Spain vs Latin America: How one language can change so much

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There are so many different types of Spanish, with changes between Spain and Latin America and in every one of the 21 Spanish-speaking countries. Discover them.

Thought Spanish was just one language? The world’s second most widely spoken language actually has so many differences around the world. Let’s take a look.

¿De dónde sos?

¿Dónde estás?

¿Vosotros vais a la fiesta?

¿Yendo a la fiesta?

¡Qué chulo!

¡Qué padre!

¡Qué chévere!

¡Che boludo!

¡Órale, Güey!

The above are just a few examples of the different types of Spanish idioms and sayings you’ll encounter in various countries throughout the world.

Many times these differences can be subtle and will generally mean the same thing from one nation to another. Other times the differences are unique to that specific culture. Often, depending on your native language, the direct translations are downright comical.

Perhaps somebody doesn’t know a ‘potato’ about anything, or they’re happy as a worm. And if someone is straight-talking, then in Spanish they don’t have hair on their tongue.

Funny phrases aside, most of the differences you’ll find between the Spanish spoken in Spain and that of Latin America are structural in nature, with a few key differences in vocabulary. And of course, Latin America is a large place, so there are other differences from country to country.

Different cultures, one language

The answer to the question, “How many dialects of Spanish are there?” is easy: there are quite a few.

Many of the different types of Spanish involve vocabulary. There are simply different Spanish words in different countries. Take Mexico, for example. One reason you’ll encounter such a wide gulf in vocabulary has to do with that nation’s indigenous heritage.

This is particularly clear in the southern Mexican states, where the names of many places – Oaxaca, Tuxtla, Cancún, Tapachula, etc. – are based in part or entirely on native vocabulary. The state of Oaxaca is a perfect example. Its name comes from huāxyacac, a word in the Uto-Aztecan language of Nahuatl that refers to a tree common in the area.

Then there’s the Colombian capital of Bogotá. Far from being authentically Spanish in origin, the name originally derives from Bacatá. This is an indigenous word belonging to the Muisca people, who existed in the area long before the Spaniards arrived.

Travel elsewhere in South America and the indigenous influence is equally strong, if not more so. There’s Cochabamba in Bolivia, Iquique in Chile, and of course Machu Picchu in Peru.

This all contrasts sharply with Spain, where the Spanish language is actually heavily influenced by Arabic from the hundreds of years of Moorish presence on the Iberian Peninsula. Many place names have Arabic heritage, such as Andalusia, from the Moorish name for the country Al-Andalus, or even the Guadalquivir River in Seville. Other Spanish words also have Arabic roots, even words such as aceite, meaning oil, and ojalá, which means I hope and has a distinct similarity on the Arabic inshallah, meaning if Allah wills it.

Other language differences between Spain and Latin America involve different words that refer to the same object. Likewise, different verbs can refer to the same action. While you can conducir un coche (drive a car) in Spain, in Mexico you would manejar a carro. And while you might be typing away on un ordenador in Spain, in Mexico you’d be using una computadora.

It’s all about the accent

A big hurdle for many people learning a new language is pronunciation. The challenge of rebooting your brain and learning new letter combinations and how they form sounds you aren’t accustomed to is a tall order. This is particularly true with Spanish.

Each country that speaks the language pronounces it in different ways. Some of these accent differences are small while others are more distinct. Spain certainly qualifies as being distinct. Even if you’ve yet to visit this country, you might be aware of their unique accent.

The most famous example of the Spanish accent is the lisp. It’s true that in Spain people often use the “th” sound, for example, the pronunciation in words with a c followed by an i or e. In this example, the word Barcelona sounds like Bar-th-elona.

However, not all differences in Spanish pronunciation involve letter combinations. This is a country with a centuries-long history of Arabic influences, particularly in the south, which manifests itself in the way people speak. Travel to the southern region of Andalusia, say, and you’re likely to hear locals speak in more guttural tones. They also tend to drop the s and d in many words. For example they typically say “gracia” instead of “gracias” and “ciudá” instead of “ciudad” (city), with the accent on the a.

This is different from almost every country in Latin America. Be it Mexico, Peru, Venezuela or Chile, they typically speak a softer form of Spanish.

The trick to wrapping your mind around proper pronunciation in Spain is to settle in one region and immerse yourself in the language. Eventually, your ear will pick up the distinction and your mouth will do the rest.

Which Spanish is right for me?

The region where you’re based (or will be based) should be the key factor in determining which type of Spanish to learn. If you’re going to spend most of your time in the Americas, then learning the Spanish that is spoken in Venezuela and Colombia is often slower and clearly enunciated, making it great for beginners.

When travelling to other parts of Latin America you will encounter other dialects. The Argentines speak their castellano with an Italian lilt; ditto their “little brothers” in Uruguay. Chileans speak in rapid-fire bursts and pepper their sentences with so much slang it can be hard to keep up.

Back in Spain, the accent can feel more closed and they certainly speak much faster than in, say, Mexico. But once you understand it you can travel everywhere and follow the Spanish. After all, it is the root of the language.

Having said that, you’ll run into varied colloquialisms, slang, and cultural idioms in every Spanish-speaking country you visit. Therefore it’s always best to master the fundamentals of the language first, as these basics will serve you well no matter where you end up.

Because remember, in Latin America you might walk a few cuadras (blocks) to the restaurant, but in Spain that same distance is measured in manzanas (apples). Such is the topsy-turvy life of the Spanish-speaking world. It doesn’t matter the type of Spanish you speak, iScribo is here to meet your needs.

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