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European Spanish vs. Latin American Spanish: The differences explained

by Jayson McNamara of Ailola Lingua in co-operation with Ailola Madrid

One consequence of formal education is that students are often shocked to discover that the language they’ve been learning for years in a classroom isn’t spoken quite as they imagined on the ground. Spanish is a perfect example of this phenomenon. And as you’re about to learn, there’s more than an ocean separating Spanish in Spain from Spanish in Latin America!

Distinction

North American students with greater exposure to Latin American Spanish, and in particular Mexican Spanish, are in for quite a surprise when they visit Spain. One of the major differences between Spanish in Spain and Spanish in Latin America is the pronunciation of the letters ‘z’ and ‘c’. Described in linguistic terms as distinction, the majority of Spaniards pronounce the letters ‘z’ (before all vowels) and ‘c’ (only before ‘i’ and ‘e’) similarly to the English sound ‘th’, almost like a lisp. It means you’ll hear a word like cinco (five) pronounced ‘thin-co’ in Spain and ‘sin-co’ in Latin America. Note: In parts of southern Spain, you’ll hear people pronouncing ‘z’ or ‘c’ sounds the same way no matter where they are positioned in a word (this is called ceceo).

Vosotros/Ustedes

If you have your heart set on an adventure through Latin America, then you’ll have at least one language advantage on your side. Unlike Spaniards, Latin American Spanish speakers do not use the informal second-person pronoun vosotros. To remind you, vosotros is the informal way of referring to a group of people (use vosotras, specifically for a group of women or girls), and translates as you in English. Instead, Latin Americans use ustedes, the formal second-person pronoun, to refer to a group of people (including a group of women and girls). Confused? Check up on your Spanish pronouns and count your lucky stars that you have one less to remember in Latin America! Some examples:

Vocabulary

Each country is a world of its own when it comes to vocabulary, no matter what the language group. Spain and the 19 Latin American countries where Spanish is an official language are no different in this sense. So, while the English car is coche in Spain, it’s carro or auto in Latin America. Computador(a) in Latin America might be a little easier for English speakers to remember than Spain’s ordenador, though with celular in Latin America and Spain’s móvil you shouldn’t have any problems figuring out the word for cellphone (USA) or mobile phone (UK). Some other examples:

Where’s that ‘s’?

Depending on where you learn or travel throughout the Spanish-speaking world, the absence of the ’s’ sound at the end of certain words may or may not surprise you. Across the Latin American world, the letter ’s’ is often “eaten”, as it’s explained locally, by a type of soft grasping sound. In countries like Argentina and Chile, it’s particularly common to hear words that almost sound half-spoken, usually because of this softer ’s’ sound. To give you an example: while the spelling remains the same, you might hear: ¡vamo! instead of ¡vamos! (let’s go! in English) in places like Argentina or Chile. Note: in parts of southern Spain, you’ll hear something very similar when it comes to the pronunciation of the ’s’ sound.

Voseo vs tuteo

Again on the topic of pronouns, in Spain and the majority of the Latin American countries where Spanish is spoken you’ll refer to your par as , the informal second-person pronoun that translates as you. However, this isn’t the case everywhere! Across many pockets of Latin America, the pronoun vos is used instead. This informal second-person pronoun is dominant in Argentina and Uruguay, yet voseo — as it’s known in linguistic terms — is also common in certain regions of Bolivia, Chile, Paraguay, Colombia and Venezuela, and in Central America in El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Costa Rica. Note some of the differences in the conjugations required in voseo and tuteo below:

Leísmo

This concept is a little tricky so hold in there! Leísmo is a linguistic term that refers to the use of the indirect object pronoun ‘le’ over the direct object pronouns ‘lo’ and ‘la’. For the sake of ease, imagine ‘it’ over ‘him’ or ‘her’. Some Spaniards incorrectly use the term ‘le’ when referring to another person. For example: “A Javier le vi” (I saw Javier). While this is technically incorrect, the Real Academia Española accepts its use because of how common it has become in Spain. However, note that this is only when referring to men! You must say “A María la vi” instead of “A María le vi”, at all times. In Latin America, the use of ‘le’ in lieu of the correct direct object pronouns ‘lo’ and ‘la’ is looked down upon. Spanish students should stick with the correct use of object pronouns at all times.

African Spanish?

Many people don’t know about the African country where Spanish is a national language. But now you do! Equatorial Guinea is located on the west coastline of Sub-Saharan Africa. Around 60 to 90 percent of the population speaks the language as either a mother tongue or second language, depending on whose statistics you read. The accent is more similar to European than Latin American Spanish, though major differences exist like the use of the preposition en over a. For instance if an Equatoguinean was traveling to Madrid, she might say “Voy en Madrid” over “Voy a Madrid.”

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