Language learners often wonder, which language is the hardest or easiest to learn. However, depending on the learner’s native language and other foreign languages they may already know, the answer to that question can differ greatly.

Why is that?

The thing is, languages can be ‘related’ just as people are, and the closer they are related, the easier it is to learn one after the other. In this article, we’ll take a quick look at what it means for languages to be related, how similar Spanish and Italian are, and what it implies for learners of these two languages.

Language families and groups

Languages of the world are divided into families based on how similar they are, and one of such families is Indo-European languages. Italian and German are both Indo-European languages. They belong to different groups inside the family and are not so closely related. However, they still share many more similarities than Italian and, say, Chinese or Arabic.

Italian and Spanish are even more related: they do not only belong to one language family, but they also belong to the same group within this family – Romance languages. Romance languages are the languages that originated from Latin between the 3rd and 8th centuries CE. They include Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, French, and Romanian.

What it means for languages to be related

So, what does it mean for Spanish and Italian to be related? How similar are these two languages? The short answer is: very.

It is most noticeable in the vocabulary. Some scholars estimate that the lexical similarity between Spanish and Italian is about 80%. This means that about 4/5 of the vocabulary of the two languages is similar. It is hardly ever exactly the same, however, there are quite a few words that are easily understandable in one language if you speak the other. Here are a few examples:

Musica (It.) — Música (Sp.)
Arte – Arte
Zero – Cero
La terra – La tierra
Tempo – Tiempo

There are also grammatical similarities: for instance, a tendency to drop pronouns or similar verb conjugations patterns. Pronunciation is rather straightforward in both languages.

It doesn’t make Spanish and Italian the same, though. Even with a large amount of shared vocabulary, there are a lot of words that are not mutually intelligible and false friends (words that look similar but have very different meanings). The grammatical systems of the two languages also have lots of peculiarities and nuances.

Learning the two languages

Learning Italian as a Spanish speaker (or vice versa) is relatively easy. After all, you already know 80% of the vocabulary, to some extent. When learning a language similar to the one you already know, you can rely on some of the shared vocabulary and similarities in grammar and pronunciation. It often saves a lot of time and effort.

However, these are two different languages. Knowing Spanish doesn’t immediately equal knowing Italian – you will still need to learn quite a few things. And you shouldn’t rely on the similarities too much. Beware of words like ‘burro’ – ‘butter’ in Italian and ‘donkey’ in Spanish. Similarities are tempting but don’t trust them implicitly – whenever in doubt, use a good dictionary to double-check or ask your teacher.

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