Comparing Spanish vs Italian — Core differences and similarities in grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation — and a discussion of which is the best language to learn.
Spanish and Italian are two well-known European languages with a lot of similarities between them.
If you know Italian but not much about Spanish, or know Spanish but not much about Italian, you might think they’re quite similar, or wonder about how big the differences could be. If you don’t know either language, you might think they’re similar too!
To an outside observer who speaks only English (or Arabic or Chinese), Spanish and Italian may seem so similar as to almost be dialects.
But to anyone who knows either language, the question of whether someone is speaking “Spanish vs Italian” is huge! There are important differences in grammar, vocabulary, and even pronunciation, that we discuss in detail.
If you’re considering learning either Spanish or Italian and can’t decide which, we have a quick guide to that too.
In a Nutshell — Spanish vs Italian
At their core, Spanish and Italian are distinct languages with different rules around grammar, a lot of unique vocabulary, and even — despite sounding quite similar to the casual observer — distinct pronunciation rules. (Try getting a monolingual Spanish-speaker to say “spaghetti” — they’ll have difficulty starting a word with “sp” without pronouncing it “esp”.)
But despite this, Spanish and Italian retain so much in common that for simple phrases spoken slowly by an educated speaker and patient listener, they’re sometimes mutually intelligible. I’ve seen it happen (and also fail).
Both Spanish and Italian are derived from “Vulgar Latin“, the name given to colloquial or spoken Latin (as distinguished from the formal written form of Latin with its rigid rules). This is what puts them in the same language family of “romance” languages, and why they have so much in common compared to languages from other families.
If a Spanish-speaker knows just a bit of Italian, or if an Italian speaker has a lot of exposure to Spanish, it becomes possible to figure out what’s going on. That’s actually how I learned the basics of Italian a long time ago — I listened to the radio and tried to figure it out, and when I couldn’t, I’d go look up a rule or word (“why do they keep saying quindi??”, I remember wondering — it’s a word which Italians say all the time and with no equivalent-sounding word in Spanish).
But for mutual intelligibility between Spanish and Italian, it requires one person to speak slowly, and the other to listen patiently. I saw it work in some touristy situations, but I do remember a hilarious conversation in a shop (ok… in Zara, I’m not a big spender) in Italy between a shopper saying in Spanish “But if I speak slowly, you will be able to understand” and the shop attendant saying in Italian “I’m sorry, Miss, I don’t speak Spanish”.
Shopper: “Hablo Español pero si hablo despacito usted puede entender…”
Attendant: “Mi scusi signorina ma non parlo Spagnolo”
Spanish vs Italian Grammar — Not exactly the same…
Being descendants of colloquial Latin, both Spanish and Italian share a lot of grammar features.
Overall, Italian and Spanish grammar have a lot of features in common, including
- Basic sentence order (subject-verb-object, just like English) and structure
- Grammatical gender (two of them) and agreement between nouns and adjectives in gender
- Plurals and agreement between nouns and adjectives
- Conjugation (though the rules are a bit different), with mostly the same ones used (including the diabolical subjunctive)
- Use of formality (speaking to an older person, or someone you don’t know)
- Similar use of direct, indirect, and object pronouns
- Lack of cases (unlike Russian, German, or Modern Standard Arabic)
But there are a few important differences between Italian and Spanish grammar that I picked up while learning to speak both.
- Spanish relies more on the simple past tense (preterite) than Italian, which prefers the perfect tense in conversation (to indicate the past tense)
- Like French, Italian uses either essere (to be) and avere (to have) to form the perfect tense, depending on the participle; Spanish just uses haber (equivalent of avere in Italian)
- Italian uses adverbial pronouns (ci and ne) just as French does; Spanish does not
Let’s examine a few of the more interesting similarities and differences below.
Grammatical Gender in Italian and Spanish
Both Italian and Spanish have grammatical gender, i.e. nouns (like a table, or the concept of “justice”) have genders, and adjectives correspond to them.
