By James Coulson | Read time 15 min |
9 Key Differences Between European Spanish & Latin American Spanish
Having taught Spanish for the last ten years and a learner of it for the last 15, I have always been fascinated by the many differences between European Spanish and Latin American Spanish.
There are literally hundreds of Spanish accents, national and regional dialects and colloquialisms.
Anybody interested in learning Spanish also seems to be aware, perhaps subconsciously at times, of the many differences between European or Peninsular Spanish and Latin American Spanish, unsure of which they should learn.
Whilst the language you’re learning is the same, the type of Spanish you choose to learn will determine your pronunciation, the way you address others and how you conjugate verbs.
By picking a form of Spanish early on and sticking to it, you will save time in the language learning process.
Why is South America called Latin America? A Short Background
First, let’s get the terminology right. The term ‘Latin America’ refers to a group of countries and dependencies in the Western Hemisphere where Romance languages such as Spanish, Portuguese, and French are predominantly spoken.
It is not exclusive to Spanish, nor to any one country.
Latin America is a region that encompasses many forms of Spanish, and there is no one fixed Spanish here. For example, Colombian slang words are completely different from what you’d hear in Mexico, Costa Rica or Venezuela.
So, when questioning whether to learn Peninsular Spanish or Latin American Spanish, the answer will always be quite nuanced.
Finally, the term ‘Hispanic America’ refers specifically to Spanish-speaking countries. Most of these were (in simple and broad terms) conquered by the Spanish at some point after 1492.
Many countries in Central and South America still share the official language status of Spanish with other indigenous languages.
In this post, when I use the term ‘Latin American Spanish’ I am referring to non-European or non-Peninsular Spanish.
European Spanish vs Latin American Spanish
Now that we’ve established that there is no one type of Latin American Spanish, it makes analysing Castilian Spanish vs Latin American Spanish much easier.
Again, let’s just clarify terminology. Castilian Spanish is the variety of Peninsular Spanish spoken in northern and central Spain.
It is the Spanish that I learnt in school in Europe; the Spanish you will hear in Spain on standard radio or in the news.
It is referred to more commonly as European Spanish, or Castilian Spanish by Europeans.
As you progress in Spanish, you will find that European Spanish sounds very different to all types of Latin American Spanish.
European Spanish – Unique in Many ways
I learnt Peninsular Spanish at school and university, and it continues to be the Spanish I teach most frequently to Europeans.
However, many Americans that I teach are not interested in learning Peninsular/European Spanish, which I completely understand.
After all, they spend more time with Spanish-speakers from Latin America, and the use of Peninsular Spanish is uncommon in the U.S.
There are many differences, both in terms of accent and grammar, between Peninsular Spanish and Latin American Spanish.
If you have learned a Romance language such as Spanish, French, Portuguese or Italian before then you will know that there is a plural form for ‘you.’
In English, we say ‘you all,’ ‘you guys’ or ‘y’all.’
I like that in Northern England and parts of Ireland ‘you all’ is often replaced with ‘yous!’
Whichever Spanish you learn, you will need to learn the plural form of you.
The good news for Spanish learners is that across the whole region of Latin America, this plural form is ustedes.
Nice and simple…
In Spain, however, ustedes is less common and is used only in more formal situations, like if you’re addressing your friend’s grandparents or a group of business associates.
The more common and informal form of ‘you all’ in European Spanish is vosotros.
Whilst this doesn’t sound too complicated, vosotros has it’s own conjugation.
If you would like to learn European Spanish then you will need to learn the vosotros form when learning you plural.
If your aim is to learn Latin American Spanish then you can learn this part later.
However, you will still need to learn the vosotros form in order to understand European Spanish speakers.
2. Voseo – Tú/Vos
To complicate things even more, some Spanish-speaking countries, including Argentina, Uruguay and parts of Colombia, use a different form of you in the singular form too – vos.
I won’t get too into it here. However, know that this form also triggers a different set of verb conjugations, not recognised by the Real Academia Española.
This is the main cultural institution dedicated to regulating, preserving and developing the Spanish language.
I am lucky to have spent a year of my life in Latin America and I found first-hand that every Spanish-speaking country has its own regional accents, dialects, colloquialisms and vocabulary.
