The Spanish language is an official language in 20 different countries, and is spoken by around 440 million native speakers around the world. The expansion of the Spanish empire in the 16th and 17th centuries means that you can find Spanish being spoken in all four corners of the globe.
Spanish is particularly prevalent in Central and South America where almost every country from Mexico in the north to Argentina in the south uses Spanish as its official language, or a recognised language (all except Brazil).
However, this large geographic distribution of the language means that there are naturally going to be variations. Spanish speaking is therefore not identical in Spain as it is in Colombia, just as the Spanish spoken in Peru is not exactly the same as the version spoken in Uruguay. It will take on importance in different ways too. For example, the language and culture in Spain are connected in more ways than you might think, and therefore culture plays an important role in the Spanish language and vice versa.
Although there are a few variations in grammar, and the vocabulary changes from place to place, one of the principal differences is the accent and the pronunciation of words between different Spanish speaking countries and regions.
Depending on who you are speaking to, you might hear different pronunciations of Spanish words
Even on a smaller scale, you will find different accents. Just as you can often identify the city or are that a person is from in an English speaking country based on their accent, the same can be said of Spanish speaking countries too.
If you like to travel, you will have certainly noticed that accents and expressions are noticeably different depending on the country, city, or region that you are in. The history of Spanish has ensured that the language is very diverse, so from Barcelona to Seville, passing through South America, the Spanish will sound slightly different.
Spain contains multiple regions. And in each of them, the language is spoken with a subtly different accent.
Nevertheless, you must have a well-trained ear to be able to distinguish them apart effectively.
Here is a quick overview of a selection of common accents that you can hear in Spain.
Any introduction to Spanish will note that the Castilian accent is the one heard the most often in Spain. You will hear it primarily in northern and central parts, although there are some variations within these areas.
Castilian Spanish is often what will hear on the TV and radio because it is so widespread across the country. It is the name of the original romance language that developed from Latin at the same time as other romance languages on the Iberian peninsula over the course of several hundred years from the 8th century onward.
Examples of other romance languages which developed at this time include Portuguese, and therefore Spanish and Portuguese share some similarities and differences.
The slightly different path that each romance language on the Iberian peninsula took is mirrored in the slightly different variations of Spanish have grown around the world. This type of Spanish itself, for example, can be differentiated from all others in two ways:
They may be united under the same flag, but different areas of Spain have different accents
The accent is very discernible due to the way that Castilian Spanish speakers pronounce “c” and “z”. If you see these letters in the middle of a word, the pronunciation changes to “th”. Let’s take the example of “cerveza”, or beer. In Castilian Spanish, the pronunciation would be more like “cervetha”. This differs from other Spanish speaking countries where the “c” and “z” sounds are pronounced like an “s”.
In Andalusia, Spanish speakers have a strong tendency to not pronounce every letter as is usually the case with Spanish. So if you’re having trouble understanding everything, you may well be speaking to an Andalusian as they enunciate less than in other regions of Spain.
To speak like an Andalusian, you will need to eat your vowels. In particular, if you are speaking Spanish in Seville, Córdoba, Granada, Málaga, or any other location in Andalusia, you will often hear people omitting the “s” from certain words. For example
Another letter that they sometimes drop is the “d”, so “cansado” (meaning tired) becomes “cansao”, and “pescado” (fish) becomes “pescao”.
One more thing to note: Andalusians sometime don’t differ in the pronunciation of “c” and “z” as a Castilian would, and they often pronounce them both as an “s” sound. Be on the look out for this if you are studying Spanish in the area, as this could confuse how you spell certain words.
The thicker Spanish accents that you will find in Catalonia will be in the more rural areas, where people don’t tend to speak Spanish as much as in the big cities. Catalonia has its own language; Catalan. This is very much a language in its own right, and therefore Spanish and Catalan differ in many ways. In fact, it is believed to be more similar to Portuguese and Italian than it is to Spanish.
El-clasico isn’t just a footballing rivalry!
Catalan is often the principal language used between Catalonians, and therefore in the rural villages where there aren’t too many people from elsewhere in Spain, Catalan is the preferred choice. This leads to people speaking Spanish less, and therefore having a thicker accent.
Another result of this, is that people in Barcelona or Girona for example, will speaking Spanish very differently from someone from a rural village, meaning that the Catalan accent can be broken down within the autonomous community.
Spanish is spoken in most parts of Latin America. In Central America and the Caribbean, Spanish is the native language in:
Spanish is spoken from Mexico to Argentina!
In South America, Spanish is the official language used in:
This means that Spanish is spoken from the US-Mexican border, almost continuously to Ushuaia at the tip of Argentina. Latin American Spanish differs from Spanish spoken on the Iberian peninsula, but even within Latin America, it differs a lot.
In many parts of Central America, the “s” is dropped in the same way that it is in Andalusia in Spain. This also applicable to coastal areas of Colombia and Venezuela, too.
In Argentina, Uruguay, and parts of Chile, the “ll” sound which is usually pronounced like a “y”, sounds more like a “j”.
One commonality to all Latin American countries that speak Spanish is the way that “c” and “z” are pronounced like an “s”, and not like “th” as is the case in Castilian Spanish. This means that you need to extra attentive to properly grasp the meaning of phrases and sentences. For example, “casa” (house) and “caza” (he/she hunts) are pronounced in the same way in Latin America.
