The Spanish Language

Some 360 million people around the world use Spanish as their first language. Spanish is the official language in 18 Central and South American countries. It is the official language of Spain in Europe. It is also spoken in Africa, in Equatorial Guina. Many South and Central Americans speak Spanish as their second language.

Listed by the number of speakers per country, the following numbers are estimated: 


  • Mexico, 110 million
  • Colombia, 41 million
  • Argentina, about 40 million
  • Spain, more than 38 million
  • Venezuela, some 27 million
  • Peru, around 26 million
  • Chile, over 16 million
  • Ecuador, more than 14 million
  • Cuba, around 11 million
  • Guatemala, almost 10 million
  • Bolivia, more than 8 million
  • the Dominican Republic, over 8 million
  • El Salvador, approximately 6 million
  • Honduras, around 6 million
  • Nicaragua, almost 6 million
  • Paraguay, more than 4 million
  • Costa Rica, about 4 million
  • Puerto Rico, more than 3 million
  • Uruguay, more than 3 million
  • Panama, 3 million
  • Equatorial Guinea, around 627,000 (mostly as a second language). 


How Many Words Are In the Spanish Language?


One way to estimate the vocabulary size of Spanish is to use the current editions of the "Diccionario de la Real Academia Espanola" for European Spanish, and the Academy's Americanismos for Latin American Spanish. The Diccionario de la Real Academia Espanola has approximately 88,000 words.


The Americanismos list includes around 70,000 words used in Latin America. These books only include words in current use. To sum it all, there are approximately 150,000 "official" Spanish terms.


These two dictionaries combines are the closest thing to a complete, modern official Spanish vocabulary list. 


How Many Spanish Words Do You Need To Know To Be Fluent? 


Research suggests that language learners should learn around 2,000 words to understand 80% of a foreign language text. Although written language is more complex and uses more different vocabulary than spoken, it allows you to see conjugations and deduce meaning from context more easily.


Spoken Spanish uses less words written Spanish. This means that you can learn 2,000 of the most common Spanish words and have a decent conversation, while understanding about 90% of all terms.


  • 250 words: the essential core of any language. Without these, you cannot construct any meaningful sentence.
  • 750 words: the most important words used every day by every person who speaks the language.
  • 2,500: should enable you to express everything you could want to say, although you'd might need some creativity.
  • 5,000: the active vocabulary of native speakers without higher education.
  • 10,000: the active vocabulary of native speakers with higher education.
  • 20,000: the amount you'd need to recognize passively to read, understand, and enjoy a work of literature.

The History Of The Spanish Language


Spanish is also known as Castilian, after the dialect that gave rise to modern Spanish. This dialect was first heard in Cantabria, around the town Burgos in north-central Spain (Old Castile). It spread southwards to central Spain (New Castile), around Madrid and Toledo by the 11th century. 


The kingdoms of Castile, Leon, and Aragon merged in the 15th century. Castilian became Spain's official language. The remaining regional dialects of Santander, Navarra, Asturias, and Leon were lost and are now only found in remote rural areas. Galician, a language that has many similarities with Portuguese, was spoken in northern Spain. Catalan was spoken in northeastern and eastern Spain. The numbers of Galician and Catalan speakers rose a bit in the latter half of the 20th century.




The Spanish dialect used in Arab-occupied Spain prior to the 12th Century was Mozarabic. It is a very archaic form, with many borrowings of Arabic. It is primarily known from Mozarabic refrains (called kharjahs), which are added to Hebrew and Arabic poems.

Differences in Pronunciation in the Main Spanish Dialects


Spanish is spoken almost everywhere in South and Central America, except Brazil. In Brazil, people speak Portuguese. Latin American Spanish is home to a variety of dialects. All are derived from Castilian, but they differ in many phonology points from European Spanish. Latin American Spanish has a distinctive feature: Castilian uses the /s/ sound in words that are spelled with a Z or c before e. Castilian uses the lisp-like sound /th/ (for words with a Z or c before the e or I. 


Also, Castilian replaces the Castilian's /ly/ sound with a sound called /y/ or with the /zh/ sound in English azure of the sound of the French jour or the j in French jour


Grammar of the Spanish language


Except for the subject and object forms of pronouns, Spanish has lost all Latin case system. Nouns can be marked for male or female gender. Plurals can be marked with the addition of a -s or an -es. Adjectives change endings to match nouns. Complex but consistent, the verb system uses multiple moods:


  • indicative
  • imperative
  • subjunctive

And the conditional moods:

  • preterite
  • imperfect
  • present
  • future 


  • conditional tenses
  • passive and reflexive constructions; 
  • preterite and perfect tenses.


Most Spanish speakers speak Castilian. Castellano is still used as the name for the language in many American countries. Other languages spoken in Spain are Asturian and Basque, Calo. Calo, Catalan Valencian Balear, Extremaduran and Fala. Castilian is the most popular Spanish dialect due to the Reconquista. The Reconquista saw Moorish Spain conquered by the Christian states. This was completed in 1492. After having established itself in Spain, the Castilian dialect was exported to the New World during The Age of Discovery. The age of discovery took ran from the mid-15th century to the mid-16th century.


Standard Castilian has been displaced from Old Castile's language. This language was considered rustic and archaic by the 15th century. A modified version of Standard Castilian was developed in Toledo in 16th and 17th centuries, and more recently, in Madrid. Spanish-language American countries have created their own standard Spanish dialects. 


European Spanish and Latin American Spanish differ mainly in pronunciation; Latin America doesn't have the lisp. Certain vocabulary items vary too. Loanwords from English are more common in South America). However, the differences are relatively minor. Some Latin Americans still consider true Castilian to be their role model. Although American Spanish is more sophisticated and musical than Castilian, it is impressive how little creolization or deformation has occurred.


Judeo-Spanish continues an archaic Castilian form, which reflects the state of the language before the 16th-century standardization. The expulsion of Jews from the Iberian Peninsula in 1492 primarily affected the poorer classes. The wealthy Jews preferred "conversion". Many later chose voluntary exile to settle down in England or the Netherlands. Their Sephardic tongue survives in some communities as a religious language.


Before that, the Middle East was home to Spanish-speaking refugees who produced learned works in archaic Castilian. They used an adapted Hebrew script. There are 100,000 to 200,000 speakers of Judeo-Spanish (Ladino), mainly in Israel. 


History of the Written Spanish Language


The first Spanish texts consist of fragmented words that gloss two Latin texts from the 10th century. One is from Rioja, and the other is from Castile. The language in both documents is very similar. Another document, dated 980, appears to be Leonese. Next are the Mozarabic Kharjahs, which are the oldest texts that survive.


By the middle of the 12th century, "Cantar de mio Cid" ("Song of My Cid") was published in an essentially Castilian language. Leonese literary works were not published until the 14th century. They were also available in Aragonese up to the 15th century. But Castilian was the language that would be the most influential, making an impact even on Portuguese during the 15 and 16 centuries.

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