Location, Location, Location.
It’s the mantra of real estate agents worldwide.
It also makes a difference in the type of Spanish you’ll learn.
Do you ever worry that the Spanish you learn in one country might not be understood in another?
Or have you learned some Spanish in Spain, only to go to a different Spanish speaking country later on and find yourself struggling to understand? Or vice versa?
Well, if you answered “yes” to any of the above, then welcome to the club.
Spanish is a complex language that has evolved over a substantial period of time. It’s grown up and matured in geographically and culturally disparate locations.
As a consequence, there have come to exist some at times significant differences in accents, grammar, vocabulary, slang and idioms in different parts of the Spanish speaking world.
How Differences in Regional Spanish Affect Learners
For students of Spanish, the major and minor differences can be a source of concern.
However, they ought not to be. The fact that it’s like this really shouldn’t come as a surprise either.
If we look at the English language, we find that the English spoken in Australia is different to that of Ireland, which again is different to that of the US, which is again different to that of South Africa. They’re all, however, mutually intelligible. Generally, as native speakers, the differences we come across tend to be more a source of novelty or amusement than genuine hindrances to communication.
Similarly, the different types of Spanish are also mutually intelligible. There are, however, some key divergences which are worth exploring and becoming aware of.
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In this post, we’ll narrow our focus to examine some of the ways in which Spanish from Spain (called Peninsular Spanish) is different from the Spanish spoken in the Americas (broadly referred to as Latin American Spanish).
A Juicy Mix Up
I originally learned Spanish in Madrid, and later improved it by living with Spaniards in Scotland. About a year later, brimming with confidence in my language abilities, I embarked on a trip to Ecuador and Colombia. Little did I know the challenges that waited ahead.
I distinctly remember about a week into the trip going up to one of the many fresh juice stands that can be found in Quito.
“Un zumo de naranja, por favor,” (an orange juice, please) I boldly ordered. I was met with a stare of confusion and silence.
I tried once more, although this time with a more notable hesitancy. Again, I was met with silence, then a suggestion – “Un jugo de naranja, señor?“ I awkwardly stumbled out a “sí…por favor,” not fully confident of what I had just ordered.
I looked up above me and saw the sign “Jugos Naturales” and figured it must mean juice — Duh!
Sure enough, my dictionary confirmed that jugo meant “juice” and that zumo is only used in Spain. In Ecuador (and other Latin American countries), zumo is understood to refer to fruit pulp. This was to be the first of many wonderfully confusing experiences.
Below, you’ll find 8 more key areas of difference between Latin American and Peninsular Spanish.
Pay Attention to These 8 Major Differences Between Castilian and Latin American Spanish
1. Modes of Address: Use of Ustedes vs Vosotros
In Spanish there are officially five different ways in which you can address people. Talk about spoiled for choice!
There are the three singular forms tú, vos and usted, which correspond to the English “you.” These each have varying degrees of formality. There are also the two plural forms, vosotros and ustedes, which are used when speaking to two or more people.
But hold on a moment, there’s a catch, and an important one at that!
In Latin American Spanish, when it comes to the plural forms, only one of them is in fact used — ustedes. This is perhaps the most important and most often cited difference between Peninsular and Latin American Spanish, so pay attention.
In Peninsular Spanish, when you address two or more people, you have a choice to use either vosotros or ustedes as your mode of address.
Which one you use is influenced by a number of factors including formality of context, degree of respect wishing to be demonstrated and the level of intimacy you have with whom you are speaking.
If you’re familiar with the people you’re addressing, you use vosotros and any verb conjugation and pronoun use will follow its associated rules. Even if you’re not familiar with these people, you’ll still use vosotros if they’re of a similar age to you, or if there’s no particular requirement to afford them special respect.
For most normal day to day circumstances, vosotros is the order of the day and you’ll hear it a lot in Spain.
Conversely, the use of ustedes is restricted to more formal occasions, or circumstances where demonstrations of respect are required.
For example, if you were speaking to the board of directors at work, a group of political figures or the royal family in all their glory, you’d stick to using ustedes.
No doubt you can think of some other situations were it might be appropriate to use this.
