Our students frequently ask us what the main difference between Latin American Spanish and Spain Spanish is. Let’s try to answer this question.
People who learn Spanish often wonder if Mexicans and Spaniards can understand each other. Or to what extent South American Spanish differs from Castilian Spanish. Other questions are: ‘Where is South American Spanish spoken?’ and even: ‘Spain vs Latin America vocabulary – what are their primary distinctions?’
Before we get into answering all these questions, let’s first go through some basic facts so that you can have a clearer picture of the difference between Latin American Spanish and Spain Spanish.
Where is Spanish Spoken?
We are sure you already know Spanish is the second most spoken native language. It doesn’t owe its fame only to telenovelas (although that too) or the fact that it’s very melodic. These facts contribute to its popularity but are not the main reason.
Even though there is a significant difference between Latin American Spanish and Spain Spanish, this Romance language is spoken in 20 countries.
South American Spanish is spoken in Mexico, Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, Peru, Bolivia, Venezuela, Panama, Ecuador, Costa Rica, Chile, Columbia, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Puerto Rico, Cuba, Dominican Republic, and Equatorial Guinea, where Spanish is the official but not a native language. Whereas Castilian refers to Peninsular Spanish, which is Spanish in Spain.
In the United States, Spanish is the second most widely spoken language. More than 41 million people use it at home. With approximately six million students, it is also the most studied language, after English.
Differences in Pronunciation in Spain and Latin America
Let’s all agree that one language cannot be pronounced the same way in 20 different countries. Especially if these countries are on three different continents, right?
You guessed it! The first and main difference between Latin American Spanish and Spain Spanish is pronunciation!
In European Spanish, the closest pronunciation of the syllable groups ci, ce, and za, zo, zu is to the in English. The position of the tongue when you pronounce these syllable groups is the same as when you pronounce the.
However, these groups in South American Spanish are pronounced like si, se, sa, so, and su. That is, if you hear the word zapato, in Castilian Spanish it would sound like thah – pah – toh (phonetically θa – pa – to).
These linguistic phenomena are called ceceo in European Spanish and seseo in South American Spanish. Not that we want to confuse you, but you can also find these dissimilarities within different regions in Spain. So, in some parts of Andalusia and in the Canary Islands, you will hear seseo instead of ceceo.
Nonetheless, there are other variations in pronunciation in different countries of South America. For instance, Argentinians will pronounce the word lluvia (rain) like sh-uvia, and Uruguayans like zh-uvia (as in measure in English), whereas Spaniards, Mexicans, and other Latin American people will pronounce it as yuvia (y as in yellow).
Are you feeling dizzy already?
Spanish Dialect Differences
Dialects are variations in grammar and vocabulary and they exist in almost any language. There are many dialects in Spanish, starting from Castilian in Spain.
Spanish from Spain is considered the original and official language in Spain. However, there are other dialects of European Spanish, as well as South American Spanish.
We are not getting too deep into the Spanish dialect differences, because it requires a lot of time and research. Still, we are going to mention some of the most known dialects that make an important difference between Latin American Spanish and Spain Spanish.
Spain has several official languages along with Castilian Spanish: Catalan, Galician, Basque, and Valencian. Besides these official languages, there are many other spoken dialects on the Peninsula.
Catalan and Valencian
In Catalonia, people speak Catalan. In Valencia, they speak Valencian. Both are official languages in Spain. They can perfectly understand each other because these two are very similar, and other Spaniards who live in both Catalonia and Valencian Community, but prefer speaking Castilian Spanish, can understand them too.
This, on the contrary, is not the case if you come from Andalusia or maybe Asturias. Not all Spaniards can understand Valencian and Catalan, even though they all live in the same country. That’s why Spanish from Spain is, let’s say, sort of a link between these languages.
All the Spaniards know Castilian even if they prefer speaking the dialect of their region.
You will hear Catalan in Catalonia but also in Andorra, where it’s the official language, as well as in the south of France, east Aragon, and the Balearic Islands.
