The differences between Spanish dialects: Do speakers understand each other?

Have you always been wondering what the differences are between Spanish dialects? When I just started learning Spanish, I did. That’s why I invited Mary to write a post on this topic. She is a native speaker and will explain everything she knows from her point of view!


Oh, dear confusing Spanish!

If you are learning this language you probably already know that Spanish isn’t a one size fits all. The particular thing about this romance language is that there are so many ways to call the same thing so learners tend to get easily confused. Which raises a lot of questions within the language learning community.

Luckily for you, I’m here to answer some of them, the way I see it as a native Spanish speaker.

¡Empecemos!

The differences between Spanish dialects. Read the post on Polyglot's Diary.

The difference between the Latin American Spanish and European Spanish dialect

“How different is Latin American Spanish to European Spanish?”, is probably the most frequently asked question I get, even from native speakers! We can start by saying that we call it *Español* in Latin America and they call it *Castellano *  in Spain.

I have to admit that as a Venezuelan living in Spain, I had some troubles understanding certain words and phrases when I first arrived here, sometimes even understanding their pronunciation was hard. So I will let you know some of the main differences between Spanish dialects.

The differences in pronunciation

One of the most obvious differences between Spanish dialects is the way people pronounce certain letters.

  • In Spain, the G, C, and Z have stronger sounds compare to Latin American Spanish. The C and Z sounding like the “TH”-sound in English.
  • In Argentina and Uruguay, the LL and Y sound like the “SH”-sound in English.
  • In some places in the Caribbean, the R sounds like the L in some words.

The differences in grammar

The way grammar rules are applied are also different in each Spanish dialect.

  • In Spain, the past perfect is commonly used to express anything that happened in the past. For example, Yo he comido pasta.
  • In Latin America, the simple past is used more often. For example, yo comí pasta.
  • In Spain, “vosotros” is the second person plural pronoun and it has its own conjugation.  As in, “vosotros sois hombres” and “vosotros estáis locos”.
  • In Latin America is “ustedes”. Comparing to before we could say, “ustedes son hombres” and “ustedes están locos”.
  • In Argentina and another country in the south of Latin America, the second person singular pronoun is “Vos”.  This is very peculiar and also has its own conjugation. For example, “vos sos un hombre” and “vos estás loco”.

The differences in words

There are expressions and words that are typically used in one particular country or even one particular region of a country! If I had to make a list, it would be never-ending but I’ll give you some examples below to help you understand the differences between Spanish dialects.

Pana

In Venezuela “a pana” is a friend, while in the rest of the Spanish-speaking countries, “pana” is corduroy fabric.

Pitillo

“Un pitillo” can be a cigarette in Spain and weed in some of the Latin American countries, while in Venezuela is a straw. In méxico a straw is called “un popote” and in Spain it is “una pajita”.

Popcorn

How you can say popcorn is another common discussion. In Colombia, they are “crispetas”, while in Mexico, they are called “palomitas de maíz”. In Argentina, they say “Pochoclo” and in Chile, it’s call it “cabritas”, which literally means “little goats”. In Venezuela, it’s called “cotufas”, and this comes from the English sentence “corn to fry”.

This is what happens when one language is heavily influenced by so many cultures and it is so broadly spread around the world.

Great! But can you all REALLY understand each other perfectly?

Well, not perfectly. The differences between Spanish dialects make it hard to understand each other accurately. But I guess it all depends on which dialect(s) you are the most familiar with.

For example, I’ve heard Mexican and Argentinian Spanish my whole life, these accents were in my tv shows, songs, and telenovelas. So all of the Mexican words like ¡Que padre! and ¡Chido! Where easy to understand, and if you don’t know what they mean check this list to learn some Mexican slang.

One of my favorite shows growing up was Floricienta, which was made in Buenos Aires. Argentina has a great production of tv shows for kids and teenagers, and with this show, I understood the way they pronounce words.

As I grew up, I moved to a city on the border with Colombia, so, parce (dude) and pealo were words I would hear daily. I also made friends with Chileans (I find their dialect one of the hardest to understand), Colombians, Ecuadorians, Peruvians, Paraguayans, and more. And of course, living in Spain, I got to master and fully understand the Spanish accent.

Because I’ve been exposed to so many different Spanish dialects, I know what it’s right to say and what would be taking out of context when talking to other Spanish speakers. But, this doesn’t mean that it has always been perfect, I said things that had a terrible meaning. I’ve been lost in translation speaking my own language.

Top advice: if you accidentally say something wrong,  ask why they think is funny and then laugh along. Don’t ever be mad at making a mistake, people will understand that you are learning and that Spanish has its tricky words, they might find it funny but they will be glad to help you.

You can watch this video that explains perfectly the struggle of communication across borders. (with english subtitles here)

But isn’t there anything like the Standard Spanish dialect?

While some languages like Arabic, Dutch, and German have a Standard dialect, Spanish isn’t one of them. There are some “neutral words” but nobody really uses them. Words usually have more than one synonyms.

An example of such a neutral word is “emparedado”, which means sandwich. I have never heard someone calling it this way except in cartoons and TV shows. The words you’ll usually hear are sándwich, bocadillo, and torta.

Now, there’s the word for straw… I call it pitillo but I’ve heard popote, pajita, pajilla, sorbete… Honestly how many words do we need for that? I would recommend you to be careful when saying this word since they can have some hidden meanings that you wouldn’t want to say.

Do I need to learn all of the Spanish dialects or should I stick with one?

I will always recommend beginners to stick to the one you have the most contact with. This way you will learn the words that are useful for you, and please, ask your native speaker friends to teach you slang. We love to teach people our dialect. It makes us proud!

But as you advance and start meeting more people, you can expand your vocabulary. And I would add that you should get in contact with people from different regions and try to learn as much as possible from them.

I’ll also recommend you to find tutors or teachers who can teach you a specific dialect in depth.

Is it possible to learn a neutral Spanish accent?

Tricky question, I guess you could try but in the end, you will have to choose an accent from a certain region. There are many options.

For example, if you want to learn Spanish by watching movies and tv shows, you can choose between Latin American Spanish or European Spanish. However, when you’re further in your Spanish studies, you will have to focus on a country to advance.

Especially, if your goal is to speak like a native, which is possible because I’ve heard foreigners speaking Spanish perfectly, you will have to stick to a dialect and embrace not only their way of speaking but also their culture and traditions. This will not only get you into a C2 level but will also allow you to be part of the country. There isn’t a warmer feeling than finding a home in another corner of the world.

I know all of the differences between Spanish dialects can be overwhelming, so take it step by step. I’m sure you will master the language in no time. Do not let this differences take over your learning process. Language learning should be fun. Embrace all of the cultures the Spanish language has to offer.

So, keep learning and ¡buena suerte!

Mari is a Venezuelan polyglot who’s love traveling and exploring other cultures. She is on her way to learning more languages every day, you can follow her journey through her instagram page, YouTube channel and twitter.

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