Italian And Spanish Compared: Which Is Better To Learn?

When I began my year of learning Italian, I was already a speaker of Spanish. And as both Spanish and Italian are descended from Vulgar Latin, they have a lot in common.

At times, having familiarity with Spanish was somewhat of an advantage, and at other times, it's actually a disadvantage. But a lot of the time, it's just a fact, neither a help nor a hindrance.

Similarities

There are many ways in which Spanish and Italian are similar.

Both have a very similar Vulgar Latin grammar. Sentence structure is very similar. Both have two genders (masculine and feminine) and indicate them in similar ways.

In both languages, reflexive verbs have the reflexive pronoun on the end in the infinitive, and preceding in the conjugations. And except for a vowel change (si=se), the pronouns are basically the same.

Speaking of verbs, I find the conjugations remarkably similar between the two, throughout most of the verb tenses. Yes, they are different enough to necessitate study, but they are similar enough to make that study rather easy. Interestingly, I even found that irregular verbs are irregular in both languages, which must indicate a change that occurred long ago in Vulgar Latin.

Adverbs are formed in the same way between Spanish and Italian: simply add -mente to the end of the adjective. (eg: evidente becomes evidentemente).

With the exception of a minor spelling difference, the English -ity ending — which forms a noun from an adjective — sounds basically the same: in Spanish, -idad; in Italian, -ità.

In fact, there are a lot of spelling differences, and I actually count those among the similarities, because once you get used to those spelling differences — such as how Spanish makes the /kw/ sound with cu while Italian uses qu — you find that there is a lot of shared vocabulary.

Differences

There are also a few interesting differences.

Because most words end on a vowel in Italian, plurality is indicated with a vowel change, rather than by adding an s to the end, as in Spanish.

Spanish doesn't like words to start with an s, especially when the s is paired with another consonant (eg: español, estructura, escala). This problem doesn't occur in Italian, which happily begins words with consonant clusters starting with an s (eg: spagnolo, struttura, scala).

Because Italian has those consonant clusters, it also has a modification of the articles, to deal with them. Similar to a/an in English, the articles il and un become lo and uno in front of words beginning on such consonant clusters, to ease them out of the mouth.

And speaking of articles, Spanish counts possessives as articles, as in English, but Italian does not. Thus, in Italian you get some interesting constructs like il mio libro, or una mia amica.

Italian has the partitive pronoun ne, which I find both frustrating and amazing. Spanish has no such thing.

Both Spanish and Italian create contractions between prepositions and articles where the preposition ends on a vowels, but Italian also creates contractions (using the apostrophe) between articles and nouns when that noun begins on a vowel. And there is also freedom to create other, similar contractions occasionally. Spanish has no such contractions.

But perhaps the most significant difference — certainly the one that stands out to me when I hear the two languages — is the smooth, melodic, musical quality of Italian, with almost every word ending on a vowel. By comparison, a huge amount of Spanish words (half, if I guessed) end on consonants, which lends a slightly more harsh quality to the sound of language.


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  • An enlightening post that helps to explain my Italian experience. As an intermediate Spanish speaker, I audited an Italian class at a university assuming I would have an easy time of picking up the language. Sure enough, listening and reading were a breeze! However, even after a year, whenever I spoke, my professor said I sounded like a Mexican stuttering in Spanish attempting an Italian accent. Not exactly words of encouragement. I've set aside the Italian for now, but have my sights on Portuguese...

  • "Interestingly, I even found that irregular verbs are irregular in both languages, which must indicate a change that occurred long ago in Vulgar Latin."

