By Dimaris Barrios-Beltran, PhD and Kristina Klausen, MBA
How hard is it for kids to learn a particular foreign language? That is often one of the first questions many parents ask when considering foreign language education for their children. Because Spanish is similar to English in several ways, and because many aspects of Spanish and Latin American culture are familiar to students in the United States, Spanish is considered one of the easier foreign languages for children to learn. In this post we’ll look at some of the features that make Spanish easier for kids to learn, and in part two we’ll look at some of the challenges that Spanish learners face.
Linguistic Similarities Between English and Spanish for Children
Spanish is a Romance language, meaning it’s a language with roots going back to the Roman Empire, where the official language was Latin. Other Romance languages include French, Portuguese, Italian and Romanian. While English is considered a Germanic language, it also has many words that originate from Latin. That, along with a mostly similar alphabet and grammar structure makes Spanish relatively easy for children to learn.
English and Spanish Share the Roman Alphabet
There are 26 letters in the English alphabet, and all of them are used in the Spanish alphabet as well. This makes learning Spanish much easier than a second language with a different set of letters, such as Russian or Japanese. Spanish does have 27 letters, the extra one being the ñ, pronounced like the ‘ny’ sound in ‘canyon’.
Despite this difference, most language learners agree that Spanish phonetics and pronunciation are easier than English because each letter makes just one sound. Once children learn the letters, they can sound out new words with relative ease. Even accent marks don’t change the sound that the vowels make, so pronunciation on the whole is very standardized.
English and Spanish Share Some Basics of Word Order
For the most part, putting together grammatically correct sentences in Spanish for children is quite similar to English. In most cases, basic declarative sentences are formed with a subject-verb-object construction. For example, in the English sentence “I eat chocolate,” the subject comes first, then the action and finally the object, or thing being acted upon. In Spanish, the word order is the same: Yo como chocolate.
Likewise, questions begin with the question word in Spanish, just as they do in English. One significant word order difference in Spanish is that adjectives tend to come after nouns, which is the opposite of English. For example, in English we say, “the white house” but in Spanish, this is la casa blanca. Though this switch can take a little getting used to, it doesn’t usually hinder understanding.
English and Spanish Share Many Cognates
Cognates are words that are spelled the same, or similarly, in two different languages and also share a similar meaning. Again, this is thanks to the common Latin heritage shared by English and Spanish. Cognates act as a fast track to understanding Spanish, and the shared vocabulary is very easy to memorize. Knowing more words with Latin roots might also help your child decode unfamiliar vocabulary on standardized tests, so learning Spanish is a gift that keeps on giving.
It’s estimated that there are over 25,000 words in English that are cognates for words in Romance languages like Spanish. For example, you may have already noticed that “chocolate” from the example above is the same in English and in Spanish. Recognizing cognates makes figuring out Spanish relatively easy. Take the sentence, “El elefante es grande.” Your child might not need any help figuring out that it means “The elephant is big” — especially if you’ve ever ordered a mocha grande at your favorite coffee shop.
Cultural Connections to the Spanish Language
Spanish also feels easier for many American students because they see connections to Spanish and Latin American culture on a regular basis.
Our shared border with Mexico and the popularity of food like tacos, enchiladas and salsa mean that many students are already familiar with Spanish words and pronunciations. Likewise, many place names in the United States are of Spanish origin, particularly in California and the Southwest, where Spanish settlers lived for hundreds of years before the Louisiana Purchase and annexation of Texas.
The Benefits of Learning Spanish
Being able to speak Spanish will give your children the opportunity to expand their knowledge about the world and interact with the growing population of Spanish speakers in the country. Learning Spanish also opens the doors to academic opportunities in the form of AP classes and advanced college courses, all of which prepares your children for successful careers as adults. As for adventuring and exploring the world, knowing Spanish will increase opportunities for travel because it is the official language in 21 countries around the globe. 400 million people speak the language!
Will there be challenges? Yes, and stay tuned, we’ll explore them in part two of this series. Learning a new language requires time, dedication and consistent practice. However, there will be benefits and opportunities too. And don’t worry. PandaTree‘s friendly, knowledgeable tutors are always here to help support your child’s language learning journey.
About the Authors
Kristina Klausen is the founder and CEO of PandaTree.com, which provides one-on-one online foreign language lessons for kids. She has an MBA from Harvard Business School and is mom to kids learning Mandarin and Spanish.
Dimaris Barrios-Beltran has a PhD is Language Sciences, minoring in Linguistics and Hispanic Linguistics, from Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana. She also teaches Spanish to students from elementary school through to college.