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.
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 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. 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.
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.