If you have spent hours honing your Iberian Spanish and then turn up a destination in Latin America, it can be a shock to discover that you don’t understand everything that everybody says. The key, however, is not to worry – these issues can be easily overcome. Just like with British and American English, there are some small language variants, as well as differing slang expressions, but just as Brits and Americans understand each other 99% of the time so will people from Spain and the various countries in South or Central America. In fact, if you just remember these rules, you can push the total even closer to 100%…
The thing that will probably throw you off the moment you arrive in a Latin American destination is the difference in pronunciation of certain sounds and words. For example, while many Spaniards pronounce the ‘z’ as ‘th’ (as in ‘thin’), many Latin Americans will pronounce the same letter as ‘s’. You may also find that people noticeably over-pronounce the ‘r’ sound and that, as they speak at a faster pace and with a slightly different rhythm, it is also common for them to drop the ‘s’ in words (so ‘está’ becomes ‘etá’).
There are also some big differences in the Spanish spoken between different Latin American nations, so wherever you travel there will be regional pronunciation rules to remember . For example, Argentinians pronounce the ‘ll’ and ‘y’ sounds as a ‘zh’ (like the ‘s’ in ‘measure’), Peruvians pronounce the ‘j’ sound like the ‘ch’ in ‘loch’, and Puerto Ricans – as well as those in the vast majority of the Spanish-speaking Caribbean islands – tend to casually switch between the ‘r’ sounds and ‘l’ sounds at the end of words.
Without doubt the most significant difference in grammar between the two forms of Spanish is the use of the informal plural ‘vosotros’ (you all), which is very regularly used in Spain but seldom used in Latin America. Instead, Spanish speakers in the Americas tend to use the more formal form ‘ustedes’. While this has many implications when it comes to verb conjugation, the most important thing is to simply be aware that this difference exists, so you know to listen out for it! It’s also worth nothing that, somewhat contradictorily, Latin Americans are far more likely to use the pronoun ‘vos’ instead of the standard ‘tú’.
There are also some grammatical differences in the way that things are said: a common example given is the Iberian Spanish sentence “Comer manzanas es un placer” (To eat apples is a pleasure), which would more commonly be rendered in many Latin American countries as “Comiendo manzanas es un placer” (Eating apples is a pleasure). However, while there are many similar small examples that could be given, and some other minor grammatical differences, your Iberian variants will almost always be understood.
It’s important to know that there are some common, everyday objects which have completely different words in Spain and Latin America. While there are many examples, here are ten especially useful ones:
ENGLISH: Computer SPAIN: El ordinador LATIN AMERICA: La computadora
ENGLISH: Potato SPAIN: La patata LATIN AMERICA: La papa
ENGLISH: Socks SPAIN: Los calcetines LATIN AMERICA: Las medias
ENGLISH: Refrigerator SPAIN: El frigorífico LATIN AMERICA: La refrigeradora
ENGLISH: Car SPAIN: El coche LATIN AMERICA: El carro
ENGLISH: Banana SPAIN: El plátano LATIN AMERICA: La banana
ENGLISH: Email SPAIN: Correo electrónico LATIN AMERICA: E-mail
ENGLISH: Sandwich SPAIN: El bocadillo LATIN AMERICA: El sándwich
ENGLISH: Bath SPAIN: La bañera LATIN AMERICA: La tina
ENGLISH: Floor/level SPAIN: La planta LATIN AMERICA: El piso
There aren’t only differences between Spain and Latin America either: just like with the varying English-speaking nations (from Jamaica to Australia to Zimbabwe), each Spanish-speaking country has its own terminology. For example, just as terms like ‘bathroom’ and ‘governor’ have subtly different meanings in British and American English, the word ‘lapicero’ means ‘mechanical pencil’ in some countries in Latin America, ‘ball-point pen’ in others and ‘pencil holder’ in others. There are even individual cities which have their own variations of the language – so in the Argentinian city River Plate, they will say ‘lindo’ instead of ‘bonito’ (beautiful) and ‘flete’ instead of ‘caballo’ (horse). Add in the rich regional vocabulary of slang terms and colloquialisms, and you will simply have to pick up these nuances when you visit.
Although it will certainly be appreciated if you learn a few regional quirks before visiting Latin America, the simple fact is that most of the continent’s residents watch more than enough Spanish television to understand the Iberian tongue. Therefore, you shouldn’t get too worked up about the idea of having to learn extra grammar or vocab – think of learning Latin American Spanish as an optional way to increase your understanding of the language, rather than a necessary chore to undertake before you go there.
After all, even if you only understand 99% of what everyone around is saying, that’s more than enough.