But if you are reading this and are worried that learning Spanish will involve specialising in a language that will only be of use to you in a particular country or region, then you are wrong.
The differences aren’t as big as you might think, and although you might struggle initially if you travel from one place to another, you will quickly learn to fine tune your ear to pick up the accent of your new surroundings.
This is helped by the fact that the grammar, with a few small exceptions, doesn’t generally change across the Spanish speaking world. This means that most of what you will need to accustom yourself too is the accent and a slight change in vocabulary.
The most important thing is to at least learn beginners Spanish before you travel, and the rest will take care of itself.
Every Hispanic is united by one thing; the Spanish language. However, depending on the country they are from, they will likely have a different accent and a unique vocabulary which gives their language and culture a distinctive identity.
You could spend an infinite amount of time looking at all of these differences between different countries, cities and regions. If you want to learn Spanish as a second language, then your Spanish lessons could provide a space for you to do this. However, in this section, we are going to look at some more generic different between Castilian Spanish, and what is broadly spoken in Latin America.
We have already looked at how the Spanish pronunciation changes depending on where you are in the world. But how does the content of the language itself differ?
The most striking linguistic difference between European and Latin American Spanish is the use of the second person plural. In Spain, “vosotros” is commonly used for this, but in Latin American this is non-existent. Instead, people use “ustedes”, which is the polite version of the second person plural in Spain but is not frequently used.
Consider the following two examples:
Both mean what did you do yesterday? when addressing two or more people. However, the first one is only used in Spain, whereas the second one is used in both Spain and Latin America. Remember, the difference between “vosotros” and “ustedes” in Spain is whether it is a formal or an informal conversation. You would used “vosotros” when addressing your friends, and “ustedes” when talking to your superiors at work, or your grandparents.
The Spanish that arrived to the Americas developed in different ways in different places, and it reflected what was being spoken in Spain at the time. Due to the difficulties in communicating across the world in the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries, the advances in the Spanish language in Spain were not always reflected in the colonies.
One of these peculiarities is the continued used of “vos”, in particular in Argentina, Uruguay, and Paraguay. This was used as a second person singular pronoun in Spanish when the language reached the Southern Cone of South America, but subsequently died out from the European language.
It is still used in these countries instead of “tu” which is used elsewhere, and has its own verb conjugation. Therefore, you are much more likely to hear “¿de donde sos?” in Buenos Aires, and “¿de donde eres?” in Madrid and other parts of Latin America.
“Vos” also has sporadic use in other parts of Latin America, such as in the cities of Medellín and Cali in Colombia, as well as certain parts of Central America.
Just like English speakers in different parts of the world use different words for the same thing (think about a cell phone vs a mobile phone), the same is true of Spanish.
You will find some generic differences that apply to Latin American Spanish and European Spanish. Such examples include
Is this a carro or a coche? (Source: Visual Hunt)
Additionally, you will also find differences between Spain, and each individual dialect in Latin America. This often means that there are many different words for the same thing depending on were you find yourself in the world.
One example of this would be a drinking straw, which translates as:
The last thing to be aware of, are the same Spanish words that have different meanings in different countries. For example:
In order to learn Spanish quickly and effectively, it is often better to move abroad. Yes, you can become bilingual by taking classes with a Spanish teacher, but it is often a much longer and drawn out process. Living in a Spanish speaking country gives you ample opportunities to practise the language of Miguel de Cervantes, and you will become fluent a lot quicker than if you study Spanish in a classroom for a couple of hours a week.
Everyday tasks such as going to the supermarket or ordering a coffee can be turned into chances to learn. What’s more, you can expand your horizons by experiencing a different culture which might help you to understand the world that we live in better as well.
You will learn about the important thinkers from the place that you choose, some of which have given some interesting quotes in Spanish which could help you to further your understanding of the culture and the country that you are in.
So where is the best place to learn Spanish based on the accent that you will find when you arrive?
Discover the Spanish accents of Latin America.
The first thing to note is that this is a very subjective topic. An accent that one person finds very easy to understand, might be very difficult for another person. Colombians are often thought to have the clearest accents, with people from Bogotá claiming to speak the best Spanish in South America. However, Colombia is a very big country, and the accents can differ from place to place. Please be aware that the accent on the coast of Colombia is more Caribbean in nature, and therefore slightly less clear than in the centre of the country.
Other options for generally easier to understand accents include Ecuador and Mexico. The Argentinian and Uruguayan accents are perhaps the most easily identifiable once you have reached a certain level to be able to tell them apart, although this doesn’t necessarily make them universally easier to understand.
In some Central American countries where they swallow certain vowels, they also speak quite quickly, which can make understanding what people are saying more of a challenge.
But it must be stressed the subjective nature of the topic at hand. If you are going to a country to learn Spanish with almost no knowledge of the language, you will not have too many problems as you will adapt to your new surroundings, and you will have nothing to compare with.
One thing is for sure, no matter where you go, you will be welcomed by friendly locals who are eager for you to learn about their language and their culture, and you will soon settle into your new surroundings and the tongue that you are using to communicate on a daily basis.