As one of the world’s most widely spoken languages, Spanish varies greatly from country to country, especially between Latin America and the Spanish spoken in Spain.
As a language learner, the nuances between Spanish in different parts of the world can seem daunting. If you’re learning Spanish and wondering where you should study or what “style” to learn, keep in mind that whether you’re in Madrid or Medellin, Barcelona or Buenos Aires –Spanish speakers will be able to understand you even if your Spanish styles are different. That being said, there are some key differences between Spanish in Spain and Spanish spoken throughout Latin America you should be aware of. So if you’re new to the language or are deciding where to study Spanish abroad, consider the following differences when choosing to study in Spain or Argentina.
Spain (or Esssthpaña)
The Spanish spoken in Spain, often referred to as Castilian Spanish, is most notable for its “lisp accent” where words that begin with a “z” before a vowel or a “c” before an “e” or “i” are pronounced with a “Th” instead of an “s” sound. This results in words like “cinco” sounding like “thinco” or the ever-famous “Barthelona” instead of “Barcelona.” While sounding initially off-putting to a language learner, the Spanish accent is an endearing characteristic of Castilian Spanish and one you’ll easily pick up.
Vosotros, it is as scary as you think
In Spain, there are two plural verb forms vosotros and ustedes when addressing two or more people directly. Vosotros is used informally towards friends or people you know, similar to “you guys” or “Y’all” in English. Ustedes, on the other hand, is used more formally, one that you would use when speaking to your grandparents or managers in the workplace.
Latin American varieties of Spanish, however, do not use vosotros opting instead to use ustedes both formally and informally. If you’re learning Spanish in Spain, using vosotros is a daily occurrence and a verb form that will come easily to you. It can be a slight adjustment to start using ustedes if you’re speaking in Latin American countries, but not too bad of a transition. However, if you’re like me and perfected your Spanish in Latin America, vosotros and its verb conjugations may seem daunting since you’ve likely never learned nor practiced vosotros. Don’t let this stop you from picking up Latin American Spanish though, even native speakers from Latin America who travel to Spain often struggle with the adjustment as well. You will still be understood with no problem and maybe even considered polite for addressing a group of friends formally!
The “sh” accent
As varied as the Spanish language is, it’s important to note that even within Argentina the Spanish changes throughout the country. Similar to how English in Boston differs from the English of Alabama, so too is the Spanish of Argentina. However, the most distinct Spanish you’ll find in the country is found in the Buenos Aires province and the capital itself. The region’s Spanish, referred to as Rioplatense Spanish is characterized by its distinct “sh” pronunciation of the letters “ll” and “y.” So common words like calle pronounced “cayay” elsewhere becomes “cashay” in Buenos Aires. Similarly, you’d introduce yourself with me llamo pronounced “me shamo” instead of “me yamo.”
The “sh” accent of Buenos Aires is initially a tongue twister if you’ve learned Spanish in Spain or anywhere else in Latin America. Studying in Spain years ago I got into a conversation with someone from Buenos Aires and could not understand a word they were saying. Fast forward to living in Buenos Aires the “sh” accent has become second nature and the Spanish accent I’ve grown accustomed to. So there is hope for other Spanish learners!
Slang is its own language
Another characteristic of Argentine Spanish is the propensity for using slang in everyday conversation. Porteños love their slang—they have a word for everything and are constantly creating new slang. Having studied Spanish before arriving in Argentina, imagine my shock when I discovered that I needed to learn a whole new vocabulary of Argentine slang, or lunfardo, to get by in Buenos Aires! But have no fear my fellow language learners, picking up Argentine slang is half the fun, like a scavenger hunt for new vocab best learned from Argentines themselves.
The Lunfardo of Buenos Aires is vast, but here are some common phrases you should know to get started:
- Boludo/a= used amongst friends can be like “dude” or “idiot” – But be careful with this one!
- Che = roughly used as “hey!” or “dude!”
- Quilombo = a mess/disaster
- Pibe /piba = guy /girl
Vocabulary Differences in Spain and Argentina
If learning Lunfardo was not enough of a vocab task, I quickly realized that words I knew studying Spanish in the U.S. and Spain were very different in Buenos Aires. For example, if you need a pen, in Spain that’s a bolígrafo while in Buenos Aires it’s a lapicera—both far from the word pluma I initially learned in the U.S.
The majority of standard vocabulary is the same in both countries, but there are definite differences in some everyday terms—something I was constantly reminded of when I said the wrong word for car, bus, cell phone or even computer! Arriving in Buenos Aires after a few years not practicing Spanish, I thought I’d forgotten the vocabulary for the simplest things. It wasn’t until I realized that Spain and Argentina use different words for the same thing that I felt much better about myself! Learn from my mistakes though, below are some common words I always mixed up in each country.
Colectivo or Bondi (Argentina)
So don’t worry if you learn one word or the other, there is no better word or version when it comes to learning the vocabulary. In fact, locals are proud of their Spanish dialect and will gladly teach you the local vocabulary. If anything, this is always a great conversation starter!
Regardless of whether you learn Spanish in Barcelona or Buenos Aires, the language is universally understood in Spanish speaking countries. There is no “right” version of Spanish over the other. If you’re dedicated to learning the language, discovering these nuances for yourself is half the fun!