In Latin America, this varies from country to country.
For example, the word ‘awesome’ in Spanish has more than 10 variants depending on the country you visit – bacán, guay, chulo, brutal, chévere, chuzo…’
There is an even greater gap between Spain and Latin American, though.
In Castilian Spanish, the word for ‘car’ is ‘coche.’ However, in Latin America, the Spanish word for ‘car’ is ‘auto’ or ‘carro.’
In Spain, ‘strawberry’ is ‘fresa’ – in much of Latin America it’s ‘frutilla.’ In Spain, ‘computer’ is ‘ordenador’ – in Latin America it’s ‘computadora,’ often shortened to ‘compu.’
The list could go on for hours!
One example which highlights the sometimes huge difference between Peninsular Spanish and Latin American Spanish is the following:
The verb ‘Coger.’
I had learned this verb at school to use when referring to ways to take transport:
‘Cogí el tren’ – I caught the train.
‘Cogí el avión’ – I took the plane.
‘Normalente, cogo el autobús’ – Normally, I take the bus.
Imagine my surprise when telling my colleagues in Buenos Aires that I had taken a bus to work was greeted with fits of laughter.
I couldn’t work out what was so funny!
In Latin America, ‘Coger’ means ‘To f****’ – a vulgar form of the term ‘to have sex’.
So, don’t use ‘Coger’ in Latin America to refer to taking or catching transport!
This is one of the more extreme cases, but highlights how different the meaning of vocabulary can be between European Spanish and Latin American Spanish.
4. La ‘Z’ española – pronunciation of ‘C’ and ‘Z’
If you have spent time listening to a European Spanish speaker before then you may be familiar with the specific pronunciation of ‘Cs’ and ‘Zs.’
Honestly, if you would like to learn Castilian Spanish and sound like a native from Spain then you will need to familiarise yourself with this form of pronunciation as soon as possible.
In most of Spain, the letters ‘c’ and ‘z’ are pronounced like a ‘th.’
So, the phonetic pronunciation of the word for apple – ‘manzana’ would be ‘man-thana.’
Likewise, the word for scar – ‘cicatriz’ would be ‘thee-ca-treeth.’
You may not hear these words everyday in Spain, but you will hear common verbs such as ‘Hacer’ – to make or to do, and ‘Decir’ – to say.
By contrast, in Latin America, ‘Cs’ and ‘Zs’ are both pronounced like our English ’S.’
Whilst this is easier to remember, speak and understand, I have noticed it lead to spelling mistakes.
Be careful not to confuse these two letters when you start writing in Spanish.
It can even lead to using different words altogether.
For example, ‘Cazar’ and ‘Casar’ are pronounced the same in Latin America, but the first means ‘to hunt’ and the second ‘to marry.’
If you are only familiar with Latin American Spanish then this aspect of European Spanish pronunciation may seem quite alien to you.
I would familiarise yourself with it but stick to Latin American Spanish if it is already what you know best.
5. Pronunciation of double L – ‘ll’
Just like the pronunciation of ‘C’ and ‘Z’, the pronunciation of the double ‘L’ differs depending on the country you visit.
Throughout Spain and most of Latin America, this sound is a ‘y.’ You may also sometimes hear it sound like a ‘j.’
Think about the term ‘me llamo’ – I am called – pronounced ‘Me yamo.’
In Argentina and Uruguay, however, the ‘ll’ is pronounced like a ‘sh’. This means that frutilla (strawberry) is pronounced ‘frutisha’ and ‘calle’ – street – is pronounced ‘cashe.’
This is one example of the many variations in Argentina Spanish, but also one of the many different Spanish accents you’ll come across in Latin America.
Remember the differences with Argentine and Uruguayan Spanish when you learn Latin American Spanish.
6. The Use of the Past Tense
The more familiar you become with Spanish, the more you will pick up on the the way that the past tense is used differently by European Spanish and Latin American Spanish speakers.
Whilst in European Spanish, you will still hear a variety of past tenses (the preterite, imperfect and past perfect), the most common form used to talk about a completed action is the Past Perfect Tense.
For example, ‘Hoy he ido a la oficina (I have gone to the office today).
