Languages and dialects in Spain


Many new arrivals are surprised to learn that more than one language is actually spoken in Spain. Castilian Spanish (known as Castellano) is the official language and is understood everywhere. However, you might not always be replied to in the same language!

One of our readers commented, "I spent five years learning Spanish, went to Barcelona and suddenly found out the Catalans are much keener on speaking their own language!". This sounds frustrating, but Catalunya is the most complicated case as people there are very proud of their language. The good news is that foreigners get a lot more concessions and you will probably be spoken to in Castellano once they realise. In cities you will generally always be OK speaking Castellano, but in small villages, especially with older people, things might not be so easy.

There are several regional languages/dialects in Spain (and not all are listed here), they range from very close to Castellano to completely different:

  • Catalán is spoken in the region of Catalunya (whose capital is Barcelona). This is a Romance language like Castellano with French and Italian influences
  • Valenciano is used in the neighbouring community of Valencia and is closely related to Catalán
  • In the Northwestern region of Galicia, residents speak Gallego , which resembles a mix of Portuguese and Castellano.
  • In the País Vasco and northern Navarra, Euskera/ Vasco is the traditional language. It is unique with non-Latin roots and completely incomprehensible to all speakers of other languages in Spain. With very few exceptions, Basques usually speak Castellano.
  • In the Balearic Islands, Mallorquín is the principal dialect, similar to Catalán.
  • In Asturias, there is Asturianu ( Bable) , which is quite similar to Castellano and is spoken mostly in the countryside.

During the time of Franco's dictatorship, which ended in 1975, all regional languages were suppressed along with separate regional identities. But in modern Spain they have become increasingly important, and many now have the status of official languages alongside Castilian Spanish.

Knowledge of these languages/dialects can be useful, particularly if you are doing business in Catalunya. However, you will do just fine speaking only Castellano as it is universally understood. For the sake of simplicity, we will refer to Castellano as just Spanish going forward.

Further reading

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Other comments

  • Oana, Barcelona, 02 January 2009 Reply

    Dialect vs language

    If a Catalan sees this webpage, he/she will feel deeply offended. Check the definition of "dialect"! Catalan is a language and not a dialect, just like Euskera and Gallego. You have a very informative webpage, but it would be good if you checked all the cultural sensitive issues.

    • Maureen O'Hara 29 Aug 2012, 04:39

      Catalan is not a dialect!

      When Spain was under the fascist dictatorship of Franco, he insisted that the language spoken in Castillia was "Spanish" and everything else spoken within the borders of Spain was a "dialect". Of course, there are still fascists who hold that point of view. And anyone who comes here and says anything about "the dialects" of Spain will be marked as such.