    Actually, it's usually the regularity that's the change, whereas the irregularity represents preserved archaic forms. In Latin, the past tense (and the future perfect, and the past perfect) uses a different stem than the present tense (and the imperfect and the future). For example, the present conjugation of pōnō, to put, is as follows (using the stem pōn-):

    pōnō, pōnis, pōnit, pōnimus, pōnitis, pōnunt

    But the past is (using the stem posu-):

    posuī, posuistī, posuit, posuimus, posuistis, posuērunt*

    Note that this is not an exception: most verbs change their stems to indicate the perfect tenses. So the regularity we see in the Spanish, where the past tense stems have largely become the same as the present tense stems (I sing -- canto; I sang -- cantè), is the innovation (in Latin, the present stem is cant-, while the perfect stem is cantav-)

    It's the words that are irregular in the past tense-- e.g, poner (present - pongo, pones, pone, ponemos, etc., past - puse, pusiste, puso, etc.) -- that are actually closer to their Latin ancestors, preserving the separate stems.

    Unless you're referring to the present tense irregularities (we have pongo in both Spanish and Italian, although the Latin ancestor is pono), in which case I agree, the irregularity must be inherited from an innovation in Proto-Romance.

    "By comparison, a huge amount of Spanish words (half, if I guessed) end on consonants, which lends a slightly more harsh quality to the sound of language."

    I've never found the consonant ends to be particularly harsh. And the tendency to vocalize the unvoiced inner consonants of Latin adds to Spanish's musicality, to my ear. Rather it's the [x] sound of the "j" and "g" that grates. I wonder if this is an Arabic derivation.

    *Actually, this is the Classical Latin conjugation, which I'm using because we know what it is, whereas Vulgar Latin is just a guess. However, to see some reconstructed Vulgar Latin, see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Romance_verbs

  • I can't comment on Italian as I only have an intermediate level but with Spanish, I find it is a very "flowery" language, full of similes and metaphors, most likely because of its Arabic influence.

    Also, despite all these similarities, how did you stop mixing together these languages?

  • Would you say that Spanish is closer to Italian or Portuguese? I've always felt, never having learned either one, that it sounded closer to Italian, and I've had Spanish speakers tell me they can easily understand most spoken Italian.

    And I definitely do think that an aspiring polyglot should learn one of the Romance languages first, unless they're really dead-set on something else, because it makes all the other ones much easier to learn when you get around to them later. You learn Spanish and if, later on, you decide you want to learn French or Romanian, it'll be much easier for you thanks to having already learned Spanish.

    Cheers,
    Andrew

  • Standard Italian falls on the opposite side of the La-Spezia-Rimini line from both Portuguese and Spanish, which linguists typically use to differentiate Western Romance languages from Eastern Romance languages.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/La_Spezia-Rimini_Line

    "Generally speaking the western Romance languages show common innovations that the eastern Romance languages tend to lack. Another isogloss that falls on the La Spezia–Rimini line deals with the restructured voicing of voiceless consonants that occur between vowels. Thus, Latin focus/focum (meaning "fire") becomes fuoco in Italian and foc in Romanian, but fogo in Portuguese and Northern Italian languages and fuego in Spanish. Voicing, or further weakening, even to loss of these consonants is characteristic of the western branch of Romance; their retention is characteristic of eastern Romance."

  • Pnonetically Spanish & Italian resemble each other. Because Spanish & Portuguese grew up side by side, the written forms as well as the grammar resemble each other more than either of them do to Italian. But phonetically Portuguese ponounciation has nasal sounds that are non-existant in the other two languages. Portuguese also slurs over unstressed syllables, giving Portuguese speakers the advantage of understanding the speakers of the other two languages but not vice-versa. One curious, and perhaps humorous aspect between Portuguese & Italian is the former's disdain for the use of perfect tenses (I have slept) with an equal disdain for the latter's use of the preterite (il passato remoto). French has virtually abandoned it save in narratives or literature. Spanish, like English, enjoys the use of both tenses. (French has NO perfect tense. They use a round about expression «Je suis en train de goûter mon repas» "I'm enjoying my meal." I know that I've gone of on a tangent but I simply enjoy comparing the Romance Languages.

  • Haha, how diplomatic of her...

