Should I Learn Castilian Spanish or Latin American Spanish? Coche or carro? Conducir or Manejar? Bolígrafo or Pluma? It’s the notorious language battle royale: Spain Spanish vs. Latin American Spanish.
Curious language learners might find themselves faced with the question, “Should I learn Latin American Spanish or Castilian Spanish?”
Today, we’re here to help you figure it out!
To give you a better idea of HOW the two Spanish dialects differ, let’s go over the following:
- A brief history of the Spanish language
- 5 main differences between Castilian and Latin American Spanish
- How to know which one you should learn
Short History of the Spanish Language
Here is a (very) brief history of the origin and evolution of the Spanish language.
Origin of the Spanish Language
Spanish is a Romance language derived from Latin, more specifically Vulgar Latin, a version spoken by commoners. The Castilian dialect of Vulgar Latin was developed around the north-central region of Spain and started to spread throughout the peninsula.
The language also borrowed much of its vocabulary from Greek and Arabic. In fact, during the 700 years that the Moors inhabited the Iberian Peninsula (711-1492), the Castilian lexicon evolved to reflect their cultural influence, which is why today there are many Spanish words of Arabic origin.
Castilian Spanish Becomes the Official Language of Spain
The use of Castilian Spanish as a standard language was begun by King Alfonso X (ruler of Castile, León, and Galicia). He and his scholars translated an enormous amount of written work from Latin, Arabic, and Greek into Castilian Spanish. He also began to use the language in official government documents and reports.
Almost 400 years later in 1492, after expelling the last of the Moors from Spain, Queen Isabella of Castile and King Ferdinand II of Aragon (yes, the ones who funded Columbus) declared Castilian Spanish the official language of Spain.
Spain Doesn’t Only Speak Spanish
But not without push back… Even today in Spain, there are four other official languages: Catalan, Occitan (Aranès), Galician and Basque (from Navarra), a language so old that linguists presume it is the last descendant of a pre-Indo European language from Western Europe, unlike its neighboring Latin languages.
The Spanish Language Spreads to The New World
In the years following the original discovery by Colombus, Spanish conquistadores flooded the Americas looking for gold and glory. Conveniently, there were scores of unemployed, highly-trained soldiers from the Spanish Reconquista waiting for a new mission. The Spanish language quickly spread to the Americas.
Latin American Spanish Today
Latin America was already rich with indigenous peoples and highly advanced civilizations, like the Inca and the Aztecs, for example. Some linguists estimate that over 2,000 languages have been spoken in the region. The Spanish in Latin America (principally the lexicon) continues to be influenced by a range of different indigenous languages today.
Fast forward a few hundred years and huge waves of immigrants have introduced countless new words and accents to Latin America. One of the biggest foreign influences was Italian immigration into Argentina and its effect on the country’s Spanish dialect. Today, English has inevitably seeped into vocabulary relating to technology, pop culture, and business, making a much larger impact in Latin America than in Spain.
Differences Between Castilian Spanish and Latin American Spanish
The differences between these Spanish dialects may seem minor, but even just a little bit of knowledge can tell you whether a person is from Madrid or Mexico City. Let’s take a look.
The most obvious way to tell if someone is from Spain is by pronunciation. In Castilian Spanish, letter “C” is pronounced with the “th” sound when it comes before an “e” or “i”. Some even call it the Castilian lisp!
So, instead of pronouncing ciudad (city) as “see-you-dad” like in Latin American Spanish, it is instead pronounced “thi-you-dad” in Castilian Spanish.
The letter Z is also pronounced with the “th” sound. Zapatos (shoes) is pronounced “sa-pa-tos” in Latin American Spanish and “tha-pa-tos” in Castilian.
There are other more subtle pronunciation variants as well, but the “C” and the “Z” are a dead giveaway.
2. Tú / Usted / Vos / Vosotros
When addressing a person in Latin American Spanish, “you” can be either tú (informal), usted (formal), or vos (informal), depending on the context and the country.
Vos is primarily used in Argentina, Paraguay, Uruguay, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica. It is conjugated differently than tú (e.g., vos sentís vs. tú sientes). Spain, on the other hand, does not use it at all.
In Castilian Spanish, you will mostly hear tú and vosotros /vosotras (second-person plural). Usted is rarely heard but can occasionally be used to show esteem, honor, or respect in formal settings, like addressing older people or bosses. Vosotros/vosotras is not used at all in Latin America.
3. Vocabulary list
Many vocabulary words in Spain differ from those in Latin America.
*DISCLAIMER: This is just ONE way to say some of these words. Vocabulary changes across dialects. Let us know in the comments how you say it in YOUR dialect!
Latin American Spanish
4. Simple Past vs. Present Perfect
When talking about something that happened recently in the past, for example, “I ate a sandwich today”, Latin America would use the simple past.
“Comí un sandwich hoy”.
In Castilian Spanish, they would more commonly use the present perfect, incorporating the auxiliary verb “haber” .
“He comido un sandwich hoy.”
In English, this translates to “I have eaten a sandwich today.” This is a very common verbal tense in European Latin languages, including French and Italian. Even in England, it is more common to say “Have you eaten today?” than “Did you eat today?”.
The present perfect DOES exist in Latin America but it is not commonly used to describe actions that have recently happened.
Colloquialisms vary not only between Spain and Latin America but also among Latin American countries. Slang words and even everyday vocabulary differs greatly among Latin American countries.
For example, a T-shirt might be a camiseta in Spain, a playera in Mexico, a remera in Argentina, and a polera in Chile. These regional differences are one of the factors that make Spanish so fun but at the same time so tricky! There is even a catchy song written about it: “Qué difícil es hablar el español”, How hard it is to learn Spanish!
Should I Learn Castilian Spanish or Latin American Spanish?
The type of Spanish you choose to learn depends on your interests and priorities. Are you planning on working remotely in the Caribbean on holidays? Do you plan on getting your masters in Chile, or do you dream of retiring on a Spanish vineyard in La Rioja?
Keep reading for additional factors to help you decide whether you should learn Castilian or Latin American Spanish.
Travel Plans To Go To Spain?
If you are enchanted by paella, tapas, bullfighting and flamenco dancing and have always dreamed of dissecting the micro-cultures of historic cities like Madrid, Barcelona, Sevilla, and Granada, then Castilian Spanish will help you blend in with the locals and make your cultural experience richer.
Preparing for a trip to Spain? Here is a weekend travel itinerary for Barcelona.
Want to Explore Latin America?
Interested in hiking Machu Pichu or learning more about the Mayan Civilization? If you have a real interest in the history, terrain, and cuisine of the countries in Latin America, knowing Latin American Spanish will help you navigate your way across the land and connect with knowledgeable tour guides and local families.
No Preference At All?
Haven’t made any special plans to visit either place? If you aren’t making a move to Spain and if you live in North America, you will mostly encounter Latin American Spanish. It’s even taught in schools.
On top of that, of the roughly 469 million people who speak Spanish, 90% hail from Latin America and the U.S. You’re much more likely to find someone who speaks Latin American than Castilian Spanish.
Fun Fact: After Mexico, the U.S. ranks among the top 5 countries of Spanish speaking populations in the world, surpassing many Latin American countries like Peru and Venezuela.
Learn Spanish with Pimsleur
While figuring out which type of Spanish to learn can be tricky, actually learning the language shouldn’t be. No matter which dialect you choose, learning a new language will open up millions of doors for you and will allow you to connect with more of our human family.