The differences between Latin American Spanish and Spanish in Spain

chattingphoto: Kenneth Freeman

We are frequently asked about the differences between the Spanish spoken in Spain and the Spanish of Latin America. While there are distinctions between the varieties of Spanish, the first thing to make clear is that Spanish speakers can all understand each other, whether in Cadiz or Cusco, Salamanca or Santo Domingo. It’s like an American speaking English with a Brit and an Australian… normally no problem at all.

This said, there are some differences between the Spanish of Spain and the Spanish spoken in Latin America. There are also differences between the types of Spanish spoken in different parts of Latin America. And in different parts of Spain!

For a start, what is the language called? In Latin America, it is normal to call it castellano (Castilian, after the Castile region) as opposed to español (Spanish). This is also true in parts of Spain, where regional languages such as Galician and Catalan are official languages that could also be labelled “Spanish”.

Why are there differences?

When Spanish colonisers travelled the world to spread the word of god and take precious metals in return, they brought with them a language that was in the process of changing back at home.

A linguist called Marckwardt came up with the term “colonial lag” to describe a situation where the language spoken in colonies does not keep up with innovations in the language in its country of origin. An example in English would be the use of fall in the USA and autumn in Britain; when British colonisers went to America, fall was more common than the Latin version in British English. The older, Germanic word fall later became obsolete in Britain but has remained in common use in the USA. This process happens with vocabulary but also with grammar.

Later on, immigrant groups from different parts of Europe brought linguistic traditions with them to Latin America. In turn, these groups met different local linguistic traditions, creating variations in local dialects.

Voseo

argentina-truck

When the Spanish colonies were founded by different groups, they took with them the Spanish that was spoken in Spain at that time, along with elements of their local dialects. The Spanish spoken in the colonies then started to develop in slightly different directions as there was limited communication with Spain (telephones were still hundreds of years away). Some elements of older Spanish were kept, others dropped.

One of the clearest examples of that process is the use of vos, primarily in Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay. Originally a second-person plural, vos came to be used as a more polite second-person singular pronoun to be used among one’s familiar friends. It was commonly used in Spanish when the language reached the southern cone of the Americas. It fell out of use in Spain but stayed in Rioplatense Spanish. Nowadays, just like 150 years ago, at a bustling Buenos Aires cafe, you are much more likely to be asked “de donde sos? than “de donde eres?”

The use of vos and its distinct conjugation now appears to be growing in parts of Latin America where it had previously been used by minority groups, such as Bolivia, Chile, Nicaragua and Costa Rica.

Importantly, people will understand you all over the world if you use or vos.

Ustedes

Latin American varieties of Spanish do not use vosotros (you, plural, informal), preferring the formal ustedes. This means that learners in Spain have to remember another verb ending.

For example, in Spain you may say Cuál fue la última pelicula que visteis? (what was the last film you saw?) to your friends, but you would probably say Cuál fue la última pelicula que vieron? to their grandparents. In Latin America, you would use the second form for both.

Ustedes is also used in the Canary Islands; only the Balearics and mainland Spain use vosotros. If you only use the Latin American form, you will be understood perfectly well in Spain. In fact, people will probably just consider you polite!

Vocabulary

computadora-ordenador

The vast majority of Spanish words are universal, but some are not. Some examples include teléfono móvil / celular and ordenador / computadora, with the second of each pair being the Latin American form. There are also many more words that vary between dialects. For example, a pen is boligrafo in Spain but lápiz pasta in Chile, lapicera in Argentina and so on. Here is a great video by two Colombian brothers about the different words you will find around the Spanish-speaking world:

Overall, the differences in vocabulary are no greater than those between British and American English.

A word of caution at this point. In Spain, the verb coger (to catch) is used all the time, not just to mean catching, but also grabbing or fetching. For example, coger al toro por los cuernos, literally, “to take the bull by the horns”. In Latin America, coger is a slang term used extensively to describe, ahem, the act of love.