On the other hand, we have dialects such as Andalusian Spanish, with a mixture of many Arabic words (Spanish in Spain has many Arabic words in general).
This dialect is spoken in Andalusia, the southern part of Spain, Ceuta, Gibraltar, and Melilla and its main characteristic is that they omit some consonants and aspirate the letter s:
Vamos a ver – Vamo’ a ve’.
Murcian Spanish is spoken in Murcia, the capital city of the region located in Southeastern Spain. You will also hear it in Cartagena, Yecla, and other towns and villages in the region.
What Murcian people do is that they don’t pronounce the last s in the word, just like Andalusians. They do the same when it comes to the plural but in this case, they extend the vowel a before the s:
Las casas – laa casaa (with prolonged a).
The other characteristic of Murcian Spanish is that they also don’t pronounce consonants d, l, r, and z at the end of the word:
Pared – paree
Feliz – felii
Miel – miee
Canarian Spanish sounds similar to Andalusian, however, people from the Canary Islands don’t use the personal pronoun vosotros but ustedes, like in South American Spanish. There are words in Canarian Spanish taken from Portuguese since Portugal attempted to conquer the islands but never succeeded.
Canarians also aspirate the consonant s at the end of the word. Instead of s, you will hear something like the sound h, as in hotel:
Dos – doh
¿Cómo estás? – ¿Cómo estáh?
¡Adiós! – ¡Adióh!
Also known as gallego (galego), Galician is spoken in the northwest part of the country: Galicia, Asturias and Castilla, and Leon. It’s very similar to Portuguese, given their vicinity.
Galician Spanish sounds pretty much different than Castilian. Let’s see some examples:
Castilian: juego (game); hablar (to talk)
Galician: xogo (pronouncing shogo); falar
Castrapo is a Spanish dialect in Galicia that incorporates vocabulary and syntax from that language to a great extent. The word castrapo is literally created from the words castelán (Castillian) and trapo (rag).
It represents another term used by Galician reintegrationist organizations to disapprovingly refer to the current standard form of Galician, which they believe to be too heavily influenced by Spanish and unnaturally distant from standard Portuguese.
How does it sound? Listen for yourself.
There are a few other dialects in Spain but it would take us forever to describe them all. The point is, now you have a wider image of the languages and dialects spoken on the Iberian Peninsula.
Spanish in Latin America
The situation with South American Spanish is very similar to the one with Castilian Spanish. There are many Spanish dialect differences across Latin America. Of course, people understand each other perfectly. Thus, vocabulary diversity in Latin American Spanish is exactly what enriches this Spanish variety.
We won’t be describing how people from all Latin American countries speak but we will mention some of the most significant dialect differences.
Mexican/Central American Spanish
This Spanish variant is by far the most popular one in Latin America. We won’t be wrong if we say that this is one of the purest and most correct variants and ways of speaking in South America.
Unlike Chileans and Venezuelans, Mexicans and people from Central America pronounce consonants s and d at the end of the word and every syllable in general. However, the j and g are a bit softer (well, much softer than in Castilian Spanish).
There is also a usage of vos instead of tú in some countries of Central America, like Costa Rica, El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala.
Chilean variety is a mix of Quechua, Inca language, Mapuche, and Mapungdun. The consonants s and d are usually aspirated or not even pronounced.
Chileans also use the pronoun vos in some parts of the country. This is interesting because they don’t conjugate the verbs with the pronoun vos like Argentinians or Uruguayans would do. Instead, they add their own endings:
¿Cómo estás? – ¿Cómo estai?
If the verb is ending in -ar, they add the ending -ái; if it ends in -er, Chileans will add -í.
No matter where you travel, you will always clearly distinguish any Latin American variant from the Argentinian. Uruguay is also included in, what we call, Rioplatense Spanish.
As we mentioned before, in Argentina and Uruguay people don’t pronounce ll as they do in the rest of Latin America or Spain.