  • Ciao/Hola/Hello Matt. I lived in Italy for two years many years ago and learned to speak Italian. Came back to California and learned to speak Spanish. I took 18 classes of Spanish and got my master's degree in Spanish. Taught high school Spanish and before that was a bilingual teacher working with native Spanish speakers. In 1996 got a scholarship and went to school in San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato, Mexico. In 2006 started teaching first graders Italian through the Italian government in California. The Italian government then gave me a scholarship to study Italian in Perugia, Italy. For the past five years I have been teaching Italian and Spanish to adults. Tues. Thrus. nights Italian. Monday Wednesday nights Spanish.

    When I first moved to Italy I started studying day and night trying to learn Italian. Spoke only English at the time.)
    I had a personal Italian tutor who
    lived with me too. He would tell me basic Italian phrases and I would repeat them over and over again. After weeks
    or more of studying day and night, watching Italian TV, listening to Italian radio, listening to my Italian tutor I could not
    even count to 10 in Italian and could not remember the simple phrase, Come si chiama lei? What is your name.(Which
    btw was the first Italian phrase I learned.) I was frustrated to say the least. Then I met a Mexican guy who lived
    in the next apartments over. He could speak Italian fluently. I started going out with him and he had all these Italian
    friends and I noticed how he got along so well with them. He had an Italian girlfriend too along with all these Italian
    friends that only spoke to him in Italian. So I asked him how he had learned Italian so well and how long it took him
    to learn Italian. Will never forget what he said. He said that when he first got to Italy all he did was speak Spanish
    while trying to use an Italian accent and after a couple of weeks he learned Italian. But I said, what books, or tapes
    did you use to learn Italian since I was studying out of a book. He said he never used any books or tapes. Just listened
    to Italian radio and watched Italian TV. He would always say that Mexican culture and Italian culture had so much in
    common such as the value of friendship, importance of the family, religion and so on and so forth. When we would go
    out he would say that such and such lady or guy over there looked like his relatives back in Mexico.

  • I teach both Italian and Spanish to adults.(One night Italian and then the next night Spanish.) In fact 3/4 of my Italian students are Spanish speakers and they learn Italian rapido. Pobrecitos los English speakers. I myself learned Italian first and then Spanish. It is 100's of times easier for a Spanish speaker to learn Italian than an English speaker and visa versa.
    Spain was a Roman colony for 640 years. Latin was spoken in Spain for 840 years before it became Spanish. Italian and Spanish/Hispanic cultures are very similar. Family values, importance of friendship etc. etc.
    Spanish and Italian vowels sounds are the same. The most common sound that most represents Spanish the Ñ sound also exists in Italian.
    Ñ=GN in Italian. Also the other sound that most represents Spanish is the rolling of the letter R sound which is the same in Italian. Spanish letters t and d are pronounced the same in Italian also.
    Learn Spanish or Italian first and then the other Romance languages are facile or relativamente facile.
    Portuguese is more similar to Spanish than Italian but actually Italian pronunciation is more similar to to Spanish. Italian is closer to French than Spanish so if you are a Spanish speaker learn Italian first and then transition to French. I did. Being able to speak any of the Romance languages makes it easier to learn the others. I went to school both in Italy and Mexico. I can't believe how I'll see an Italian speaker that looks and sounds so much like Spanish speakers I know.(I live with a Spanish speaker and we only speak Spanish.) Spain ruled Italy for 3 generations and for 640 years Spain was a colony of the Roman Empire. The Greeks, Arabs, Moors, Jews, Celts and Germanic tribes were in both Spain and Italy.

  • See a simple but comprehensive comparison in
    http://www.lancs.ac.uk/staff/letchfoa/comparison/comparison.htm

  • "it's the [x] sound of the "j" and "g" that grates. I wonder if this is an Arabic derivation."I would say so. It sounded strange when I first heard it because the rest of Spanish seems to flow so naturally. There is a rythm to it all. Then it got to that and it sounded odd to me. Because I want to learn arabic, I listened to a lot of podcasts and tried to imitate the sounds. It is all very guttural and throaty, like the spanish j or g. Even the rolled r seems to come from the throat in arabic.edit: have you got a blog by the way?edit: oh, hang on. I see it now. I remember visiting it.

