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SPANISH LANGUAGE

The cities in Spain where the ‘worst’ Spanish is spoken

Once you pick up a bit of Spanish, you soon realise that some Spaniards are harder to understand than others.

The cities in Spain where the 'worst' Spanish is spoken
The people in this city speak some of the worst Spanish in Spain. Photo: Tango7174 / WikiCommons

Spain is an incredibly culturally and linguistically diverse country and like anywhere, the accents change dramatically throughout the country. 

Going from rural Andalusia to central Madrid, or up to the Bay of Biscay, for example, can feel like being in three completely different countries in terms of cuisine and landscape, but also language. 

Spain also, of course, has five other official languages besides ‘castellano‘ (Spanish): Catalan, Valencian, Galician, Basque and Aranese.

But even among the regions that don’t have their own official languages, there’s a huge range of local dialects and accents.

Some, as you’ve probably noticed, can be a little more difficult to understand than others, and according to research carried out by Spain’s National Statistics Institute, INE, in some parts of Spain people do actually speak ‘worse’ Spanish than others.

The INE’s ‘Encuesta de Características Esenciales de la Población y las Viviendas‘ survey has revealed that the two cities in Spain where the worst Spanish is spoken are Murcia, in the south, and Melilla, one of Spain’s two autonomous enclaves in North Africa.

READ ALSO: Why are Ceuta and Melilla Spanish?

According to the survey, 93.5 percent of the Murcian population has a good level of knowledge of the Spanish language, the second lowest percentage in all of Spain, behind only those living in Melilla, where 93.4 percent have a good grasp. In terms of the place where the ‘best’ Spanish is spoken, Asturias received a score of 98.4 percent.

This score simply means that around 6.5 percent of Murcianos and Melilla residents don’t speak Spanish ‘well’, which could include grammar mistakes and poor pronunciation. 

Melilla

The explanation for Melilla’s relatively poor level of Spanish might be more obvious than the Murcianos.

Melilla is one of two Spanish autonomous cities in North Africa. The first, Ceuta, is bordered by Morocco on Africa’s northern coast, sitting on the boundary between the Atlantic and Mediterranean oceans. It is about 17km away from Cádiz province across the Strait of Gibraltar.

Melilla sits 250 km further eastwards down the coast towards Algeria and is just 12.3 km2 with a population of 86,000.

Like Ceuta, Melilla not only shares a border with Morocco but whole swathes of cross-cultural influence in things like food, trade and, crucially, language. If you’ve visited Melilla, you’ve probably heard that many people there (Spanish or Moroccan) speak both Spanish and Arabic.

Indeed, for some in Melilla, Arabic is possibly their first language, and in certain neighbourhoods in Spain’s North African cities, you might not hear much Spanish at all. Perhaps the prevalence of another language there dilutes the Spanish, relatively speaking, a little more understandable.

READ ALSO – Madrileños to gaditanos: What to call the locals from different parts of Spain 

Murcia

Murcia, however, doesn’t really have that excuse. 

For those of you who’ve spent time in Murcia, the revelation that Murcianos might not have a total grasp of grammatically correct Spanish probably won’t surprise you. Murcianos are, of course, notorious for their thick accents, a multitude of sayings such as ‘acho‘, and a seemingly endless list of diminutive word-endings (putting –ico and –ica on the end of words).

Many in Murcia also drop the ‘s’ sound from the ends of words, something also common across Andalusia, so something like ‘los perros‘ (the dogs) becomes ‘lo perro’. As a non-native speaker, this can be a little confusing until you become used to it.

But the Murcian dialect, difficult though it may be to understand at times, is traditional Castellano. Murcia doesn’t have its own language like other regions do, but ‘panocho‘, as it is sometimes referred to, does have a few different historical influences, including from those from Catalan, Arabic and Aragonese after the Reconquista – with the classic ico/a word endings a clear linguistic legacy of this. 

Interestingly, the INE study showed that the second best language spoken in Murcia is English, as opposed to Arabic or French any other language you might think is more likely. In fact, 12.6 percent of Murcians can understand, read, speak and write English, a figure that is far from the lowest in Spain. Five percent of people in Murcia speak Arabic, trailing only Ceuta and Melilla.