Pronunciation

pronunciationphoto: Caitlin Regan

The largest differences in Spanish are in pronunciation, but even these aren’t so big. For example, in many parts of Central America, s isn’t always pronounced and some other syllables can go missing. In Argentina, the double-l that is usually pronounced like the y in yellow is pronounced like the s in measure.

Perhaps the most notable difference between pronunciation in Spain and Latin America is the “lisp” (although it is not technically a lisp) that is common in Madrid and some other parts of Spain. Legend has it that this pronunciation started with King Ferdinand, whose lisp was copied by the Spanish nobility. As is often the case, legend is probably wrong; the pronunciation is more likely to have come from sounds that existed in medieval Castilian, although that doesn’t explain why it didn’t make it to the colonies. Not all innovations in language are logical; see our post on English spelling for more about that.

You will inevitably soak up the local accent wherever you choose to learn Spanish but this will not stop you communicating with all Spanish speakers. Everyone has an accent when they speak and there is no “better” or “worse” accent. If you do pick up a distinctive accent when you learn a language, whether Spanish or any other, it is a part of who you are and your personal experiences. It can also be a good ice-breaker on your travels.

Should you learn Spanish in Spain or Latin American Spanish?

Some people say that Colombian Spanish is the clearest and most beautiful form of the language. Some say that Argentine Spanish is the sexiest Spanish. Others believe that the Spanish of Madrid is the most important, as that is the home of the Real Academia Española which regulates the language.

But it shouldn’t be a question of Spanish vs Latin American Spanish. When choosing where to learn Spanish, focus instead on where you would rather be, what kind of adventure you would like to have and, naturally, your budget. Rest assured, whatever variety of Spanish you learn, you will be understood all over the Spanish-speaking world.

See all of our destinations for Spanish courses abroad.

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  • Alex W

    What an excellent article! I really identified with this as I initially learnt Spanish in the UK at school (and hence European Spanish) but then really learnt to use it well working and travelling in South America. Although I did find the differences confusing at first, in the long term being exposed to variations of the language helped me gain a better understanding of the language, and the ability to use it in a more sophisticated way. I also found that, as your article suggests, it is inaccurate to refer to Spanish in Latin as one form of the language as it changes so much between all the different countries there. I would strongly recommend that anyone leaning Spanish spend time in more than one location to appreciate the differences of this rich language.

    I did laugh when I read about the word “coger” and recalled the embarassment, about 3 weeks into my stay n Cusco when I was informed by the 19 year old son of my host family in fronz of various attractive female friends of his, that their laughter at the gringo was because I had just informed them that I really had to leave as I needed to make love to the bus!

  • Maria

    What a great story! I love hinerag about other people’s study abroad adventures. Almost everyone I know who has studied abroad loved it (at the end). I’m glad Spain worked out so well for you!

  • Pingback: The Main Differences Between Spanish Languages Around The World | National Broadcasting()

  • andy

    I am a USA American going to hopefully be doing border patrol, on the southern border. Thank you , because I “Learned spanish” in high school, an using rosetta stone to learn “Latin american spanish” which I was having just a slight trouble grasping as things are coming back, again I am sure ALOT has changed in the language in 20 years. BUT again I was wondering if i was learning the right one. I am catching on quick. I am a perfectionist. so I am doing the first set of lessons over an over once finished till i 100% them .

    • LauraTLDN

      Hi Andy, thank you for your comment. It sounds you are indeed catching up again on your Spanish! Language is constantly evolving and it is a good idea to practise as often as possible. If you would like to find out more about the Spanish immersion courses that ESL Education provides, please visit our website here: https://www.esl-languages.com/en/adults/spanish/language-course/index.htm

      Thanks,
      Laura
      ESL Education London

  • nursemon

    I am learning Mexican Spanish since according to my professor it is the almost identical to the type of Spanish that is spoken in the Philippines. She is one of the dwindling number of native Spanish speakers here in Manila.

