The Mezzofanti Guild Language Learning Made Simple

7 Huge Differences Between European and Latin American Spanish


UPDATE: A friend of mine, Jared Romey, has some great material for South American dialects of Spanish (Chilean, Argentinian and Puerto Rican) that are worth checking out.

For one of the most comprehensive Spanish resources available, click here (Latin American variety). More of my best Spanish resources are here.

This is a guest post from Jason Eckerman who used to run a blog for Spanish learners called Spanish Vault.

Jason Eckerman is a language learner from the United States. After learning in classes when he was younger, he’s been learning Spanish on his own for the last few years. 

Over to you Jason. 🙂

***

But what kind of Spanish do you want to learn?”

When I stared blankly at my friend and said, “I don’t know… All of them, I guess,” I didn’t understand that there are some pretty big differences between European Spanish and Latin American Spanish (on top of the differences within Latin America).

This is an important distinction to make because by establishing which version of Spanish you want to learn, you can save yourself a lot of time in the process of learning the language.

You’ll internalize the right pronunciation. You’ll know how people address each other and how to conjugate verbs the right way. You’ll understand the accent of native speakers more easily.

If you start with one version and have to switch to the other halfway through (like I did), you’ll either have to put in more work in the long run or you’ll end up with a weird mix of Spanish from Spain, Mexico, the Dominican Republic, and Argentina (like me).

I’m using resources from Europe but am going to be talking to only Latin Americans (or vice versa). Should I just quit and learn to juggle instead?”

If you started with one and plan to switch to the other, there’s hope. It’ll just take a little more work.

When I restarted my Spanish after 10 years away from my rusty high school Spanish skills, I started using resources with primarily European Spanish while I talked with my language exchange partner, who coincidentally was from Madrid too.

The only problem is that I’m in the northern part of the United States, and the majority of the Spanish-speaking population in my area is from Mexico with a few others from countries throughout Latin America.

I still haven’t met anyone from Spain here.

After my start with European Spanish, I started spending more time with Latin American resources like radio, podcasts, movies, etc. Even though I’m still a lot more comfortable listening to European Spanish, a lot of it carries over, and you should be able to understand a lot of Latin American Spanish from there.

With all that said, here are a number of the biggest differences between European and Latin American Spanish.

Before I go any farther though, I want to make it clear that I’ll be generalizing for the sake of making things simple. Within Spain, there are huge variations in both pronunciation and vocabulary from one region to another.

The same thing applies from one country to another in Latin America and even within each country.

 

1. Ustedes/Vosotros

When you are talking to a group of people, how do you refer to them in English? Do you say you guys, y’all, youse, ye, you, or something completely different?

Well, Spain and Latin America have their “second person plural” counterparts too. If you’re in Latin America, you’ll probably be using Ustedes all the time to refer to the group.

Things get interesting in Spain though.

When you’re in Spain and you’re talking to a group formally (like if you’re talking to a group of people older than you), you would still use Ustedes. When you’re talking more informally though (like with a group of your friends), then you would use Vosotros.

If your goal is to speak to people from Latin America (for example, if you’re living in the United States and aren’t traveling to Spain), you can save yourself some trouble here and don’t worry about learning to conjugate with Vosotros.

Europe: Vosotros habláis (you guys talk)
Latin America: Ustedes hablan (you guys talk)

 

2. The Past Tense

The tense that they usually use to express the past tends to be different here too.

Of course between Spain and Latin America, there are some subtleties for when to use the three main past tenses (imperfect, preterite, and past perfect).

In European Spanish though, it’s way more common to hear the past perfect tense than the preterite to express the past. For example, you’re more likely to hear “He hablado con ella (I talked with her)” in Spain versus “Hablé con ella,” which you’ll hear more in Latin America.

If you’re learning to speak with people in Latin America, you’ll have to get more comfortable conjugating the preterite tense.

