We are frequently asked about the differences between the Spanish spoken in Spain and the Spanish of Latin America, as it is an important question for students wanting to study Spanish abroad. 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… they get each other.
In Latin America, the Spanish language is simply called español (Spanish), as the language was brought by Spanish colonisers. In Spain, however, it’s called castellano (Castilian), which refers the Castile province in Spain, where the language is said to have originated. In Spain, people don’t call the language español because there are other languages like Catalan (or Valencian), Galician and Basque which are spoken in Spain and are also considered Spanish languages.
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! Let’s look at the main ones
When the Spanish colonies were founded, Spanish colonisers brought with them the language 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; 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 dónde sos?“ than “¿de dónde 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. But don’t worry, people will understand you all over the world if you use tú or vos.
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!
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. 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.
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.
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 in Latin America?
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.