Mexico is an incredibly popular destination for travelers. It’s no surprise that everyone wants to check out the Mayan ruins, white-sand beaches, exotic wildlife and amazing food.
It’s truly one of the most spectacular spots on the globe. The fabulous sights and sounds make Mexico a perfect getaway destination.
But if you’re assuming—hopefully as you pack your suitcase and grab your passport!—that you know what language is spoken south of the US border, we’d better have a word.
Sure, Spanish is spoken in Mexico. But it’s Spanish with a Mexican twist.
Mexico’s location and history has given the Spanish language its own flavor. But is it enough to make “Mexican” its own language?
Let’s check it out!
Is Mexican a Language? Taking the Mystery out of Mexican Spanish
Mexican: Language or Dialect?
A language is a structured form of communication. Spanish is a language.
A dialect is a regional version of a language. Castilian Spanish and Latin American Spanish might differ in many ways but they’re still types of Spanish and they’re mutually intelligible—that is, someone from Spain can easily understand someone from Peru, and vice versa.
The line between dialects and languages is actually fairly blurry and not uniformly agreed on, so it can be difficult to determine if a method of speaking is a language or a dialect.
To make things even more complicated, you’ll find regional dialects even within the country itself.
Of course, all this isn’t to be confused by the “Mexican language,” which is also a way to refer to Nahuatl, one of the indigenous languages of the area.
In fact, Spanish isn’t even the official language of the country, although it’s the most widely used one: To give indigenous groups more rights, the official language was intentionally left blank so various languages could be used in official documents and government affairs.
We never said this would be simple!
Considering their similarities, and the fact that the Spanish language in Mexico still follows nearly all the same rules as standard Spanish, for the purpose of this post we’ll be calling Mexican a dialect of Spanish (more specifically, Latin American Spanish).
That said, the Spanish spoken in Mexico (much like many languages) was strongly influenced by its location and history. Let’s find out how!
The Language You’ll Hear in Mexico
Mexican Spanish was influenced by the Nahuatl language that was used during the Aztec Empire. The empire flourished in central Mexico until 1519 when Europeans arrived on the scene.
There are many indigenous languages still being spoken in Mexico: six million people in Mexico speak a language that’s indigenous to the area.
These languages have left their mark and traces can still be heard in Mexican Spanish today—but this is a two-way street and Spanish has, in turn, influenced the development of the Nahuatl language and other indigenous tongues, as well.
It’s interesting to note that the English language has also been influenced by the Nahuatl language in a number of instances!
Mexican Spanish also incorporates plenty of slang and some of it is very colorful and fun to use. Luckily for you, a few slang words are on our list at the end of this post.
Finally, the proximity of Mexico to the English-speaking portion of North America means that a lot of what you’ll hear on the street and in shops is a combination of English married to Spanish. Many words and phrases are a blend of both languages.
A perfect example of this fusion is the word actualmente (actually, currently). In standard Spanish, you’d use en realidad to get the idea across but this morphing of two languages into one word is widely practiced and generally understood in Mexico.
How Spanish in Mexico Differs From Spanish in Spain
Mexican Spanish is typically referred to as Latin American Spanish because it differs slightly from the Spanish spoken in Spain.
As we mentioned earlier, you can make a further distinction, separating Mexican Spanish from Latin American Spanish. Here are a few aspects of the Mexican version of Spanish:
- Mexican Spanish often uses suffixes to denote levels of affection or respect. For example, -ito (little) is frequently added to show fondness. Juan becomes Juanito and even abuela (grandmother) becomes abuelita in a show of warmth and deference.
- Colloquial expressions liberally pepper Mexican Spanish. One well-recognized word, guey, has been used for decades to call a person without actually saying their name. It certainly comes in handy—especially if you’re not good at remembering names!
- The vos (you) form isn’t used in Mexico so leave out vosotros (you [plural]) and insert ustedes (you [plural]) in its place.
Vosotros is, however, still in use in some smaller villages and is found in print in Bibles so it won’t be totally off the mark if you do use it.