I personally thought it was easier just using the past perfect as a crutch in the beginning (since it was easier to conjugate), so count your blessings and enjoy the benefit of that if you’re talking with the Europeans in Spanish.

 

3. Leismo

Leismo is the term they gave to describe when the indirect object pronoun le is overused and used inappropriately in situations where the direct object pronoun lo would normally be used.

This one gets kind of tricky anyways since I often hear people say that differentiating when to use one versus the other is something that they get hung up on.

To break down that ‘grammarese’ just a little bit though, normally lo is used for a person if the verb isn’t directed towards someone. For example, to see (ver) isn’t a verb that’s really directed at someone, so I would say, “Lo veo (I see him).”

Generally you would only use le if it’s a verb directed towards someone, like saying “Le doy los calcetines sucios (I give him the dirty socks),” but leismo is when you use the le with those other verbs (where you’d normally use lo).

So in Spain, where you see leismo more often, people might say, “Le veo (I see him)” or “Le escucho (I hear him),” overusing le where you should be using lo.

So to sum it up and look on the bright side here, if you screw up and accidentally use le where you should use lo, you can just say, “No, I meant to do that. I’m just speaking European Spanish.

 

4. Aspirated S

When I first started switching from resources in European Spanish to Latin American Spanish, this was a big barrier for me to get used to.

Everything seemed so easy to understand when I would listen to people from Spain because all the words were pronounced just like they looked on paper. No silent letters. No surprises.

But in Latin America, it took a lot more getting used to just because they seemed to switch the letter S for the letter H or just completely ignored it.

When my wife and I went to the Dominican Republic especially, it seemed like I was constantly adding the letter S in my mind to try to match what I was hearing with anything close to the Spanish words I recognized.

Even something as easy as “Cómo estás?” becomes something closer to “Cómo eh-tah?” in the Caribbean.

With enough exposure, this wasn’t a huge problem, but it definitely took some getting used to in the beginning.

 

5. Pronunciation of c/z

Another difference in pronunciation that shouldn’t trip you up as much is how they pronounce the letters C and Z.

I’m pointing this one out not so much because it’s going to be difficult to understand but because this is something to focus on if you want to sound more like the natives in many parts of Spain.

In Spain, a lot of times they pronounce the letters C and Z differently than they would pronounce the letter S, sounding like the “th” sound from the word thin. (Like I said before, this doesn’t apply to all parts of Spain, but in a lot of places this is true.)

For example, when I was singing along to songs from Spain, I noticed this a lot more when pretty common words like hace and parece were pronounced with a “th” sound.

In a lot of places throughout Latin America though, they don’t make that distinction.

The words casar and cazar sound pretty much the same, and you just have to figure out the difference from context.

Like I said before, you shouldn’t have any problem understanding the difference when listening to natives, but this is important for speaking if you want to improve your accent more.

 

6. Pronunciation of ll/y

When I started talking to a language exchange partner from Argentina, this was another interesting little exercise in pronunciation.

There isn’t much of a difference between how you would pronounce the LL and Y in Spain versus most countries in Latin America. If you go to Argentina or Uruguay though, that’s a different story.

Depending on what part of Argentina or Uruguay you’re in, those might sound like either an “sh” or “zh” instead of what you’d expect a letter Y to sound like.

For example, when I was talking to him and said the word calle, he had no idea what I said (or maybe he was just trying to train me in how to pronounce it like an Argentine) until I started saying “cah-shay.”

 

7. Vocabulary

Vocabulary is something that can vary a lot from country to country, even throughout Latin America. For example, it seems like just about every one of the twenty-some Spanish-speaking countries has their own version of the word “cool” (guay, padre, chido, chévere, bacán, bacano…).

It seems like there is an even bigger gap between Spain and the Latin American countries though.

In Spain, you call the computer “el ordenador,” but in Latin America it’s “la computadora.” In Spain, the car is “el coche,” but it Latin America it’s either “el carro” or “el auto.”

