Making sure you use the right words in the right countries is important when learning Spanish

Spanish, that global language spoken by over 500 million people, isn’t as homogenous as you might think. Just like with English, the language has evolved in different ways depending on the country you’re talking about. Fancy a zumo de naranja or a jugo de naranja? Well, actually they’re the same thing (an orange juice just in case you didn’t know) and that’s just one of a multitude of examples we’re about to show you!

Studying Spanish in Spain, you’ll learn words like bolígrafo or boli for pen, whereas in most of Latin America this would be called a pluma, which incidentally means fountain pen in Spain. To be honest, you’ll be understood in any Spanish speaking country using either term, as in today’s globalised world, everyone is exposed to a multitude of cultures and linguistic differences. The same can’t be said for the phrase coger el tren/bus, which means take the train/bus here in Madrid and the rest of the country. Be very careful about saying this in Latin America, where the normal term is tomar el tren/bus, as the version from Spain means you’d like to have some intimate relations with that vehicle! Bit of a weird difference, right? Here are a few more ones to watch out for when travelling around the Spanish-speaking world:

Spain Latin America English
Móvil Celular Mobile phone
Ordenador Computadora Computer
Coche Carro Car
Conducir Manejar To drive
Palomitas Pororó Popcorn

Differences in pronunciation

Not only are there differences in terms of vocabulary between Spain and its Latin American cousins, there are also several changes in pronunciation. The biggest difference when listening is the sound of the letters “c” and “z” when they come before “e” or “i” as in cielo (sky). Over here in Spain, this word starts with a clear “th” sound like in the word think, whereas someone from Chile, for example, would use a “s” sound as in the word song. Having said that, there are certain accents in Spain which also use this pronunciation at times, mainly in the Canary Islands but also in parts of Andalucía. This one tiny sound can change the whole rhythm of a Spanish sentence as it is extremely common, as well as having an effect on certain wordplays. Take, for example, the following sentence:

“Vamos a cazarle, cazar con una zeta.” – We’re going to hunt him, hunt with a zed.

This sentence is a line from a famous Mexican telenovela (soap opera) and it only works as a play on words if you use Latin American pronunciation. Let me explain. Cazar (to hunt) and the word casar (to marry) only sound the same in Latin America, and the character was trying to emphasise that she wasn’t going to marry the guy who’d just been trying to chat her up, but destroy him as he was also ruining the life of her family through some dodgy business dealings. If that sounds a bit far-fetched, I recommend you go and practise your listening skills by watching any of the myriad of telenovelas now available online. You’ll soon find that this sort of thing is a common plot!

Beyond this, the differences in pronunciation between the different variants of Spanish mean you should always try to listen to a range of accents when learning to understand native speakers. There’s no use in always focusing on just Spain Spanish or Latin American versions otherwise you’re missing out on a vast amount of cultural knowledge and meeting some really interesting people.

And what about the grammar?

Another aspect of Spanish which is worth mentioning is the grammar, as here too there are some elements which differ depending on where you are in the world. One of the main differences is in the use of the vosotros form of a verb in Spain to refer to you in plural (as in a group of people) in a more informal way. This is standard when you’re speaking to a group of people you know well, like friends, or a teacher to their students. The formal version of this, for Spaniards anyway, is ustedes which for anyone from a Latin American country is the normal form for both formal and informal situations. Something else you’ll hear used differently are the past tenses. To refer to something that has happened today/this week/this month/etc, in Spain you’d hear something like “hoy he trabajado siete horas” (today, I’ve worked seven hours) which is the equivalent of the present perfect. A Columbian person, for instance, would use the past simple and say “hoy trabajé siete horas” (today, I worked seven hours).

Making sure you use the right words in the right countries is important when learning Spanish, as with any other language, as it clearly shows you’re interested in and aware of cultural differences. It’s a sign of respect, and means you’ll be more easily able to communicate on your travels.

Come join us on one of our Spanish courses here at Hablamos - we're waiting to teach you all about these differences and to help you make yourself understood wherever you go in the Spanish-speaking world!