- There are a few nouns that are used in Mexico and some other Latin American countries that aren’t commonly used in Spain. For example, in Mexico, glasses would typically be lentes (glasses) instead of gafas (glasses). And you’d drive a coche (car), not a carro (car).
Some Popular Mexican Words and Phrases
Now that you know so much about Mexican Spanish, here are some common phrases and expressions that’ll make you feel right at home in Mexico!
No hay pedo. (There’s no fart.)
Before you start sniffing the air, let’s get right to the heart of this. It has nothing to do with flatulence!
What this phrase actually means is that “There’s no problem!” or that “Everything’s okay!”
It’s the ideal way to show that you’re down with a situation, issue or person.
It’s an expression that’s almost guaranteed to make people smile so it’s a great one to add to your Spanish skills.
Nunca falta el negrito en el arroz. (There’s always a spot in the rice. [Literally: Never miss the black in the rice.])
Rice is a staple food in many Spanish-speaking countries, including Mexico. White rice is a side dish served with most meals. That goes for breakfast, too.
This modest phrase illustrates that in life, as in rice, nothing is perfect. There may be a little black spot or imperfection in even the happiest life—or in the fluffiest rice.
Rice often has little stones in it, depending on where it’s harvested. Many cooks are accustomed to removing as many of those stones as possible before cooking the rice.
So if your dinner order comes with a tiny speck in it, remember that it’s not the end of the world.
There are a couple of ways to interpret this phrase.
A small imperfection is nothing to someone who sees the value in the whole dish (or situation) and just removes the little black spot.
If someone looks for a negative in even the good times (or greatest meals) they’re likely to find something “wrong” like a little black spot.
Fault-finders will seek out the little black spots in their rice while those who discount the little things will look past an imperfection. So this little phrase holds a lot of meaning behind it!
¡A poco! (A little!)
This phrase is used to indicate surprise.
Learn your neighbor is buying a boat? ¡A poco!
He’s moving to Paris? ¡A poco!
And it’s all because he won the lottery? ¡A poco!
This little phrase is expressive without being wordy so it’s a good one to use liberally.
Sepa la bola. (The ball knows.)
When you’re asked a question that you don’t have an answer to, this little phrase says a lot. In fact, it says it all!
It’s like a verbal shoulder shrug and it means “Who knows?” or “I don’t know!”
And that’s all you need to say!
En todos lados se cuecen habas. (Broad beans are cooked everywhere.)
Think you’re special or that you’ve got something going on that’s the only one of its kind? Think again!
This phrase cuts that line of thinking down—and it does it using a vegetable.
It indicates that a situation isn’t unique—that it’s as common as beans.
It’s a nice way of saying you need to get over the situation—and maybe yourself! It can also be used when you feel like something happening to you is too much to handle.
Chela is a slang word for beer.
It made this list because beer is popular in Mexico. Spend any amount of time there and you’re likely to hear this one a lot.
If you’re going to Guatemala, this is a word that you’ll hear there, too.
Estoy crudo. (I’m raw.)
This is another Mexican phrase that brings food into things.
The expression might make you think of vegetables, but it’s actually a way to tell someone that you’re hungover or that you’ve already had too much to drink.
You just might want to keep this one handy. Mexican parties can be legendary!
¡Te están haciendo de chivo los tamales! (They’re making goat tamales! [Literally: They’re making your tamales from goat!])
Very few people order goat tamales. Like, no one. Most people order pork, chicken or beef tamales.
But if someone says that your tamales are being made from goat—don’t push the dish away.
It just means that you’re being lied to or cheated on.
In other words, something’s being misrepresented! That beef does look suspicious…
Todos dicen que maten al toro, pero el toro no mate a nadie. (The whole arena tells them to kill the bull, yet the bull should kill no one.)
This Mexican expression is an observation of the inequality and injustice in the world.
It shows that life isn’t fair, especially if you’re the bull.
I’m sure you realize that I put the funniest phrase first in the list and the most sobering one last. This just shows the wide range of Mexican Spanish to learn, appreciate and use.
Speaking Spanish in Mexico can be a real adventure!
Pick up some of these Mexican phrases to help elevate your global citizen status. Chat with locals and enjoy every minute of your visit!