In Latin America, it is more common to use the preterite tense: Hoy fui a la oficina (I went to the office today).
This may sound complicated, but you will need to learn both of these tenses when you study the past tense in Spanish.
Even if you choose to learn Latin American Spanish, the perfect past tense is a fundamental part of the Spanish language, so there’s no avoiding it!
7. The Silent ’S’
During my time living in Buenos Aires, I shared an apartment with a guy from Venezuela.
I can remember struggling to understand his accent because he always cut his words short, not pronouncing the ’s’ at the end of words.
So, for example, ‘más o menos’ – more or less – is pronounced ‘ ‘ma o meno.’
This is one of the great differences between European Spanish and Latin American Spanish.
The fact is that if you learn European Spanish then you will probably end up speaking a lot more clearly.
You will also be able to understand a broader range of Spanish accents and dialects. I certainly found this to be the case for myself.
In Spain, Spaniards tend to pronounce words as they are written on paper, without cutting anything short. This isn’t the case everywhere, of course, but throughout most of Spain.
Cutting words short and omitting the ’s’ is quite common in Latin America, and I have since experienced similar with Colombians, Chileans and Argentinians.
In Cuba, this form of pronunciation is taken to a new level – the ’s’ is actually replaced with an ‘h’ sound!
So, my advice would be to immerse yourself into as many Spanish accents and dialects as possible. As a result, you will undoubtedly broaden your understanding of Spanish.
However, pick an accent early on and stick to it when it comes to speaking.
8. Leísmo and the Use of the Object Pronoun
Restricted to Peninsular or European Spanish, there exists a phenomenon called ‘Leísmo.’
This is going to sound quite complicated, but it’s actually relatively simple. Indeed, you will become familiar with it as you start speaking Spanish.
Leismo refers to the use of the indirect object pronoun ‘le’ instead of the technically correct (initially as per the Real Academic Española) direct object pronouns ‘lo’ and ‘la’ when referring to people.
Let me show you how this looks in practice.
I didn’t see Miguel yesterday – Ayer no le ví a Miguel.
I didn’t see Miguel yesterday – Ayer no lo ví a Miguel.
This rule is now broken so often that it has come to be accepted in Spain.
So, if you are learning Castilian or European Spanish, instead of Latin American Spanish, then remember you can use both.
In Latin America, however, leísmo is not present and using it would sound like a clear and obvious mistake to native Spanish speakers.
If you are a complete beginner in Spanish then I recommend learning the correct form of the direct object pronoun.
As a result, you will avoid making mistakes later.
9. Slang & Colloquialisms in Latin American & European Spanish
I guess this links to the vocabulary points mentioned earlier, but one thing to bear in mind about Latin America is that every country has literally thousands of slang words and terms.
That said, so does Spain.
Don’t let this put you off learning – it’s the same in English, right? The English spoken in England is very different to that of the U.S, Australia, South Africa etc…
Just remember that slang is a huge part of informal Spanish and differs from country to country.
Not knowing every term will not hinder your progress in Spanish, but it can be infuriating when you reach a good level but stumble in social situations!
Final Thoughts – how big are the differences between Peninsular Spanish and Latin American Spanish?
If you travel from Spain to Latin America or vice-versa then you’ll notice a lot of differences in the Spanish that is spoken.
The differences are pretty huge, but not so much so that they should hinder your learning.
Differences include, but are not limited to, vocabulary, grammar, colloquialisms/slang and, more than anything, pronunciation.
As a Spanish speaker and teacher, the best advice I can give is to pick a Spanish that you are comfortable with (in terms of speaking and listening) and to stick to it.
As your Latin American or European Spanish progresses, you will become more fluent.
As a result, you will become more comfortable with the other form of Spanish and even be able to switch between the two in social situations if you want to.
Remember, if you are interesting in learning European OR Latin American Spanish then we have put together some great resources to do help you do so.
Ways to Learn Latin American & European Spanish Online
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It is very similar to italki, with the same common goals and the same main features. Preply also contains an in-built classroom which enhances the quality and efficiency of lessons for both tutors and students.
Spanish for Beginners with James
Spanish for Beginners is a course created by me.
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