Can Italians Understand Spanish? (Surprisingly, Yes!)

avatarMille Larsen
4 mins read

Italian and Spanish are two languages that are both descended from Latin. The languages are related, in other words, which is also the case for German and English for example.

But how close are they actually? I've previously asked the question in my comparison between Spanish and Italian. The answer is, that they're pretty close!

But are they mutually intelligible? Do Italians understand Spanish?

Surprisingly, yes!

It is entirely possible for an Italian speaker to understand Spanish, but each person needs to adapt, speak slowly, and sometimes change their vocabulary. Spanish and Italian are two languages that are very close in terms of vocabulary and grammar. Pronunciation-wise, they do share a lot, but Spanish is known for being monotone whereas Italian is very melodic.

A Profound Knowledge Of One Language Helps You Understanding The Other

Generally, native Spanish speakers have an easier time getting by with Italians than people who speak Spanish as a second language.

The reason for this is that the current word in Italian might not be as common in Spanish and vice-versa.

Since both Italian and Spanish evolved from Latin, the bulk of the vocabulary in both languages have the same, Latin, roots.

Sometimes you'll find, however, that the common word in Spanish comes from a specific Latin word, and that the equivalent word in Italian comes from another Latin word which used to be a synonym.

Often, this will mean that a common word in Italian sounds like a rare word in Spanish which means practically the same, but if you haven't got any knowledge of these less common words, the other language will seem completely foreign to you.

An example of this is in street names. In Italian a street is called "via" whereas in Spanish it's "calle". But "via" exists in Spanish, too - it's just less common.

False Friends: Words That Sound The Same, But Aren't

Spanish and Italian do sound and look really similar, but if you try getting by in Italy by speaking Spanish, you'll quickly find that some words don't mean the same.

"False friends" are words that exist in both languages but have different meanings. Using them, carelessly chatting away can result in confused looks and misunderstandings.

  • "burro" means "butter" in Italian, but "donkey" in Spanish. This can make for some strange questions in restaurants.
  • "salir" in Spanish means "to leave" whereas in Italian "salire" means to "rise" or "go up". Curiously, in French, it means "to make something dirty".
  • "tener" means "to have" in Spanish, whereas in Italian, "tenere" means "to take".

And there are many more similar false friends like this, which means that a Spanish speaker easily can make assumptions and use a specific word with Italians, only to make them confused.

The trouble with false friends is that you can't know for sure which ones they are without actually learning the vocabulary!

Conclusion: Do Italians Understand Spanish?

While the two languages have important differences, with a little effort from both parties, it is actually possible for an Italian and a Spanish speaker who each know their own language well, to communicate.

Both individuals will have to be on the lookout for false friends, sometimes use synonyms, speak slowly, and try to accommodate the other person as well as possible, but it is possible.

Many Spanish speakers who have gone to Italy and initially spoken English with the Italians, have found that when the Italians discover that they speak Spanish, they'll want to carry on the conversation in Italian/Spanish rather than in English.

While you could easily assume that this was a common thing in related languages, it really isn't. You won't get far speaking Spanish in Portugal, for example. And someone from the Netherlands better not try to rely on Dutch in the US.

There are exceptions, though, like with the Scandinavian languages. A Swedish speaker can get by fine by speaking Swedish in Denmark.

And Spanish speakers do pretty well with Italians!