With 329 million native speakers, Spanish ranks as the world’s No. 2 language in terms of how many people speak it as their first language. It is slightly ahead of English (328 million) but far behind Chinese (1.2 billion).
Spanish has at least 3 million native speakers in each of 44 countries, making it the fourth most widely spoken language behind English (112 countries), French (60) and Arabic (57).
Spanish is part of the Indo-European family of languages, which are spoken by more than a third of the world’s population. Other Indo-European languages include English, French, German, the Scandinavian languages, the Slavic languages and many of the languages of India. Spanish can be classified further as a Romance language, a group that includes French, Portuguese, Italian, Catalan and Romanian.
Although there is no clear boundary defining when the Latin of what is now the north-central area of Spain became Spanish, it is safe to say that the language of the Castile region became a distinct language in part because of efforts by King Alfonso in the 13th century to standardize the language for official use. By the time Columbus came to the Western Hemisphere in 1492, Spanish had reached the point where the language as spoken and written would be easily understandable today.
To the people who speak it, Spanish is sometimes called español and sometimes castellano (the Spanish equivalent of “Castilian”).
Spanish is one of the world’s most phonetic languages. If you know how a word is spelled, you can almost always know how it is pronounced (although the reverse isn’t true). The main exception is recent words of foreign origin, which usually retain their original spelling.
Although Spanish originated on the Iberian Peninsula as a descendant of Latin, today it is has far more speakers in Latin America, having been brought to the New World by Spanish colonialization. There are minor differences in vocabulary, grammar and pronunciation between the Spanish of Spain and the Spanish of Latin America, not so great as to prevent easy communication.
After Latin, the language that has had the biggest influence on Spanish is Arabic. Today, the foreign language exerting the most influence is English, and Spanish has adopted hundreds of English words related to technology and culture.