The phrase Tengo que llamar a mi hermana melliza, in Rioplatense Spanish would sound like Tengo que shamar (zhamar) a mi hermana meshisa (mezhisa).
Natives of both countries use vos instead of tú and they kind of sing when they talk. Their intonation is more like Italian than Spanish, given that many Italians came to the region during the wars in Europe.
Some of the words they adapted from Italian are: lavoro – laburo (work); birra (beer); mina (female, girl), etc.
People from the Carribean have more open pronunciation. These countries are Porto Rico, Dominican Republic, and Cuba. However, they do something that the natives of other Latin American countries don’t do. Instead of the consonant r, they pronounce l. Yes, you read that right!
Puerto (port) – puelto.
Cobarde (coward) – cobalde.
Can all Spanish Speakers Understand Each Other?
Simply put, yes! All Spanish speakers can understand each other perfectly, no matter what country they are coming from. But we need to point out that the differences between Latin American Spanish and Spain Spanish are pretty obvious when you have some knowledge of the language.
What can happen to confuse Spaniards or Latin Americans is that some verbs and words in general are used with different meanings. But if you give a proper explanation, the misunderstanding ends right there.
Everything would be so much easier if it wasn’t for Spain vs Latin America vocabulary, which eventually complicates everything. We will explain this further when we talk about the specific differences in the vocabulary between European Spanish and Latin American Spanish.
For now, it suffices to say that, if you travel to Latin America speaking Castilian Spanish, people will understand you, just make sure you use the proper verbs (spoiler alert: some verbs that are perfectly “normal” in Spanish from Europe can be pretty vulgar in South American Spanish).
Differences in Vocabulary
Even though Spain vs Latin America vocabulary represents maybe the most significant difference between Latin American Spanish and Spain Spanish, people will often understand you, no matter what type of Spanish you speak.
Now, we need to point out some words you need to have in mind if you travel to Latin America or Spain. Don’t be alarmed, even if you make a mistake, it’s all for the sake of learning.
When you travel, you need to know how to order drinks or food, right? So, what’s the first drink that comes to mind that has a million different words? That’s right! A beer!
Now, imagine you land in Buenos Aires and go to the bar. Of course, every waiter in Latin America will know what a cerveza is. However, if you say Sírveme una birra, por favor, people will treat you with more familiarity. We believe it is something psychological.
In Mexico, you would ask for una chela, as well as in Peru and Guatemala. If you know Peruvian slang, you might as well get two chilindrinas for free.
Here is some Spain vs Latin America vocabulary that will help you be served and accepted as one of their own.
|Castilian Spanish||Latin American Spanish||English|
|Trabajo, curro||Chamba||Work, job|
|Bragas||Calzón, pantaleta, bombacha||Panties|
|Cerveza||Chela, birra, fría, rubia, pinta||Beer|
|Pajita, pajilla||Sorbete, popote, cañita||Straw|
|Jersey||Suéter, sueta, chompa||Sweater, jumper|
|Alubias||Fríjol, frijol, fréjol, poroto||Beans|
|Judías||Frijoles verdes, chaucha, ejote, poroto verde||Green beans|
|Remolacha||Beterraga, betabel||Beet, beetroot|
|Autobús||Bus, camión, colectivo, guagua||Bus|
|Piscina||Alberca, pileta||Swimming pool|
|Lavabo||Lavamanos, lavatorio||Sink, lavatory|
|Grifo||Canilla, llave, pluma||Tap|
|Tarta||Pastel, torta, queque||Cake|
|Neumático||Llanta, caucho, goma||Tire|
|Nevera||Heladera, refrigerador||Refrigerator, cooler|
|(La) sartén||(El) sartén||Frying pan|
|Guapo, a||Hermoso||Handsome, beautiful|
|Aparcar||Estacionar, parquear||To park|
|Enfadarse||Enojarse||To get angry|
|Coger||Agarrar, tomar||To grab (something), to take|
|Echar de menos||Extrañar||To miss (someone, something)|
|Tirar/Echar/Arrojar||Botar||To throw (something)|
|Darse prisa||Apurarse||To hurry|
|Hacer(se) daño||Lastimar(se)||To hurt (someone)|
|Tardar||Demorarse||To delay, to take long|
|Bolígrafo, boli||Pluma, lapicera||Pen|
Ustedes vs Vosotros
Another difference between Latin American Spanish and Spain Spanish is that Spaniards use the personal pronoun vosotros to refer to you in the plural. You will notice this as one of the Spanish dialect differences. If you want to have a drink in a bar in Spain, the waiter will address all of you with vosotros.