  • Dude, it was really just a simple question.I speak the three languages and have my own opinions on the similarities (PT is grammatically closer, IT has more direct word cognates - hence it sounds more similar), but good grief. It was a simple question, not a plea for random linguistic quotes.

  • Glossika had some interesting advice about this, and I've kind of experienced the same to be true. He more or less explains it as making a conscious effort to picture yourself in a country that speaks that language, become familiar with the sounds and the feelings of the language and then eventually filtering out anything that doesn't fit into that imagined immersion setting. It sounds fluffy and completely abstract, but it's pretty interesting, and I find that if you make an effort to imagine yourself in that country and pretend you are one of those people you can almost fool yourself into believing it and thereby decrease the instances of carry-over from other (similar) languages.I'm curious as well how you approach this though, Randy.

  • My experience with Portuguese is limited, but it seems that Portuguese is, in principle, closer to Spanish, however in practice, I find Italian more mutually intelligible.Regarding aspiring polyglots... I think "polyglot" is a stupid thing to aspire to. People should learn a language for the sake of communicating, not for the purpose of earning a title. And as long as you have that motivation, you'll never have a reason to worry about which language(s) to learn.

  • In spite of knowing how to drive a manual transmission, I can drive an automatic without accidentally moving the shifter. In spite of knowing how to write with a pencil, I don't mistakenly try to erase what I've written in pen. I've never tried to rewind a DVD after watching it, and I don't reach for my keys when returning to a hotel room.The key in all of these situations is context. When you use Spanish a lot and build a context around it, your brain recognizes it. And when you use Italian regularly, it gets it's own context a well. The only time you run the risk of blending them together is when you spend too much time studying, and not enough time *using* the languages.

  • Response given on the original comment.

  • The quote's not random, it's directly related to the question.And the questions is not simple: languages are complex things and comparisons between them even more so. So, I could just shoot from the hip, and say, yeah, in my opinion, Italian sounds more like Spanish. Or I could realize that there are people who have spent their lives studying the issue, see what they have to say about it, realize that they have indeed come to several conclusions, and report that. I prefer the latter.

  • Ah, so you were the one.

  • Perhaps I'm reading too little in his question. Perhaps you're reading too much in it.What I do know is that relying solely on wikipedia for an obtuse answer is no better than relying on just an opinion.That was really the point of my reply. You shot off a wikipedia quote (and nothing else). Maybe I'm unique in that I'd prefer to hear of someone's actual experience as a language learner.

  • That's very interesting, thank you for that, though I do have to say that I think, personally, Spanish and Italian are far more similar to each other than either is to French, oddly.Cheers,
    Andrew

  • People can learn languages (or anything else, for that matter) for whatever random or stupid reason they want to, as far as I'm concerned :P (hey, they're learning something, come on, what's to complain about, right?).Cheers,
    Andrew

  • I could make the same argument for cannibals who study anatomy. Hey, they're learning too, right? Heck... most of what Hitler did had an aspect of science and research to it.I'm not saying that an "aspiring polyglot" has anything in common wit Hitler... simply that "hey, they're learning, right?" isn't a good enough reason for doin something.

  • Experience teaches that French and Italian are nearly the same language... as are Spanish and Portuguese... But they're separated by wildly different pronunciations. Hence the reason Italian and Spanish are the most mutually intelligible — the languages differ, but the pronunciations are very similar.

  • An enlightening post that helps to explain my Italian experience. As an intermediate Spanish speaker, I audited an Italian class at a university assuming I would have an easy time of picking up the language. Sure enough, listening and reading were a breeze! However, even after a year, whenever I spoke, my professor said I sounded like a Mexican stuttering in Spanish attempting an Italian accent. Not exactly words of encouragement. I've set aside the Italian for now, but have my sights on Portuguese...

  • There's a discussion of the mutual intelligibility of the Romance languages here:https://forum.wordreference....

  • That's very interesting Louis, I did not know that--I knew Spanish speakers could generally talk to Portuguese speakers but vice-versa was a bit more difficult, now I know why, thank you.

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