. Let me know your ideas in the comments below!

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