But while some words share a grammatical gender (i.e. are either masculine or feminine in both languages), many are not.
A rough rule for me is that if the words are of the same origin and structure, they’re almost definitely of the same grammatical gender. For example, pez and pesce (“fish”), baño and bagno (“bath”), and café and caffè (“coffee”) are masculine in both languages.
But televisión and televisore (“television”… don’t act so surprised), despite having a similar root, are feminine and masculine in Spanish and Italian respectively.
One similar aspect of grammatical gender between Italian and Spanish is that you can guess/assume the gender of many nouns by their structure, and the rules are quite similar between the two languages.
- Nouns ending in o are usually masculine in both Italian and Spanish
- Nouns ending in a are usually feminine in both
- Nouns ending in ción and zione in both languages are usually feminine
- Nouns ending in -dad in Spanish or tà in Italian (which usually correspond, e.g. felicidad and felicità) are usually feminine
- Nouns ending in -or in Spanish and -ore in Italian (which often correspond, e.g. director and direttore) are usually masculine
There are many other rules like this on how to guess the gender of a word in Italian and Spanish — pick up a grammar book from either if you’re interested. I really like the Teach Yourself series, they offer bite-sized lessons and are very easy to process.
One other aspect of grammatical gender that Spanish and Italian have in common is that you don’t have to conjugate a verb differently according to the gender of the subject. In other words, if you say “I want to drink coffee”, you say it the same way in Spanish or Italian no matter your gender identity.
Conjugation in Italian and Spanish
Overall, conjugation rules in Italian and Spanish are quite similar — though of course the precise rules are different.
Italian and Spanish have the usual suite of conjugations you’d expect in a Romance language.
Similarities in conjugation between Italian and French include:
- First, second, and third-person conjugations in both singular and plural, but not varying for gender
- A “formal” pronoun and associated conjugation, for both singular and plural
- Pronouns are not usually used other than for emphasis — in contrast with French (see our article on French vs Spanish)
- Similar tenses — Past, present, continuous, imperative, future, subjunctive, conditional, and other tenses used largely the same (although with an exception in how the past tense is expressed — see below on this)
- Verbs categorised and grouped in similar ways: e.g. Spanish has three main groups of verbs (ending in ar, er, and ir), as does Italian (are, ere and ire); verbs can be grouped into other major groups as well
Probably the main difference, expressed in as simple terms as possible, is that Italian verbs tend to end in vowels in all their conjugations, rather than with an “s” or “n” as they do in Spanish.
Formality in Italian vs Spanish Grammar
Spanish covers a huge geographic area. But very broadly, the way it treats formality is roughly consistent, with a few exceptions (like the countries that use vos).
Spanish uses the usted singular formal second person pronoun (“you formal”), which is conjugated the same as “he/she”.
Spanish also has ustedes for the plural form of “you formal”. In Spain, this is distinguished from vosotros/as, which is the “you plural, informal”. But vosotros/as isn’t used anywhere in Latin America (though it is used in Equatorial Guinea — see this paper).
Italian has the pronoun Lei for “you, formal”. Lei is always capitalised, to distinguish it from the pronoun lei, which means “he” — and which is conjugated the same, conveniently! Context is what helps people understand the meaning.
The pronoun voi, which normally is the plural of tu (i.e. “you plural, informal”) is also used as a form of respectful address to one person, particularly in the south of Italy. In this case, it works just like vous in French.
The social rules on when to use Lei and usted are roughly the same between Italian and French-speaking cultures (I’ve seen it similarly used in other French-speaking countries). You use the formal pronoun with someone you don’t know who’s of adult age or above. And you may always use it for someone significantly older/more senior than you, even when you know them quite well.
But you rarely/never use formal pronouns with someone much younger, or between two young people (say, under 25) in casual situations.
