spanish English

But what do we mean by Spanish English?

Spanish English month brings you another guest post by Valerie Collins, a writer and linguist, a former translator, and co author of In The Garlic: Your Informative, Fun Guide to Spain.


My earlier posting here on this blog explored the difficulties Spanish speakers are faced with when learning English. Comments on that post have made me question what we mean by Spanish English. The English spoken in Spain? The English spoken by Spanish speakers? According to 2008 statistics, Spanish is spoken by a whopping 452,480,979 people across the world in 21 countries (including the USA and Equatorial Guinea). Spain itself accounts for ‘only’ 8.95% of this (40,491,051 speakers.) So obviously, just like English, Spanish has very many national and regional varieties.

In Spain, however, there’s another distinction, which deserves to be better known to the world at large: Spain has other languages, some of which are co-official in the self-governing regions where they are spoken: Catalan, Valencian, Balearic, Basque, Galician and Aranese. (And Asturian, Aragonese and Extremeño are enjoying a revival). So, many people in Spain are bilingual, and many have a language other than Spanish as their mother tongue. And to acknowledge the fact that these languages are ‘Spanish’ in so far as they are ‘of Spain’, in Spain the Spanish language is known as Castilian.

How does this affect ‘Spanish English’? It would be interesting to hear from teachers and residents in other parts of Spain: Galicia, for example, where there’s a pronounced Celtic influence and people speak with a sing-song lilt like the Welsh.

I live in Barcelona, the capital of Catalonia, where Catalan is co-official with Castilian, and Catalan native speakers have different challenges and different easy things when learning English. As a very general impression, for many Catalan-speakers, the pronunciation of English is easier. Flame me if you will, but it’s a phonological fact that Catalan has the schwa, it has final stop consonants, its intervocalic stops consonants do not become fricatives, it has more diphthongs than Castilian, and it is syllable timed. But grammatically and vocabulary wise Castilian and Catalan are closely related Romance languages, and they have loads of irregular verbs, subjunctive forms and structures, infinitives rather than gerunds, verb tenses with different time references from the English ones, and so on. So “she wants that you come” and “I went for to catch the bus” and “I will have lunch as soon as the meeting will finish” are typical.

Some of the eternal problems of learning any language are polysemy, non-corresponding semantic fields, and false friends, and English/Spanish/Catalan are no exception: the most famous probably being ‘constipated’ when you have a cold.

My favourite howler of all time was uttered 35 years ago when friends from London were in Barcelona for Christmas, and we took a trip to Montserrat, Catalonia’s sacred mountain. Wandering over the shrubby hillside in the winter sunshine, my friend shouted excitedly: “Oh, look! Is that thyme?”
The Catalan who was to become my husband glanced at his watch. “Is twenty-to-two,” he said.

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Valerie Collins


  • Dear Val
    I came across your ‘In the garlic’ the other day and was glad to have news of you after so many years. I would love to know if you are still in touch with Geoffrey, or anyone else from ‘Glossa’. I was very amused by your writings, and by your television interview with your co-writer.
    You may be interested to know that I still have a copy of Graver”s ‘Advanced English Practice’ with your name in it!
    I tried to send an email from your web site but unfortunately it didn’t seem to go through.
    Best regards

  • Catalan, Valencian and Balearic all refer to the same language, most commonly referred to as Catalan. Also, it is worth pointing out that Aranese is a dialect of the Occitan language.

  • @ Timothy
    Yes, of course, thanks for this. I would say they are varieties of the same language, which is a linguistic fact. But the socio-cultural-political aspects of it can get so fraught…

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