The list can go on and on, but I especially want to draw attention to one example to really highlight the difference.

Coger.

You can use this in Spain in a lot of different situations to say either grab or take. This would be totally appropriate to say that you were going to take your suitcases, grab some potatoes, catch the train, etc.

Don’t use this in Latin America!

The difference here is that in Latin America it’s the more vulgar form of “to have sex with.”

So the next time you’re talking with Spanish-speakers from Latin America, think twice before you’re going to coger a suitcase, potatoes, or a train… My guess is you’ll either get a strange look or a reputation that you really don’t want.

 

Final Thoughts

When you cross the Atlantic, there are a lot of differences between the Spanish you hear in Spain versus the Spanish you hear in Latin America.

While some of these will make it harder than others to understand what you’re hearing, it’s especially important to know these differences if you want to continue to improve your speaking and sound more like the natives.

Now your turn…

 

Remember that if you’re interested in South American Spanish varieties, my mate Jared Romey has some great material for South American dialects of Spanish (Chilean, Argentinian and Puerto Rican).

Also check out this Spanish numbers guide we made that will help you get your head around counting.

For take a look at our list of best books for learning Spanish.

Are there any other differences you can think of between European and Latin American Spanish? What’s your experience been with learning the different versions of Spanish?

Leave a comment below and let me know!

Comments

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  1. Even among Latin America, there is a strong North/South division in phonology and words. J is quite soft in the North and quite strong here in the South… not to mention that swearwords differ strongly and what can be a big offense in Mexico, it is a funny and cute word in Chile or Uruguay. There was even a movement (fostered by US media) to create a standarized Latin American Spanish vocabulary and pronounciation, which affected the perception of Southern dialects (check the Youtube dubbing wars 🙁 )… I even get weird stares or nasty comments when I speak or write since my dialect doesn't get much media exported to other countries.

    My best advice would be before interacting with Spanish speakers, learn about their culture and don't be afraid to screw it up first. You will get a giggle and a helping hand, most of the times. Most people are willing to teach you the local dialect or words in order to help you insert better in the culture. Plus, keep in mind relationship and proxemics may differ too! In Argentina, you are expected to greet everyone with a kiss, regardless of gender while other countries will not expect you to address peers as señor/señora/señorita while others will demand you to address them as usted.

  2. Thanks for posting this. I'm thinking of restarting my Spanish. I'm at the point where I want to add a third language to my arsenal and Spanish is the logical choice for many reasons. I'll probably focus on Latin American Spanish. I started learning it when I was 11 in school and to me, pronouncing c and z as a 'th' sound is just SO wrong. 😉

  3. The difference here is that in L̶a̶t̶i̶n̶ ̶A̶m̶e̶r̶i̶c̶a̶ Mexico it’s the more vulgar form of “to have sex with.”

    1. …pues, not true… in Uruguay and Argentina you would never use coger, but agarrar… a word in Spain that is a bit harsh.

    2. Agarrar is not harsh at all in Spain.

  4. Also in Argentina and Uruguay they use vos instead of tú a lot. Vos is conjugated differently so it is “vos sos” not “tú eres” and “vos tenés” not “tú tienes” etc. They also use a lot of different vocabulary and expressions.

    I have a Cuban friend who said she could not understand the Spanish in Uruguay for several months.

  5. Nice article, with most differences well explained, though I think you probably overstated the difficulties at the beginning of it. In my experience, it doesn’t matter what form of Spanish you learn, as long as you’re not using really strong local colloquialisms (i.e. slang) then you shall be understood anywhere in the Spanish speaking world and understand everybody fairly easily (again, unless they use a lot of colloquialisms/slang). The differences between the standard registers of Spanish in each country are small and no bigger than those between US and UK English. So I would say it doesn’t make a lot of difference nor is is problematic if you start with one then switch to the other. In fact, I started with European Spanish (I’m British, and we usually learn European Spanish in schools over here), then when I came back to it, learnt ‘generic’ Spanish while learning where the differences lie, and now I adjust my Spanish depending where I am/ to whom I am speaking.