Simple past tense (Preterite) vs Perfect tense
In Spanish, to express the past tense (like “I went to the movies” or “I shot the sheriff, but I did not shoot the deputy”), the simple past tense is more often used. In Italian, especially in conversation, the perfect tense is used.
|Fui al cine. (simple past)||Sono andato al cinema. (perfect)|
|Le disparé al alguacil pero no le disparé al ayudante. (simple past)||Ho sparato allo sceriffo ma non ho sparato al vicesceriffo. (perfect)|
In addition, you can see from the above that you can form the perfect tense in Italian with essere (sono andato) or with the verb avere (ho sparato). Which verb you form it with depends on the dependent verb. But in Spanish, you only use haber.
(As a brief general rule on when to use essere or avere: use essere with verbs of movement, and with reflexive verbs; use avere for all others, other than a few exceptions).
Italian does have the simple past tense, but you tend to see it more in formal written form like in newspapers and novels. As a reader, it’s important to recognise it with common verbs like essere and avere, especially as those are irregular.
In Spanish, the perfect tense is used to indicate completion. If you said “He disparado al alguacil”, it would mean “I have shot the sheriff”. It doesn’t just refer to the past. Also, in Spanish, the perfect tense is always formed with haber.
Spanish vs Italian Vocabulary
It’s an interesting exercise to compare the common, everyday vocabulary of two languages like Spanish vs Italian and compare whether the words look similar or different.
Let’s start with Spanish and Italian verbs in this list of 25 common verbs. I’ve boldfaced the ones that are similar.
|to be able/can||poder||potere|
|to have to, must||deber||dovere|
|to take||coger/tomar (regional)||prendere|
|to ask, request||pedir||chiedere|
|to return/give pack||volver||tornare|
|to pass, to go past||pasar||passare|
Those of you who have read our Italian vs French guide might notice that the verbs that are different between Italian and Spanish, e.g. tornare vs volver, tend to correspond between Italian and French — French uses retourner. This is something we often see in romance languages. Once you learn two, you have much more vocabulary coverage of a third one and it takes a fraction as long to learn the third. (Sorry, the first two will still take a while, especially the first one! But it’s worth it…)
The two verbs hacer and fare might look different to you, but they’re part of a family that acts the same in all romance languages — faire in French, and fazer in Portuguese. Spanish is the odd one out spelling it with an “h”.
Let’s also look at these common nouns and adjectives in Spanish vs Italian. Again, I’ll boldface the ones that are similar between the two languages.
|Everday nouns & adjectives||Spanish||Italian|
|apple, banana, fruit, celery, pumpkin, spinach, beef, milk, eggs, cheese||manzana, plátano, fruta, apio, calabaza, espinacas, carne, leche, huevos, queso||mela, banana, frutta, sedano, zucca, spinaci, carne, latte, uova, formaggio|
|shop, street, car, light, sun, moon, house, bicycle, hospital, newspaper||tienda, calle, coche, luz, sol, luna, casa, bicicleta, hospital, periódico||negozio, strada, auto, luce, sole, luna, casa, bicicletta, ospedale, giornale|
|sofa, fridge, chair, pen, desk, paper, computer, wall, door||sofá, refrigerador, silla, bolígrafo, escritorio, papel, ordenador, pared, puerta||divano, frigorifero, sedia, penna, scrivania, carta, computer, parete, porta|
|person, child, boy, girl, man, woman, father, mother, uncle, aunt||persona, niño, chico/muchacho, chica/muchacha, hombre, mujer, padre, madre, tío, tía||persona, bambino, ragazzo, ragazza, uomo, donna, padre, madre, zio, zia|
|money, business, wallet, cash, work/job, vacation/holiday||dinero, negocio, cartera, efectivo, trabajo, vacaciones||soldi, affari, portafoglio, denaro, lavoro, vacanze|
