What's the Difference between European and Latin American Spanish?!
by John Bascombe on Thursday, May 3, 2012
Well, how long is a piece of string?! While this is a very common question amongst Spanish learners (the regional differences, not the string one I hope!), there really is no definite answer. Do Americans not understand Aussies?! Can Canadians and Brits not communicate?! It’s the same principal with Spanish; yes there are differences, but linguistic variety is the spice of life!
Good grammar is the foundation to understanding. The basic structure of the language doesn’t really change whether you’re from Europe or the deepest depths of the Amazon. So which ever variety of Spanish you learn, you can still read another! And while you may not understand every single word, by looking at the context, tone of voice, and body language of a speaker, you’ll easily be able to pick up the jist of what’s being said.
And I’m sorry to have to break this to you, but even within countries, language changes. For example, Catalan influences the Spanish spoken in Barcelona, but this doesn’t mean people will look at you like you’ve grown two heads when you speak with a Madrileña accent (unless El Clásico is on. In that case, run for your life). Furthermore, 'Latin American Spanish’ is a complete misnomer. There are a huge number of Latin American dialects, each of which are fairly different from one another. And yet, at the Ibero-American summit, everyone can still understand each other!
Accents are everywhere, and are part of learning a language. Spanish is no different. And while any language tapes you may have used to help you learn will enunciate in a voice that the Real Academia Española would be proud of, Joe Bloggs on the streets of Buenos Aires probably won’t talk the same way. Lazy speech is a fault we are all guilty of; in Spanish, debuccalization (where you ‘swallow’ the s sound, so esta and eta sound the same) and vowel reduction (homogenizing the pronunciation of pesos [money], pesas [weights], and peces [fish]) are common. It happens almost everywhere, especially with really quick speech, so learn to love it!
One of the best known regional differences is the Spanish lisp, which Spaniards prefer to call el distinción. In most parts of the Iberian peninsular, there is a distinction between the sounds /s/ and /θ/, which means there is a phonemic contrast between casa "house" and caza "hunt" (most Spaniards would pronounce the former as catha). But, the popularity of telenovelas in Spain, and success of the Spanish cinema in Latin America, means that mutual comprehension is still live and kicking.
For the second person formal pronoun, virtually all Spanish dialects of Spain and the Americas use usted and ustedes (singular and plural respectively). But for the second person familiar, there is regional variation—between tú and vosotros in Spain, and vos and ustedes in some parts of Latin America. The use of vos (and its corresponding verb forms) rather than tú is called voseo.
The vocabulary varies as well. But that’s true everywhere, not just Spanish (I couldn’t stop giggling the first time I heard an Australian refer to their flip flips!) . So yes, in Mexico you say carro, in Spain you say coche, and in Argentina you say auto, but if you point at the thing with four wheels driving along the road, any misunderstandings will be long gone. Just a word of warning though, for any Spaniards who need to coger el tren, in Latin America coger generally means something completely different, and you definitely wouldn’t do that to a train!
So really, do no worry. Do not panic. Do not avoid all speakers of a different dialect for fear of ridicule. Embrace the variety! It means learning Spanish is always an interesting challenge wherever you go, and if you do happen to have a complete linguistic nightmare, a smile is universally understood, and there’ll always be a funny story to tell afterwards!
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