In Latin America, vosotros doesn’t exist. They sure know the meaning but they use ustedes instead. If you are learning Spanish in Spain, you know that ustedes is used in formal situations, and Spaniards are not really formal people, right? So, you will hear ustedes rarely.
However, if you learned South American Spanish, vosotros for you might sound weird because now you will need to learn another form to conjugate the verbs. We’ll give you some examples:
Hola, ¿queréis una mesa para cuatro personas?
Latin American Spanish:
Hola, ¿quieren una mesa para cuatro personas?
In the beginning, it can be a bit tricky to learn to conjugate the verbs using vosotros but like with everything else, you just need practice.
Vos vs Tú
If you thought the story ends with vosotros and ustedes, oh, you were so wrong! The difference between Latin American Spanish and Spain Spanish does not end there!
If you talk to someone in Spain, you would say tú. But if you are in some countries of Latin America, like Argentina, Paraguay, Uruguay, Honduras, El Salvador, or even Costa Rica, you will say vos. Of course, this is not always the case but we’ll explain.
Argentina and Uruguay are probably the only Latin American countries that don’t use the pronoun tú ever. These guys act like it doesn’t exist. For them, it doesn’t.
In Costa Rica, people get offended if you even address them with tú, and vos is only used between people of the same or similar age or if they are close but never to their parents or older people. Costa Ricans generally use usted no matter the age.
To confuse you even more, vos requires a completely different verb conjugation. Check out these Spanish dialect differences:
Europan/Latin American Spanish:
Tú duermes en este cuarto.
Vos dormís en este cuarto.
You get the gist of it.
Difference in the Usage of Past Tense
It seems like Spaniards like to complicate things when it comes to differences between Latin American Spanish and Spain Spanish. While in Latin American Spanish people use a simple past (pretétiro perfecto simple or pretérito indefinido) to refer to actions and things that happened in the past, in European Spanish they use the present perfect tense. Let us put this into context for you:
Spanish in Spain:
Hoy te he enviado un correo, pero todavía no me has respondido nada.
Latin American Spanish:
Hoy te envié un correo, pero todavía no me respondiste nada.
Hold your horses for a moment!
For Spaniards, it is very important to emphasize that the action that happened in the past is, actually, a very recent past and still somehow affects the present moment. For Latin Americans that information doesn’t really play a capital role. What’s done it’s done in the past and that’s all they want to communicate.
Sometimes, the differences between Latin American Spanish and Spain Spanish can be a bit overwhelming, especially if you’re not a native speaker. And we get it, even if it’s the same language, there are a lot of things that can confuse you, no matter where you learned Spanish.
If you get a chance to expose yourself to any Spanish variant, do it! It will help you get used to a certain Spanish dialect and once you dominate one, you will easily understand all others, or at least, a great deal of them.
Now, you might be wondering which Spanish variant to start learning. There are no right or wrong answers here. But don’t just decide based on what you read here or on other web pages. You first need to hear a certain dialect so you can decide.
True, Spanish from Spain might be a tad complicated, given everything mentioned above. However, this is also individual and someone might find European Spanish much easier than, for example, Mexican.
Whichever Spanish dialect you decide to study, the information from this text can come in pretty handy. And keep in mind that Spanish is one of the most spoken languages in the world!
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