What is the Spanish Language and a few pointers as to why and how we should learn it.

Most of us have made at least some attempt to learn Spanish, with more or less success. One of the things that might make this challenge a little easier, is understanding more about the language itself, why it is the way it is, and how best to approach it.

Language families

Nearly all languages belong to language families, that is groups of languages, usually spoken in neighbouring countries, that come from the same ancestor language and have many similar features. Spanish belongs to the "romance" family of languages. These are direct descendants from Latin, and were born during the centuries when the Roman Empire dominated southern Europe. The "cousins" of the Spanish language include Portuguese, French and Italian. One of the most important differences between Romance languages and English is that they are "inflected". This means that words carry information by changing their endings, so we can find one root word with dozens of different endings. English has very few of these "inflections" - it has an "s" for plurals, an "ed" for past tenses and so on, but most of the time we explain ourselves in English by adding and taking away new words. For example we say "I speak" "you speak", "we speak", whereas the Spanish say "hablo", "hablas", "hablamos". This can be tricky for English speakers to come to terms with. In other ways however, the fact that Spanish comes from Latin is an advantage to us. Many of our longer, more technical and intellectual words come from Latin, so literally thousands of Spanish words look familiar to us, such as "ventilador", "medicina", "posible".

Spanish regions

Spain is divided into seventeen autonomous regions, each with its own cultural identity, local government and, in some cases, dialect. Standard Spanish (an equivalent of Oxford or BBC English) is also called Castilian or Castellano as it originates from the region to the north west of Madrid called Castilla y Leon. During the time of Franco's dictatorship, which ended in 1975, all other dialects were suppressed along with separate regional identities, but in modern Spain they have become increasingly important and many now have the status of official regional languages alongside Castilian Spanish. Amongst the most important dialects are catalán in Catalonia, and Valenciano in the Valencian Community. Catalonia borders with France and a French influence can be detected in Catalan. Valenciano which belongs to the next region south along the Mediterranean, has many similarities with Catalan. Another important dialect is Galician or gallego which belongs to the north west region of Galicia on the Atlantic coast. Galician has a strong Portuguese influence, as it borders on that country. Very different from these "romance" dialects is Basque or vasco, the language of the Basque country bordering on south west France, also on the Atlantic side of Spain. This language is one of the few in the whole world which cannot be linked to any other language family. It is utterly unique and completely incomprehensible to Castilian Spanish speakers.

Reasons for Learning Spanish

Although it represents a major challenge for many people, the need to gain some knowledge of Castilian Spanish is unquestionable if you are going to make a success of living in Spain. However anglicised the community you live in might be, there are scores of situations in which Spanish is needed, from shopping and ordering in a restaurant, to dealing with workmen and Spanish officialdom, and communicating in a wide range of unpredictable situations such as medical emergencies, theft, traffic incidents and insurance claims. You will receive bills, bank statements and other communications through the post, and will have to cope with cooking instructions and operating manuals for the products you buy.

Apart from these practical considerations, you will undoubtedly feel less isolated in a country if you understand some of its language. If you have no knowledge of local language and customs everything can seem alien and unwelcoming. Once you start tuning into the life around you, things can start to make sense and you will feel more relaxed and at home. Spanish people can often seem serious and straightfaced on first encounter - remember that they too are regarding you as a stranger whom they are fearful of not understanding. If you break the ice with a few pleasantries, and make some attempt to speak Spanish properly, you will often find a warm and appreciative response and this will make you feel more at ease.

How to go about it

So the need is clear, but how are we to go about learning Spanish? Many people buy language courses and phrasebooks and enroll on Spanish courses, only to end up feeling defeated. There are no tricks or short cuts to successful learning, but some hints may help.

For all but a few gifted people, the need for personal contact with the language is essential. If social contact with Spanish people is limited, the only other answer is a Spanish class. Make sure that the approach adopted in the class is practical and relevant. It is perfectly possible to gain a working knowledge of the language without having to memorise endless grammar rules, which most people find difficult, if not impossible to cope with. Make sure too that you are being taught spoken Spanish and are given plenty of practice in speaking it. If you only learn to read and write the language you will be none the wiser when trying to communicate in real situations. Another decision is whether to learn Spanish over a long term period or on a short intensive course. As a general rule intensive courses are useful for getting a "kick-start" in the language, especially if you need to learn quickly for a specific reason. Otherwise it is generally advisable to learn at a more measured pace over a longer period of time. What you should find is that direct contact with a teacher who can answer your questions, and with other people who are learning alongside you, can be a great source of inspiration and confidence.

Apart from this basic requirement, they are many other ways of exposing yourself to the Spanish language. Probably the easiest and most obvious way is to watch Spanish television. Although the quality is often criticised, it is an enormously rich source of language, with even the most innane quiz shows and adverts being fruitful from a language learner's point of view. Along with this there is listening to the radio, watching videos of familiar films, reading gossip magazines, tuning into conversations in the street, reading signs and billboards, in other words, opening your ears and eyes to the language that is all around you. As a supplement to these things, there are many learning aids available. If you are a complete beginner and want a basic guide to essential survival Spanish you will certainly benefit from "Spanish as it is Spoken" a video/DVD produced by Cronin Language Services. This offers 10 easy-to-follow lessons in survival Spanish alternating with advice and information about Spanish culture and way of life against a backdrop of beautiful scenes of the Costa Blanca.

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