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Main Differences Between Latin American Spanish and Spain Spanish

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Spanish is spoken as a native language by more than 500 million people, which makes it second only to Mandarin Chinese as the most spoken language in the world. Of those 500 million, around 45 million live in Spain, but the majority come from countries in the Americas. Mexico accounts for the majority of native Spanish speakers in the world with 121 million and the US is second with around 60 million native speakers.

We usually think of Spanish as having two main dialects, Latin American and Castilian (Spanish in Spain), so what are the main differences?

This question may seem quite tricky because those differences cannot be compared to the differences between American and British English, just due to a tiny reason:

  • There are more dialectal varieties in Spain than in all of the Americas. Conquerors and colonizers who populated Latin America were mainly from the same Spanish regions. They exported their dialect with them, and there it stayed…
  • Therefore, it is possible that some people’s accents from the south of Spain (especially Extremadura, West Andalusia and the Canary Islands) have more in common with Latin American accents than with North Spanish ones.
  • These are, of course, very general guidelines. Sometimes you will find accents in some areas of Latin America that have more in common with more northern accents. For example, the accents of the inhabitants of the capitals of the main viceroyalties, Mexico and Peru, now Mexico DF and Lima have some similarities to the central and northern accents of Spain, mainly due to the reason that people from the government (Madrid) were the ones who occupied the most important cities in America.

However, there are some shared aspects that make the difference. Any native speaker of Spanish would be able to tell you if another speaker is from (or learned Spanish in) Spain or Latin America. The reason has to do with phonetics:

Spanish Phonetics

  • In most of Spain, the sounds spelled with “c” or “z” are pronounced as a /θ/, while in some parts of Spain and in Latin America, it is pronounced as an /s/
  • Intonation of the language in Latin America is more musical than in Spain.

Apart from phonetics, there are important differences in the use of the persons, like:

The Use of Vosotros

Vosotros (2nd person plural) is unknown in America, where ustedes is used instead. Again, in some parts of Spain its use is normal, while in general in Spain, vosotros is preferred.

It is common that in a conversation between a Latin American and a Spaniard, the Spaniard is often confused when addressed with ustedes, and may resort to the common tutéame, por favor, thinking that they have been addressed formally. Look at this conversation:

[Sp] Hola, María, ¿qué tal? Mañana nos vamos de excursión. ¿Te quieres venir?

Hi Maria, how are you? Tomorrow we are going on an excursion. Do you want to come?

[LA] Claro, Juan. Muchas gracias. ¿A dónde van exactamente? ¿Puedo llevar a mi novio?

Of course Juan. Thank you very much. Where are you going exactly? Can I bring my boyfriend?

[Sp] Vamos al monte. Claro que puedes traer a tu novio. ¿Queréis venir con nosotros?

We are going to the mountains. Of course, you can bring your boyfriend. Do you want to come with us?

[LA] De acuerdo. ¿Van ustedes en su coche? ¿Podríamos ir con ustedes?

OK. Are you traveling by car? Can we go with you?

[Sp] Desde luego que podéis venir. Pero no hace falta que me hables de usted.

Of course, you can come. However, it is not necessary to address me with usted.

The Use of Vos

Some Latin American countries, like Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, Central American countries, and parts of Bolivia and Colombia, use vos instead of . In Argentina and Uruguay, the conjugation is a unique one, different from the conjugation.

The origin is quite curious, as it was used reverentially in Spain. Spanish people, in Medieval times, used vos (with different conjugations from the current ones) to address powerful people or authorities. This usage was “exported” to America around the 15th century, with vos being used in more familiar backgrounds while usted was the respectful variant.

Why was it lost in some areas, like Mexico or Peru? Because these areas were more connected in an economic way to the metropolis, Spain, while the other colonies were more disconnected and therefore, further from the evolutions of the language in Spain.

What about Grammar?

The use of a past simple is preferred by Latin Americans in contrast with Spaniards, who use the pretérito perfecto compuesto (present perfect) to refer to a recent event:

[LA] ¿Fuiste al supermercado esta mañana?

Did you go to the supermarket this morning?

[Sp] No, no he ido al supermercado esta mañana. Fui ayer.

No, I haven’t gone to the supermarket this morning. I went yesterday.

And Vocabulary Differences between Castilian and Latin American Spanish?

Maybe this is one of the main distinctive differences. As you may imagine, vocabulary would vary from country to country, but there are some concepts that are said in exactly one way in Latin America and exactly in another way in Spain. Here are some examples:

SpainLatin AmericaEnglish
MóvilCelularCell phone
ConducirManejarTo drive
Hacerse dañoLastimarseGet hurt
Echar de menosExtrañarTo miss

Not only do we have synonyms, but also polysemic words, like coger, which is extensively used in Spain to mean “to catch”, while in most of Latin America, its use is very vulgar and means the sexual act. So you can imagine when a Latin American person comes to Spain and talks to his family by phone:

[LA visitor in Spain] Hola, mamá, ya llegué. Estoy muy feliz en España.

Hi mum, I already arrived. I’m very happy in Spain.

[LA mum in LA] Y cuéntame qué tal te va.

So tell me how you are doing.

España es muy linda, mamá. Pero los españoles hablan raro. Lo “cogen” todo. “Cogen” el autobús, “cogen” el teléfono”, “cogen” la silla”, “cogen el bolígrafo”…

Spain is very beautiful. But Spaniards speak funny. They “catch/***” everything. They “catch/***” the bus, “catch/***” the telephone, “catch/***” the chair, “catch/***” the pen…

Luckily, if you learn one variety of Spanish, you will not have too many problems when traveling to another country. Within the most spoken languages in the world (Chinese, English, Spanish, Portuguese, and Hindi), Spanish has the fewest differences among its dialects.

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