Varieties of Spanish

Regional Differences Significant but Not Extreme

Gijón
A scene from Gijón, a city in Spain. Manuel Marín Vicente/Creative Commons.

Spanish varies significantly from country to country — but the differences aren't so extreme that if you're learning a Mexican variety of Spanish you need to worry about communicating in, for example, Spain or Argentina.

Questions about the regional varieties of Spanish come up frequently from Spanish students. Many have heard so much about how the Spanish of Spain (or Argentina or Cuba or fill-in-the-blank) is different than what they learned that they're worried their months of study won't do them much good.

While the comparison isn't completely accurate, the differences between the Spanish of Spain and the Spanish of Latin America are something like the differences between British English and American English. With a few exceptions — some local accents can be difficult for outsiders — people in Spain watch movies and TV shows from Latin America without subtitles, and vice versa. There are regional differences, more so in the spoken language than in writing, but they aren't so extreme that you can't learn the differences as you need them.

Also, while it's easy to think of Latin American Spanish as one entity, as textbooks and lessons often treat treat it, you should note there are differences in the Spanish of various countries in the Western Hemisphere. Guatemalan Spanish isn't Chilean Spanish — but residents of those two countries and many others communicate all the time with little difficulty.

If your pronunciation is reasonably good, whether your accent is Castilian or Mexican or Bolivian, you will be understood. You might want to avoid slang or extreme colloquialisms, but standard educated Spanish is understood anywhere in the Spanish-speaking world.

Here, however, are some of the differences you may notice:

Pronunciation Differences in Spanish

One of the pronunciation differences most often mentioned is that many Spaniards often pronounce the z and the c before i or e like the "th" in "thin," while many Latin Americans pronounce it the same as the s. Also, speakers in some areas (Argentina in particular) often pronounce the ll and y like the "s" in "measure" (this is sometimes called the "zh" sound). In some areas, you will hear speakers drop s sounds, so está sounds like etá. In some areas, the j sounds like the "ch" in the Scottish "loch" (difficult for many native English speakers to master), while in others it sounds like the English "h." In some areas, the l and the r at the end of a word sound alike. If you listen to a variety of spoken Spanish, you'll notice other differences as well, particularly in the rhythm in which it is spoken.

Regional Differences in Spanish Grammar

Two of the biggest differences from country to country in grammar are the leísmo of Spain and the use of the pronoun vos in some areas instead of (meaning "you"). Another major difference is that vosotros is usually used as the plural of in Spain, while in Latin American ustedes is usually used. There are also numerous small differences, many involving colloquial usage.

Although it may sound unusual to Spaniards to hear ustedes used where they are expecting vosotros, you not need fear not being understood. The Latin American form will be familiar to the Spaniard even though it may seem a bit foreign.

Regional Differences in Spanish Vocabulary

Other than slang, probably the biggest class of vocabulary differences you'll come across is in the use of suffixes. A lápiz is a pencil or crayon everywhere, but a lapicero is a pencil holder in some areas, a mechanical pencil in others, and a ball-point pen in still others.

There are also a fair number of blatant differences, such as a computer being un ordenador in Spain but una computadora in Latin America, but they are probably no more common than the British-American differences. Names of foods can also vary, and it isn't unusual in Latin America for the indigenous names of vegetables and fruits to have been adopted.

Travelers should be aware that there are at least a dozen words, some of them of local usage only, for a bus. But the formal word autobús is understood everywhere.

Of course, every area also has its quirky words. For example, a Chinese restaurant in Chile or Peru is a chifa, but you won't run across that word in many other places.