What are the differences between European and Latin American Spanish?

Map of Latin America

Spanish is spoken as a native language by more than 450 million people globally, which makes it second only to Mandarin as the most spoken native language in the world. Spanish is the official language of 20 countries and, like many languages, differs in dialect and meaning depending on where you are. Much like the subtle differences in American and British English pronunciation and vocabulary, there are many differences between European and Latin American Spanish, resulting in a wide linguistic variety.

Spanish Origin

Español (Spanish) is generally how many non-native speakers would refer to both European Spanish and Latin American Spanish. However, natives will commonly use español to refer to Spanish spoken in Latin America. The word español comes from Latin America and was created by the natives when Spanish conquistadors introduced the language to the Latin American countries they were colonising. In Spain, however, Spanish is referred to as Castilian (castellano) due to its origin within the Castile province of mainland Spain. Due to the regional languages in Spain, including Catalan, Galician and Basque, European Spaniards often specify which ‘type’ of Spanish they speak.

Spanish teaching

Conjugation

One of the easiest ways to distinguish a Spaniard from a Latin American is through their use of vosotrosVosotros is the plural informal conjugation of ‘you’ but is used almost exclusively in Spain, whereas in Latin America only ustedes (formal ‘you’ plural) is used for the same groups of people. If you use ustedes in Spain, it’s likely they’ll think you are very polite!

Another similar key conjugation difference is the use of past tense. Spaniards ordinarily use the present perfect tense to describe their completed actions, e.g. Hoy he ido al trabajo (I have gone to work today), differing from Latin Americans who will generally use the simple past tense to describe the same action, e.g. Hoy fui al trabajo (I went to work today).

Pronunciation

Pronunciation is another way to distinguish where a Spanish speaker is from. Spanish speakers from Spain usually have the English ‘th’ sound when pronouncing a C before E or I, and Z before any vowel. Latin American Spanish speakers will pronounce both like the ‘s’ sound in English, which is also known as seseo pronunciation. 

Gracias (thank-you) and cinco cervezas (five beers) are good examples of this difference. European Spanish pronunciation would be gra-th-ias and th-inco th-erve-th-as whereas Latin American Spanish pronounce these are gra-s-ias and s-inco s-erve-s-as. 

Another key pronunciation difference is the ‘ll’ sound. In Argentina and Uruguay it is common to hear the double L sound as the English ‘sh’ sound, i.e. llamas sounds like sh-amas. In contrast, other Spanish speakers would pronounce the ‘ll’ as an English ‘y’ sound, so llamas becomes y-amas.

Vocabulary Differences

One of the biggest difficulties with learning a language is the array of vocabulary. New learners often focus on one word for each object/action and new words with the same meaning can throw learners off. This is especially true of Spanish; each dialect has its own word for certain objects or actions. Some of these are universal to Latin America or Spain and others are unique to each country or region. Some examples of this are:

SpainLatin AmericaEnglish
OrdenadorComputadoraComputer
MóvilCelularCell phone
ConducirManejarTo drive
ZumoJugoJuice
CalcetinesMediasSocks
Group of Spanish people

Learning Spanish with Dragons

With the wide variety of linguistic features, it can be hard to learn Spanish with each of these variations. However, no matter the ‘type’ of Spanish you learn, you will be understood throughout the Spanish-speaking world; each variation has enough crossover that Spanish speakers can communicate with ease, very much like Americans and Brits. Our AmigosConnect course focuses on European (castillano) Spanish, but our experienced Spanish teachers are able to explain and explore these differences with curious learners. 

El Llanito – the little-known Gibraltan dialect

Benefits of learning a language