    • Francisco Gonzalez

      I wish to learn English. I’m Mexican and I can help you to improve your Spanish and you can help me to improve my English.

    • RingoEstrella

      The Spanish settlers in the Phillipines brought many Mexicans and castizo Mexican-Spaniards to the islands to teach the language, hence the similarities.

  • Keyser Söze

    I imagine original Castilian compared to Colombian or Argentinian sounds to non-Spanish like British English to us compared to US English. I prefer how the US one sounds, some prefer the British one; some understand better one and some the other.

    The sad thing is that beautiful Colombian is the one by Gabriel García Marquez. Now, go through the internet, read what colombians have written and tell me you like the majority of that. I imagine the same is happening with Spanish of Spain, English, etc. We’re doomed haha fuck. Good, intelligent and healthy education is the future; which one are we raising?

    • AlessandraESL

      Hello Keyser, thank you for your comment! Every variety of English and Spanish is beautiful and worth learning, difference is an enrichment not a barrier to education, don’t you think?

  • Gabriel

    Hi! Reading this article I see the complex that’s my native language to forieng speakers, it’s exactly that happens with my English learning.

    I think that without mind the languge, the most important to may speak with a native it’s speaking and listening, I may say that both are my headaches.

  • Fer Galicia

    Beautiful, hermoso commentary, os agradezco.

  • Reporter?

    Hi, Thanks for your article! As norteamericanos headed to Bogota, we are trying to learn Spanish from a lady from Nicaragua. Should we be concerned about differences in her speech as concerned with what is spoken in Colombia?

    • AlessandraESL

      Hello and thanks for your comment. You don’t have to worry, the Spanish spoken in Nicaragua and the Spanish spoken in Colombia are the same language. Of course some vocabulary may change but the grammar is basically the same. I hope this helps!
      Wish you a lovely day!

      • Harjot Singh

        Yaa,you are absolutely right AlessandraESL.☺😃😊😉😆😀😘😘😘😙😚😘😍😘

    • Rafael

      There are no differences in the Spanish being spoken, but some vernacular terms used in Nicaragua may mean something else in Colombia. Just like the word “Coger”. If you say that in Latin America you would be understood, but it would be rather odd and instead “Tomar” is used to replace Coger

      • RingoEstrella

        or “agarrar”.

  • ProfessorAlbee

    Believe it or not, there are some parts in España (especially Andalucía) where ‘zheísmo rehilado’ as represented by [ll]/[y] is pronounced like the ‘s’ in the word ‘measure.’ This phoneme is formally known as the ‘voice palato-alveolar fricative.’

  • RingoEstrella

    1. The use of “vos” does not “appear to be growing in parts of Latin America”. The “voseo” has completely and extensively developed in all of Central America (except Panamá and Belize), some regions in Colombia, Bolivia and elsewhere since the XVI century. It’s not, by any means, a growing or developing process or phenomenon. Nicaragua is perhaps the most “voseante” country in Latin America. Even more than Argentina. In some Central American countries such as Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Nicaragua to a lesser extent, “vos” is even used as a pet word.

    2. Most Latin Americans do NOT refer to their language as “Castilian”. The use of “Español” to refer to the language spoken in the continent is by far more popular and widespread, although people do use the word Castellano more in some countries and both Castellano or Español indistinctly in certain regions.

    3. Ironically, although people from Spain definitely have a much better use of vocabulary and grammar than the rest of the Spanish speaking world, their pronunciation is the worst. Even for a Latin American it can become a bit confusing and frustrating trying to understand the Spaniards. Specially those from certain regions. They speak too fast, skip many sounds or even just grunt and mumble the last few words in a sentence. Not to speak the level of disappointment some foreigners might feel finding out how pointless those 5 years at the academy were, back in their home countries, after going to Spain and listening to locals talk to each other for five minutes.

    My opinion about the best Spanish, in terms of pronunciation and clarity: Mexico, Colombia.