|tree, sky, plant, grass, rock, glass, plastic, thing||árboles, cielo, planta, hierba, roca, vidrio, plástico, cosa||alberi, cielo, pianta, erba, roccia, vetro, plastica, cosa|
|day, week, month, year, hour, minute, second, today, tomorrow, yesterday, later, earlier||día, semana, mes, año, hora, minuto, segundo, hoy, mañana, ayer, más tarde, más temprano||giorno, settimana, mese, anno, ora, minuto, secondo, oggi, domani, ieri, più tardi, prima|
|big, small, wide, thin, narrow, cold, hot, empty, full, good, bad||grande, pequeño, ancho, delgado, estrecho, frío, caloroso, vacío, lleno, bueno, malo||grande, piccole, largo, magro, stretto, freddo, caloroso, vuoto, pieno, buono, cattivo|
|rich, poor, near, far, happy, sad, kind, malicious, hard, soft, easy, difficult||rico, pobre, cerca, lejos, feliz, triste, amable, malicioso, duro, blando, fácil, difícil||rico, povero, vicino, lontano, felice, triste, amichevole, malizioso, duro, morbido, facile, difficile|
|less, more, as well, already, occasionally, few, many, some, often||menos, más, así, ya, de vez en cuando, pocos, muchos, algunos, a menudo||meno, più, così, già, di tanto in tanto, pochi, molti, alcuni, spesso|
Again, many of the Italian words that aren’t similar to Spanish words are similar to French ones. But not all of them! For example, the word for “same” in Italian (stesso) isn’t the same as either Spanish or French.
Spanish vs Italian Pronunciation — 7 Major Differences
Briefly… both Spanish and Italian are pretty easy to learn to pronounce. If you know one, then it’s trivial to learn to pronounce the other.
Most vowels and consonants in Spanish and Italian are pronounced the same. Both languages get pretty heavy on vowel usage, with tripthongs in regular usage (Spanish: ¿Qué queríais hacer? Italian: Che vuoi fare?)
But there are some big differences between Italian and Spanish pronunciation that can trip up a language learner. Here are some of the most important ones from the perspective of a learner.
1. Italian can have consonants following the letter “s”, and Spanish cannot. For example, spaghetti. Spanish have the same word, and it’s espaguetis.
2. Spanish tends to accentuate the trilled “r” when it’d doubled (correr) or after a consonant (alrededor). The emphasis is not as strong in Italian.
3. Italian is naturally very sing-songy. Spanish is usually not, and is often described as being spoken very “quickly” by language learners. Spanish can have a sing-songy accent in some parts of the world, like in Argentina (where it was heavily influenced by Italian migrants) or in Medellín, Colombia.
4. Italian has double letters everywhere, and they’re pronounced with emphasis. Spanish has far fewer of these. Aside from the usual food tropes (ok fine… pizza!), a few words that are in both languages but which have a double letter are (Spanish/Italian):
- apartamento/appartamento (“apartment”)
- nivel/livello (“level”)
- ser/essere (“to be”)
Spanish has double “r” fairly often (carro), and you can also find a double “n” in some spellings (connotación). You can find a double “c” in some words, but each letter is pronounced distinctly (e.g. diccionario, where it’s pronounced “dik-thionario” or “dik-sionario”).
Spanish does have a double l, but it’s considered its own letter.
5. Spanish tends to have many more “s” sounds, making it hissy sounding. Spanish uses the letter s to form most plurals and for many conjugations. Consider the following sentences:
- English: Do you want to wait here a few minutes while we make you some coffees?
- Spanish: ¿Vosotros queréis esperar aquí unos cuantos minutos mientras que te preparamos unos cafes?
- Italian: Volete aspettare qui qualche minuto mentre ti prepariamo dei caffè?
6. Continental Spanish has a ‘th’ sound that’s absent in Italian (and in Latin America). Spanish-speakers from most parts of Spain (apart from Anadalucia) pronounce “z” and “c” (before a vowel) as a gentle “th”. Get a Spanish-speaker from Madrid to say Zaragoza and you’ll hear it in a second. This sound is totally absent from Italian.