    Also, you made a few mistakes with grammatical terms. Where you said the ‘past perfect’, you meant the ‘present perfect’ (it’s confusing because in Spanish it is called the petérito perfecto compuesto, which means composed past perfect).

    he hablado = I have spoken = present perfect (petérito perfecto compuesto)
    había hablado = I had spoken = past perfect/pluperfect (pretérito pluscuamperfecto)
    hablé = I spoke = preterite/simple past (petérito perfecto simple)
    hablaba = I was speaking/used to speak = imperfect (petérito imperfecto)

    The difference between the present perfect and preterite are similar between Spanish and English. It is true, however, that Spaniards may use the present perfect for very near events (e.g. that morning) where Latin American Spanish and English use the preterite.

    E.g. Esta mañana he habaldo con él (Spain)
    Esta mañana hablé con él (Latin America)
    This morning I spoke to him.

    Conversely, Latin American Spanish sometimes uses the preterite where both European Spanish and (UK) English would use the present perfect.

    E.g. Sí, he hablado con él (Spain)
    Sí, hablé con él (Latin American)
    Yes, I have spoken to him

    Interestingly, the same parallel development has happened in US English, as they may often say ‘Yes, I spoke to him’ using the preterite. In fact, in UK English we have a stronger distinction between the preterite and present perfect than in the US, and use the present perfect a lot more. For example, with words like ‘just’ or ‘already’, you always use the present perfect in UK, while you may use either the present perfect or the preterite in the US, although I believe the preterite is more common.

    E.g. I have already eaten (UK)
    I already ate (US) (to British ears this sounds very unnatural/distinctly American. I would certainly never use the preterite here.)

    British English also follows European Spanish to some extent in often (but not always) using the present perfect for things done recently (e.g. today), where US English follows Latin American in using the preterite.

    E.g. What have you done today? (UK)
    What did you do today? (US)

    This isn’t clear cut of course, and in both languages which one you use depends what you want to convey, and the style and manner in which you are speaking (i.e. in this example many British people might say ‘what did you do today’, although it is less common).

    I also found your description of object pronouns in the leísmo section a bit weird. You said the ‘lo/la’ is used where the verb isn’t really directed to someone, despite the fact that it’s called the direct object (the verb is happening directly to you, e.g. I love you), and ‘le’ is used when the verb is directed at someone, despite that fact that it its the indirect object (it’s not happening directly to you e.g. I wrote a letter to you/I wrote you a letter).

    Also, leísmo is considered acceptable as a Peninsular Spanish variant by the RAE if it is referring to a man, but not if it is referring to a women or a non-human. If you’re going to Spain, you should learn leísmo, as many Spaniards will consider ‘lo veo’ incorrect (even though it is correct).
    So,
    Le veo = I see him = correct in Spain, incorrect in Latin America
    Lo veo = I see him = correct everywhere (although many Spaniards consider this incorrect)
    Le veo = I see her/it = incorrect everywhere (although used colloquially in Spain)

    Just one last thing, it’s worth noting that European Spanish use ‘usted’ relatively rarely. You can call most people, even people you don’t know or are older than you (unless they are actually elderly), ‘tú’. ‘Usted’ would sound overly formal unless you are in a very formal situation. In many (but not all) Latin American countries, ‘usted’ is the normal form used for people, unless you know them well in which case ‘tú’ is used. Obviously, this varies from country to country though. E.g. Cuba you rarely use ‘usted’, but also don’t use ‘vosotros’, so for the most part you use ‘tú’ for everyone in the singular and ‘ustedes’ for everyone in the plural without any formal/informal connotations.

    1. Lol I love how you said ‘nice article’ and then basically re-wrote the whole thing in your comment #theshadeofitall

    2. You said nice article and then proceeded to discredit most of it. You sound very high-handed. Your “reply” was longer than the original article and not nearly as comprehensive. I humbly suggest you publish your own article elsewhere. I found the original article very informative and easily understandable.