In contrast, in Latin American Spanish, these types of distinctions aren’t a concern as you only have one choice, ustedes. It doesn’t matter if you’re speaking to your best friends, your parents or the most important group of people on earth.
The vosotros form is never used in Latin America (aside from Argentina) and in fact faded out of use completely from Latin American Spanish by the end of the 19th century.
If you’ve learned Spanish in Spain and you became accustomed to using vosotros and conjugating verbs with its endings, it can be a slight adjustment to drop it and begin using ustedes in Latin American countries.
If you’re anything like me, you’ll probably keep getting it wrong for a few weeks until it finally clicks. If you do accidentally use it, however, or conjugate verbs in its ending, be prepared for a funny look or two and perhaps a polite correction.
If you’ve learned Spanish in Latin America and go to Spain, your task may be a bit more difficult as you’ll likely have skipped over learning the vosotros form altogether.
If you’re not familiar with using vosotros, it’s worth remembering that even native speakers from Latin America who go to Spain often have troubles with it and will generally stick to using ustedes, so don’t feel too bad if initially you do too! You’ll certainly be understood, however, you might find yourself being corrected. If you intend to stay a lengthy period of time, it’s certainly best to learn it.
2. Use of Usted/Vos/Tu
Following on from above, it should come as no surprise that the use of usted in Spain is also restricted for more formal occasions and follows the same guidelines as outlined for its plural form. From personal experience, I only recall ever being addressed as usted once in Spain when attending a medical clinic.
Most of the time, tú will suffice for all normal instances. However, you’ll need to use your discretion.
Conversely, in Latin American Spanish, usted is much more commonly used. Specifics of usage will tend to change slightly depending on which particular country you’re in and thus there’s no “one size fits all” rule.
As a general guideline though, it’s usually a good idea to address anybody you don’t know in the usted form. In Latina American Spanish, if you start with usted you may be invited to tutear with the speaker – that is, to address them in tú form.
In some countries such as Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay and in parts of Colombia and Central America, you’ll instead be asked to vosear, which means to address them in the form of vos (a variation on tú — but equally informal).
More often than not, you won’t get a direct invitation to change over to the other verb form — you’ll just have to listen carefully and pick up on what verb form your conversation partner has decided to use with you.
It’s worth noting that the use of usted is as much a cultural as a linguistic phenomenon. Generally, there’s a strong tendency for politeness in Spanish speaking Latin American countries and if you address people using the tú or vos form without invitation, it might be interpreted as impolite or overly familiar.
Having said that, it’ll also depend with whom you’re speaking. Generally, if you’re speaking with younger people, using tú or vos will be fine, as they tend to use these forms more.
It may seem a little complex initially, but if you use your listening skills to pay close attention to how those around you speak, you’ll quickly be able to pick up the best form of address in the area you’re in and you’ll be speaking like the locals in no time.
3. Variations in Accent and Pronunciation
An entire volume could be written on the array of different accents which are found in the Spanish speaking world.
Even within countries, accents can vary quite wildly, with changes observable between coastal regions, cities and rural areas.
At times even native speakers of Spanish from different areas report difficulties in understanding one another due to accents. Therefore, don’t get disillusioned if you have trouble understanding things initially in a new location.
With time, your ear tends to adjust. The more you immerse yourself, the easier understanding a particular accent becomes.
Luckily for us learners, although accent can change radically, pronunciation of words between variants of Spanish remains for the most part very similar.
That being said, there are a couple of differences worth looking at. The most noteworthy of those is referred to in linguistics as distinction (distinción). Many speakers of Spanish in Spain (but not all) have a tendency to pronounce the c which comes before i and e as a th sound. The z, regardless of position, is also pronounced as a th sound. This is what distinción refers to.
Latin American Spanish speakers do not produce this sound. This Latin American pronunciation, not using the th sound, is described linguistically as seseo.
Take for example the word gracias – in Latin America, along with a sizable part of Southern Spain and the Canary Islands, the word is pronounced grasyas.
In most of Spain however, it’s pronounced “grathyas” – following the rule of distinction, the c is pronounced th.
