What’s the difference between Spanish in Spain and Latin America?


Did you know that Spanish is the official language of 21 countries?

Other than in Spain, it is spoken in the majority of Latin America (except Brazil) and in Equatorial Guinea. According to Instituto Cervantes, in 2016 there were 472 million Spanish native speakers around the world, which means it’s the second most spoken language in the world after Mandarin Chinese!

Of course, the Spanish people speak in Spain doesn’t sound exactly like the Spanish spoken in Argentina or Colombia, for example.

But this doesn’t mean someone from Buenos Aires won’t understand someone from Madrid.

It simply means there is what’s called linguistic variety, mainly in terms of vocabulary and accents, which makes this language culturally rich and beautifully diverse.

People from different Spanish-speaking countries can sit at a dinner table and have a fluent conversation.

They may not understand every word that’s being said but will probably be able to guess its meaning from the context.

They may find the other accent particularly funny or nice. You may even find them speaking about the meaning of a word or an expression in their country which differs from the meaning of the same word in another country.

As soon as you start to learn Spanish, it’s important to be aware of how words, accents and expressions different from country to country.

Why is Spanish different around the world?

Spanish’s variety is a result of a natural linguistic process that is closely related to the history of the language.

To put it simply, Spanish (which has its roots in Latin) was imported from Spain to South, Central and some parts of North America after the discovery and colonisation of America.

Five centuries have passed and, as you can imagine, the Spanish spoken then has evolved gradually and is now spread across the whole continent.

Each country or region has given it a local touch and spiced it up in a unique way which has made it more authentic.

The Spanish spoken by Cervantes was very different from the Spanish spoken by José Martí or Gabriel García Márquez.

Even the Spanish spoken today by young people from Chile differs from the Spanish spoken by young people from Venezuela.

So…how different are these varieties of Spanish?

Now it’s time to talk about some particularly interesting varieties.

The most distinguishable one which straight away tells you whether someone is from Spain or from Latin America is the use of the subject pronoun, “vosotros”. “Vosotros” is the plural form of “you” but is exclusively used in Spain.

All across Latin America people use “ustedes” instead. It’s not so simple though: the form of the verb changes too. Let’s have a look at some examples:

  • Someone from Spain: “¿Vosotros sois amigos? ¿Dónde os conocisteis?”
  • Someone from Bolivia: “¿Ustedes son amigos? ¿Dónde se conocieron?”

Both sentences mean “Are you friends? Where did you meet?”, but, as you can see, some words change.

Another major difference is the use of “” and “vos”, which mean “you” in the singular.

The former is the most common one and the one that is usually taught in Spanish lessons.

The latter is less common but still is used in many countries like Argentina, Colombia, Costa Rica and Nicaragua. Again, this implies a change in the verb too.

Let’s have a look at another example:

The sentences below both mean “Are you Pablo’s friend? Do you want to come with us?”

  • Someone from Peru: “¿Tú eres el amigo de Pablo? ¿Quieres venir con nosotros?”
  • Someone from Argentina: “¿Vos sos el amigo de Pablo? ¿Quierés venir con nosotros?”

Spain vs Latin American Spanish vocabulary

Here is a list of words and how they are said in different countries (some may be used in other countries too). 

 CoolBeerClose friendChildBus
Argentinacopadobirracompinchenene / pibebondi / colectivo

I’ve lived both in Colombia and Argentina, and I can personally say there are some interesting differences I really like. They make Spanish so beautiful and rich.

Let’s imagine a typical dialogue at a shop between (A) the shop assistant and (B) the customer. Have a look at the words and have fun with the literal translations!

Somewhere in Medellín, Colombia:

A: A la orden.
B: ¿A cómo esta chaqueta?
A: 30.000 pesos.
B: Hágale. Me la llevo. Gracias.
A: ¡Con gusto!
Somewhere in Buenos Aires, Argentina:

A: Buenas.
B: ¿Cuánto sale esta campera?
A: 1.500 pesos.
B: Listo. Me la llevo. Gracias.
A: No, por favor.
Literal translation:  
A: To the order (= May I help you?).
B: To how this jacket? (= How much
is this jacket?)
A: 30,000 (Colombian) pesos.
B: Do it to her (= Ok). I’ll take it. Thanks.
A: With taste! (= My pleasure!)
Literal translation:  
A: Good (short for “Buenas tardes”
meaning “Good afternoon”)
B: How much does this jacket go out?
(= How much does this jacket cost?)
A: 1,500 (Argentine) pesos.
B: Ready (= Ok). I’ll take it. Thanks.
A: No, please (= You’re welcome).

When learning how to speak Spanish, I’d recommend choosing one variety of Spanish and sticking with it – otherwise mixing regional varieties can cause confusion!

Although as you progress to intermediate and advanced levels, find opportunities to immerse yourself in these differences and improve your understanding of Spanish from all parts of the world.

Eleonora was an Italian Language Expert at Busuu. She spent her early years in Buenos Aires, Argentina, where her parents are from. She loves all kinds of Latin dancing, travelling and can't go a day without eating an avocado!