7. Italian has both a closed an open “e” and “o”. Most vowels in Spanish and Italian are very similar. So the open and closed “e” and “o” is a tricky one for Spanish speakers who expect everything to be uniform!
A simple set of rules is that unstressed “e” and “o” are always closed, a stressed final “e” is closed, and a stressed final “o” is open. You’ll find exceptions, though.
- Closed “e”: like the Spanish “e”, as in “bet”, from the roof of the mouth. Examples: e (and), bere (to drink), me (me)
- Open “e”: halfway to an “a” sound. Some words: c’è (there is), è (is), festa (party)
- Closed “o”: like the Spanish “o”, with a closed mouth. Examples: subito (right away), uno (one)
- Open “o”: like from the “o” in “bottle”, or like an North American “awe”. Examples: però (however”), no, ancora (“also/yet”), moda (fashion)
There’s more to cover than the above, but the above are the most important distinctions in pronunciation.
Aside from the above, there are a few differences in orthography, like unique letters (like “ñ” in Spanish, written as “gn” in Italian), and consonant/vowel/dipthong clusters (guardia, dunque, voglio) in each language, and some unique rules about how to read. But those are less critical and not huge distinctions, just things to learn along the way in your langauge-learning journey.
Which language should you learn, Spanish or Italian? Pros and Cons
Many people find this page because they’re considering which of the two languages to learn.
The short answer is — learn whichever one you can see yourself really trying to learn for the long run. When you need to take a pause in your learning, or you realise it’s harder than you think and start to panic that you’re in too deep, nothing will help you keep going more than your heart. An intellectual decision that “this is a more useful language” just won’t help you pull through as much.
But let’s go through comparing the pros and cons of learning Spanish vs Italian.
Pros of learning Spanish over Italian…
(and cons of learning Italian over Spanish)
- Spanish is MUCH more widely spoken than Italian. It’s the first language of Spain, most of Latin America (other than Brazil with Portuguese and a few other small countires that speak English, or in one case, Dutch). Spanish is also well-spoken as a second language by Europeans and Americans. By contrast, Italian is spoken predominantly in Italy (and in immediate surrounds, e.g. in parts of Switzerland), and even in Italy it isn’t everyone’s first language — if you go to Naples or Sicily, you might be surprised by the language you hear people on the streets speaking (even though they do speak Italian fluently).
- Spanish has many more language-learning resources As it’s spoken by so many people, including a large percentage of the population of the US, finding resources and teachers online and offline is much, much easier. Check out our Spanish language resources page for a starting point.
- Learning Spanish gives you access to a lot of modern music and culture from around the Spanish-speaking world. Learn all the words to your favourite pop songs, or learn the words to classical salsa tracks while you learn to dance.
Pros of learning Italian over Spanish…
- Italian is a really beautiful language. It is spoken in a lilting fashion. The fact that most words end with vowels means it lacks the hissiness of Spanish (or English or many other languages). This is very subjective, but the fact that Italian sounds beautiful is an opinion so widely held that I think it uncontroversial. Spanish isn’t ugly, but for me and may others, Italian wins on aesthetics.
- Italian gives you access to Italian culture and history. Being able to understand Italian lets you understand operas, many of which were written in Italian.
- Italian is slightly easier to learn if you know French already. A lot of people either know French, or at least studied it in school. If you did, you have more of a leg up learning Italian than most people because of a few shared features of Italian and French grammar.
Where it’s a TIE between Spanish and Italian…
- Both Spanish and Italian are roughly as hard as each other. I wouldn’t call one significantly easier than the other. They have different features, but those are just details you’ll learn.
- Pronouncing either Spanish or Italian is roughly as hard as the other. They each have unique characteristics, and the hardest parts of each for native English speakers (e.g. a trilled R, or getting intonation right) are similarly difficult.
Whatever language you choose to learn in greater depth — good luck, and drop us a line to let us know how it’s going!