As a final variant to confuse you, in other small regions of Southern Spain, it might be pronounced as “grathyath” (the final s is changed to a th sound also). This is linguistically referred to as ceceo and is restricted only to a small number of speakers in Spain.
If you’ve learned Spanish mainly in the Americas, hearing Spaniards speak with distinción may come across as a very unique and perhaps unusual sound.
A less kind interpretation and occasional source of amusement for native Spanish speakers from other countries is to suggest that it sounds like a lisp. It’s not actually a lisp, but rather a distinct form of pronunciation and equally correct.
As an interesting historical tidbit, it’s suggested that the reason why speakers of Spanish in Latin America speak with seseo as opposed to distinción is because the majority of the conquistadors came from the parts of Spain where seseo is the dominant style of pronunciation.
As a student, you’ll learn seseo in Latin American countries and distinción in Spain. Either way, you can be confident that whichever pronunciation style you learn, you’ll be understood.
4. Leismo and Object Pronoun (Mis)use
Rules are meant to be broken, right?
At least it seems that’s what many speakers in Spain have thought regarding their language’s grammar. Restricted to Peninsular Spanish, there exists a phenomenon known as leísmo.
Leismo refers to the use of the indirect object pronoun le instead of the technically correct direct object pronouns lo/la when referring to people. “Huh,” you say?
With an example it becomes clear:
(I didn’t see Paulo yesterday)
A Paolo no le vi ayer [Leísmo – indirect object pronoun used]
A Paolo no lo vi ayer [Standard Spanish – direct object pronoun used]
Because the grammar rule was so often broken in Spain, the Real Academia Española, the institute responsible for overseeing the Spanish language, came to accept leismo as acceptable practice, but only when referring to male persons. It doesn’t permit the term when referring to females or using the plural form. To illustrate:
(I didn’t see Paula yesterday)
A Paula no le vi ayer [incorrect — leísmo not permitted]
A Maria no la vi ayer [correct — standard Spanish]
(I didn’t see Paolo and Paola yesterday)
A Paolo y Paola no les vi ayer [incorrect — leísmo not permitted]
A Paolo y Paola no los vi ayer [correct — standard Spanish]
Whilst the academy doesn’t officially permit these usages as correct, you may very well still hear them on the streets of Spain. In Latin America, leísmo isn’t at all present and thus you should use the direct object pronoun in all cases.
As a learner, I would strongly recommend that you learn and use the grammatically correct direct object pronouns no matter where you happen to be. If later on you gain confidence and want to mix it with the locals in Spain, you can then try to throw in some leísmos.
5. Drive You Crazy — Vocabulary Differences
Moving on from grammatical themes, between the Spanish variants there do also exist some notable differences in vocabulary. To begin, let’s take a look at the topic of driving and vehicles.
Case Study: Transportation Terms
In Spain, a car is nearly always referred to as a coche. In Latin America however, depending on where you are, the preferred term is usually carro or auto/automóvil.
Generally, auto is used in Chile, Argentina and Uruguay, while most of the countries located north of these will use carro.
It should be noted that coche is also used in parts of Mexico and Argentina as the predominant term. Confusing?
Sure. But if you forget which term applies where, you’ll be understood anyway.
The verb “to drive” also changes between Peninsular and Latin American Spanish.
In Spain, you’ll hear conducir used as the verb when referring to driving a vehicle. In Latin American Spanish, the term predominantly used is manejar.
In Spain, manejar restricts its meaning to managing or administering something, i.e. manejar el negocio (to manage a business). If you wanted to park your vehicle, in Spain the verb is aparcar, in Latin American Spanish you’d instead use estacionar or parquear.
Another notable difference can be found when referring to buses used for public transport. In Spain, generally a bus will be referred to an autobus. In Latin America, the term varies greatly depending on the region and can vary within different parts of the same country. Some examples of the term for bus which you might hear include: camión, bus, micro, collectivo, chiva, guagua.
There are likely many more which I’ve missed. My best advice: ask one of the locals, but normally bus will be a safe bet to get you understood.
6. More Notable Vocabulary Changes
I can now hear your heart beating a bit faster and you’re asking “how many other words change?”