Classism?

According to linguistic experts, however, perhaps the perceptions of Murcianos and their grasp of Spanish are also rooted in classism. Murcia and Murcianos are frequently the butt of jokes from other Spaniards, whether in person or online.

Linguist Jorge Diz Pico told Spanish outlet El Español that these snobby perceptions about the Murciano accent and dialect are born partly from an absence of it in mainstream Spanish society: “The Murcian accent is absent in the mainstream media, and Murcianos who work in the media have to detach themselves from that accent out of shame,” he said.

“People associate those who talk like this with people of low social class and relate it to migratory phenomena within the peninsula” Diz Pico added. 

Though many probably admit that Murcianos may be a little difficult to understand at times, anyone who has spent time there would also likely tell you what wonderful people they are and that the accent, unconventional Spanish and shortened words are all part of the charm.

Local dialects are, Diz Pico says, an important part of the culture and worth preserving: “The accent is like a costume or type of music typical to a region. There should be no reason to eliminate them because they have associated prejudices”. 

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LEARNING SPANISH

Six celebrities who are fluent in (Castilian) Spanish

David Beckham may have struggled to string a sentence together in Spanish after four years in Madrid, but other famous faces have reached almost native levels in the language after spending time in España or with Spanish people.

Six celebrities who are fluent in (Castilian) Spanish

Freddie Highmore 

British actor Freddie Highmore, who as a child appeared alongside Johnny Depp in ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’ and ‘Finding Neverland’, is perhaps the most impressive Spanish speaker on the list. The star of ‘The Good Doctor’ TV series spent a year living in Madrid while he was studying and actually has a Galician grandmother. His Spanish accent, his grammar and spoken sentence construction is practically native.

Ivan Rakitic

There are dozens of foreign footballers playing in La Liga who speak Spanish at an almost native level: Frenchman Antoine Griezzman, Belgian Thibaut Cortois, Slovak Jan Oblak. But perhaps the most incredible of all is Croatian midfielder Ivan Rakitic, a former Barça player who’s returned to his old club Sevilla. It was in the Andalusian city where Rakitic met his now wife and where he developed a true Sevillian accent, with all the flair and consonant dropping that it’s famed for.

Gwyneth Paltrow

The American actress turned beauty product guru is a fluent Spanish speaker who mostly conjugates her verbs correctly and hardly has any traces of an American accent (she even pronounces c and z in the traditional Castilian way). It all started when as a teenager Paltrow did a year abroad in Talavera de la Reina near Toledo, where she stayed with a Spanish family who she still visits every time she’s in Spain.  

Jean Reno

You may not have known this, but French superstar Jean Reno’s real name is Juan Moreno y Herrera-Jiménez. Reno was born in the Moroccan city of Casablanca, where his parents fled to from their native Cádiz to escape Franco’s regime. The star of ‘Leon: The Professional’ obviously had a big advantage when it came to learning Spanish, but given that he’s lived most of his life in Morocco and France, his fluency in Spanish is commendable, bar his clear French accent.

James Rhodes

Ever since British-born concert pianist James Rhodes moved to Spain in 2017, he’s voiced his love for everything Spanish, including the language. His work spearheading a law to protect children from sexual abuse in Spain earned him the honour of fast-track Spanish citizenship. Rhodes regularly takes to Twitter, tweeting almost entirely in Spanish and demonstrating a thorough understanding of syntax, slang and more. He’s also more than capable of holding his own when speaking castellano

Michael Robinson

The late Michael Robinson, a British footballer who became Spain’s most famous TV football pundit, was and still is the perfect example of how the most important factor when learning a language is to immerse oneself in the culture and make mistakes without fear. Having been forced into early retirement due to injury while playing for Osasuna, he took on his new job without prior experience and with far from perfect Spanish. He improved despite holding onto his British accent, learnt Spanish expressions and jokes and laughed at his blunders. No wonder he was known as Spain’s most loved Brit.

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