Spanish, Castilian, or castellano, is the official language in Spain and spoken by a majority of people. But co-official languages exist and bilingualism of various degrees is common in the country. In addition, many people call a foreign language their mother tongue or at least speak it. So which are the languages most commonly spoken in Spain?
The common languages in Spain
Spanish is the predominant native language nearly everywhere in the country. Of Spain’s sixteen autonomous communities, six have co-official languages in addition to Castilian.
Nearly 94 percent of the population in Spain speak Spanish, but only about 82 percent call it their mother tongue. With more than 45 million people speaking Spanish in the country, Spain ranks number three together with Colombia among the countries with the most Spanish speakers, after Mexico and the United States.
Spanish is a Romance language with origins in the Castile region of the country, which is where the name Castilian or castellano comes from. The language as it exists today was also influenced by the Mozarabic dialect of the muslim kingdom of Toledo.
The Reconquista in the Middle Ages expanded the Spanish language across the Iberian peninsula at the expense of other languages. Commerce, trade, and diplomacy in the 16th and 17th century further established Spanish, while the Franco dictatorship in the 20th century prohibited the use of regional languages. The 1978 constitution recognized the territories’ regional languages as co-official languages, laying the groundwork for bilingualism as it exists today in Spain.
A little over 15 percent of the Spanish population speak some form of Catalan, while only 8.5 percent call it their mother tongue. The Romance language Catalan has its name from the region of Catalonia in the northeast of Spain and adjoining parts of France.
Catalan is a co-official language in the autonomous communities of Catalonia and the only official language in Andorra. There are roughly 4.5 million speakers, or around 7 million when you count all variants of the language, including Valencian and Balear.
Valencian is classified as a dialect of Catalan by the Royal Spanish Academy, though some Catalans might disagree and consider the dialects languages of their own. Valencian, the western variety of Catalan, is spoken in the autonomous community of Valencia. Balear of Balearic Catalan is home to the Balearic Islands and makes up the eastern variety of Catalan. Within Catalonia itself, the two varieties central and north-eastern Catalan exist.
The co-official language in Galicia is Galician, or gallego. The variant Eonavian is spoken in Asturias and therefore known as Galician-Asturian. Approximately three million people in Spain speak Galician, which makes for 5.5 percent of the population. Around 5 percent call it their mother tongue.
If you speak Spanish, Galician is the easiest regional language in Spain to acquire, and as an Iberian Romance language, it’s actually related to Portuguese, with which it once formed the linguistic unity of Galician-Portuguese. The three main dialects of Galician are western, central, and eastern.
The term gallego to denote a Spaniard, especially used in Latin America, originates from the fact that many Spanish settlers in north and south America came from Galicia or at least left from there for the ‘new world’.
In the Basque country and parts of Navarre, the co-official language is Basque. Apart from standard Basque, six main dialects exist. A little less than one million people speak Basque today, or about 1.2 percent of Spain’s population. Only 0.8 percent call it their mother tongue.
Occitan / Arenese
Occitan is a Romance language spoken in the Aran valley in Spain, where it is also called Aranese and spoken natively by less than 3,000 people. However, Occitan is a co-official language in all of Catalonia.
The region of Occitania spreads across Southern France, Monaco, and Italy’s Occitan valleys, In Spain, it includes the Aran valley. Catalan is a close relative to Occitan and was considered its dialect until the end of the 19th century.
Spanish dialects: the less common languages in Spain
The different regions of the Iberian peninsula had their own languages, but without a status as official or co-official language in today’s Spain, they’re relegated to the role of the many Spanish dialects.
- Extremaduran: Approximately 200.000 people in Extremadura and areas of Salamanca speak castuó or Extremduran.
- Cantabrian: A group of dialects belonging to Astur-Leonese and spoken by 120.000 people in the autonomous community of Cantabria in the north of Spain.
- Asturian: Home to Asturias, around half a million people speak the Romance language Asturian.
- Aragonese: A modern language which originated from Navarro-Aragonese and spoken by some 30.000 people in Aragon.
- Leonese: Romance dialects home to the historical region of León in Spain are subsumed under the term Leonese and spoken by nearly 50.000 people.
- Altoaragonese: The province of Huesca close to Zaragoza is home to 12.000 speakers of this endangered and protected, yet unofficial, language.
- Fala Galaico-Extremeña: Between Extremadura and Portugal, only 6.000 people speak this language.
- Murcian: The region of Murcia and adjacent regions are home to this southern dialect of Spanish.
- Silbo gomero: Classified as a UNESCO Intangible Heritage of Humanity, Silbo gomero is a whistling language or codex invented and used by the aborigines of the Canary Islands. The loud sounds allowed for communication across valleys and ravines and distances of up to five kilometers. In essence, it’s a transposition of Spanish speech to whistling. Silbo gomero is still electively taught at school on the island La Gomera.
Foreign languages spoken in Spain
More than 6 million people living in Spain were born in other countries, which makes up just above 13 percent of the population. The majority of immigrants in Spain come from other European countries, but also Latin America, northern Africa, Asia, or Russia.
Immigrant languages therefore include Latin American Spanish, English, French, Italian, Portuguese, German, Chinese, Russion, or Tagalog. The following are the most common foreign languages spoken in Spain:
- English: 11.7% of the population speak English, while 0.42% call it their mother tongue.
- French: 5.85 % speak French, with 1.36% native speakers.
- Romanian: 2.78% of the population speak the language, and 2.69% call it their mother tongue.
- Italian: 1.93% of Spanish residents speak Italian, but only 0.1% call it their mother tongue.
- Portuguese: 1.55% of the population speaks the language, with 0.31% native speakers.
- German: 1.22% of residents in Spain speak German, while 0.11% are native speakers.
- Arabic: 0.73% of the population speak Arabaic, 0.63% call the language their mother tongue.
- Russian: 0.3% speak it, 0.1% are native Russian speakers.
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