  6. Just to add another thing about the different between UK/US English regarding the preterite vs. present perfect.

    In UK in English, we make a distinction between the two tenses, depending on whether you have qualified the timing of the action or not.
    E.g. ‘Have you spoken to him yet?’ could warrant two different replies, either:
    ‘Yes, I have spoken to him’ (using the present perfect as it still relates to the present and hasn’t been qualified at any given point in the past) OR
    ‘Yes, I spoke to him this morning’ (using the preterite as you have qualified the action as happening at a given point in the past).

    In US English, I believe it is common to say ‘Did you speak to him yet?’ and reply ‘Yes, I spoke to him (this morning)/Yes, I did speak to him (this morning)’, without the distinction. Although, I believe you can make the distinction in US English as well, but is is less common (at least colloquially).

  7. There’s always gozar when it comes to differences between Spain and Latin America… Hint: don’t use the word in Spain. It’s another one like coger, just the other way round. Whilst in Latin America it means simply ‘to enjoy’, in Spain it’s more ‘to enjoy having sex’.

    1. Uh… No? I come from Spain and if someone would use it I wouldn’t think right away of sexual connotations. Actually, I’d say that we don’t use the word a lot (we tend to use synonyms, like “difrutar”), but there are some regional uses for it like “lo estás gozando” (you’re having it good/you’re enjoying it/…) that I heard a lot at the Canaries, mostly from younger people.

      It is true that “gozar de ” is an euphemism for having sex with that person, but I haven’t really seen it out of literature

    2. That would be “gozar de [substitute some’s persons name – often a woman’s]”.

  8. When you say “Spain Spanish” you seem to just be talking about the standard and the northern dialects. Even in Madrid they aspirate s before c (ej que, ajco), and any further south and they aspirate it all the time.

    Regarding the past perfect tense in Castilian Spanish, it’s not as simple as being “used more”. It’s used when you have past events that are related directly to the present — hoy, ahora, or any word prefixed by “este” (esta semana, este mes, este año). “Hoy fui” and “ayer he ido” both sound wrong to Castilian Spanish speakers.

  9. In Salamanca where I studied Spanish the “ll” was more of a “zh” part of the time, example: allí instead of “ayee” was “azhee.” Also, “plaza” = platha. In Andalucía they drop “s” off the ends of many words, so it can be difficult to get used to.
    I didn’t have any trouble adapting from that to “Mexican Spanish” when I went to Mexico. I ended up altering my pronunciation to sound more Mexican because I got tired of people in Mexican restaurants in the USA ask me where I got the accent.

    When I visited Costa Rica, I had read the use the “vos” for “tú” but didn’t have any difficulty understanding anyone because of that.

  10. In Latin America, they are not leaving the s off como estas, (see your comment above), they are asking como esta, because they most commonly use the usted form.

  11. I find it ridiculous that so many English speaking Americans who have little to know knowledge of Castilian feel they can post their limited opinion of Castilian. As mandarin is the official name of the official language in China, Castilian is the official language of Spain and the Spanish speaking countries oof the americas. There is one official institution who regulates the language called the Royal Spanish Academy and they have been the official keepers of the language in all the Spanish speaking countries. There is no such thing as Latin American Spanish. There are regional variations due to the vast expansion of the Spanish empire. Even the spanish spoken in the Caribbean is originated in the Canary Islands. It is almost identical as such that a Cuban or Puerto Rican will be thought of as a local in the Canary Islands. Due to the immigration of canary island people to the Caribbean this is the major origin of the regional language. Again, there is no such thing as Latin American Spanish. Castilian has only one standard and the regional differences are not proper. So learning proper Spanish is no issue. And for those who do not speak the language, when in doubt contact the Royal Academy of Spanish and they will answer any questions with factual information.

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