While there’s no hard and fast answer, it’s not so many that you’ll encounter any significant problems in communication. Vocabulary changes are perhaps better considered as linguistic novelties and are often a source of amusement for native speakers as opposed to a cause for genuine misunderstanding.
In the next paragraph, you’ll see 10 more common words in action which change between Peninsular Spanish (first word) and Latin American Spanish (in brackets)
Let’s say I’m looking for an apartment to rent.
First, I’d jump on my computer, or ordernador (computadora), and look online for some apartments, or pisos (departamentos). I’d pull out my mobile, móvil (celular), to make any calls for apartments that interested me, and use my pen, bolígrafo (lapicero/pluma), to make notes about them.
Before leaving the house to go look at them, I’d go to my fridge, nevera (refrigerador), and pull out a soft drink, gaseosa (soda), and a peach, melocotón (durazno), for the trip. I’d throw on my jacket, chaqueta (chamarra/campera), grab my sunglasses, gafas (anteojos), and head out the door.
Its okay, you can wipe the sweat off your brow.
Let me emphasize that these different words are exceptions more than they are rules.
You’ll find the vast majority of standard vocabulary to be shared across Spain and Spanish speaking countries in Latin America. These are just cherry picked examples of some common changes. You’ll no doubt come across more if you travel or examine Spanish from different countries.
7. Avoiding Embarrassment When Meanings Change
Fortunately for students of Spanish, although there are differences in vocabulary, for the most part, when vocabulary is shared the meaning does not change. There are of course some exceptions — and one in particular deserves its own discussion.
In Peninsular Spanish, the verb coger is frequently used and means to catch, grab, or take. “Voy a coger un taxi” (I’m going to take a taxi) would be a perfectly respectable sentence to use in Spain.
If you were to say the same thing in some parts of Spanish speaking Latin America you might be met with a reaction ranging from laughter, ridicule and surprise to complete embarrassment depending on your listener. Perhaps you’ll get a combination of all four.
That’s because, in Latin American Spanish, coger is used to refer to, ahem, fornication, or rather its more vulgar four letter equivalent. “Voy a tomar un taxi” is a safer sentence in the Americas. That being said, in some countries it’s perfectly fine to use coger within the right context.
8. Slang and Colloquialisms
From a learner’s perspective, slang and colloquialisms do tend to change quite radically throughout the Spanish speaking world, and certainly more than common vocabulary does.
Not knowing slang certainly won’t hinder your ability to communicate, although the way it changes can be frustrating if you’re trying to impress your Spanish speaking friends or online language exchange partners from different countries.
For example, in Spain, the words guay or chulo are commonly used to describe that something (or someone) is cool, groovy or excellent.
These words wouldn’t however mean very much to Spanish speakers in the Americas. Chulo is only used the same way in some Caribbean nations.
Throughout Latin America, you’ll be able to hear many many different words for cool and it tends to change a lot depending on where you are. In Mexico you might hear chido or padre, in Colombia bacano, in Argentina copado and so on. You’ll come across many, many more instances where slang changes in different countries.
So what can you do as a Spanish student?
Well, sadly, there’s no silver bullet when it comes to slang. When we learn slang and colloquialisms, we aren’t only learning the language but we’re also getting unique and valuable insight into a particular country’s culture.
For this reason, I’m a strong advocate of learning regional vocabulary. However, this comes with a disclaimer: most colloquial words and expressions won’t be at all useful when you go to a different Spanish speaking country.
So, overall, are the differences between Peninsular Spanish and Latin American Spanish really so great?
Well, as you’re now aware, there are some notable differences. And I won’t deny that if you’ve learned Spanish in one specific country it may take you a bit of time to adjust to how it’s spoken in another. Overall, though, the answer is no. That’s because the fundamentals mostly stay the same.
Be confident that, no matter what different type of Spanish you learn, you’ll be able to intelligibly communicate with and be understood by Spanish speakers around the globe.
Don’t be worried about the differences that do exist. Instead, when you come across them, embrace them as part of the joy and complexity of learning a language, and as a great chance to increase your cultural understanding.
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