What are the Differences Between European Spanish & South American Spanish?

Spanish is the second most spoken language in the world, at 437 million native speakers. It is spoken across four continents, including Europe (Spain) and South America (Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Chile, Paraguay, Uruguay, and Argentina). The Real Academia Española, or Spanish Royal Academy, is the institution in charge of establishing the correct and proper use of the Spanish language.

However, because Spanish is so widely spoken, it is important to recognize that linguistic variation exists, depending on the geographic location where it is spoken. There are words and pronunciations that are unique and different to each dialect, and words that have completely different meanings. For example, I am a native Spanish speaker who is accustomed to the clear pronunciation of consonants in the Mexican dialect. But when I talk to my Puerto Rican friends, I find that I sometimes need to focus in order to catch every word, simply because I am not used to hearing certain pronunciations, such as when /r/ turns into /l/ and /d/ is eliminated at the end of a word.

Que dificil es hablar el espanol. (How hard it is to speak Spanish!):

For this reason, it is important to keep in mind that the Spanish that you learn from your textbook or in your Spanish class will be quite different from Spanish that is actually spoken.

Difference between European Spanish and South American Spanish

The two most important varieties of Spanish in Spain are the Castilian (Castellano) and Andalusian (Andaluz) dialects:

Castilian Spanish

The most important phonological characteristics of Castilian Spanish include: the use of the /s/ vs /θ/ in speaking, the contrast between /ʎ/ and /ʝ/, the elision of the /d/ in the final syllable, and the pronunciation of the /d/ as /θ/. At the morphological level, one of main characteristics of Castilian is the use of the pronoun vosotros for the informal second person plural. For example, Me gustaría invitaros a vosotros a que vinierais a mi fiesta. (I would like to invite you all to come to my party). Another characteristic is leísmo, where the masculine direct object pronoun lo is replaced by the indirect object pronoun le. For example, Pedro lo vio. vs Pedro le vio. (Pedro saw him).

Andalusian Spanish

Some of the most important phonological characteristics of Andalusian Spanish are: the use of seseo, in which there is no distinction between /s/ and /θ/, and both are pronounced as /s/. For example, the words casa (house) and caza (to hunt) are both pronounced [kása]. There is also yeísmo, where /ʎ/ and /ʝ/ become the same sound /ʝ/. For example, the words vaya (go) and valla (fence) are both pronounced as [báʝa]. Another characteristic is that the intervocalic /d/ is omitted. For example, comido (eaten) becomes [komío] and crudo (raw) becomes [krúo]. A morphological characteristic that is particular to Andalusian Spanish is the use of ustedes instead of vosotros, for example, ustedes podeís/pueden (you all can).

South American Spanish

Here are a few examples of the phonological characteristics of varieties of Spanish In South America.

  • In Peru, Colombia, Bolivia, and Paraguay, there is a distinction between the /ʎ/ and /ʝ/, while in Argentina and Chile they both become the sound /ʝ/. For example, in Argentina: playa (beach) becomes [pláʒa].
  • In Chile, the /x/ is pronounced as [ç] when preceding high vowels /e/ and /i/. For example, gente (people) becomes [çénte] and mujer (woman) becomes [muçér].
  • In Paraguay, the /d/ at the end of a word is pronounced as /t/. For example, usted (you) becomes ustet. The word-final /s/ is conserved in Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia, while it is aspirated in Chile, Paraguay, Uruguay, Venezuela, and Argentina.
  • The word-final /n/ is pronounced [ŋ] in almost all of South America, except for Colombia, Chile, and Argentina. For example, the word pan (bread) becomes [paŋ].
  • In Venezuela, the phonemes /l/ and /r/ at the end of a syllable sound alike. For example, mejor (better) is pronounced [mehól]
  • In the regions of Chile and Peru, the /d/ is often eliminated.

These are some examples of the different morphological characteristics of South American Spanish.

  • Voseo is an important characteristic of Spanish in Argentina, and is found in parts of Venezuela, Colombia, Bolivia, and Chile. Voseo is the use of vos as a second person singular pronoun instead of , which is known as tuteo.
  • In Argentina, Uruguay, and Paraguay, the word che is a common interjection that can mean “hey” or “man”.
  • In Paraguay, they use leísmo, where the masculine direct object pronoun lo is replaced by the indirect object pronoun le. For example, Ella lo vio. vs Ella le vio. (She saw him).

Spanish Vocabulary

There are many vocabulary differences between European and South American Spanish. Here are just a few examples of words in Spanish that vary from country to country.

English
Spain
Argentina
Columbia
bus autobús colectivo bus
pen bolígrafo lapicera esfero
jecket cazadora campera chaqueta
eyeglasses gafas lentes anteojos
cake tarta torta ponqué

Should I learn European Spanish or South American Spanish?

The answer depends on your goals and interests. Do you just want to be able to chat with your friends from Spain on social media?  Do you plan to spend the summer in Peru? Are you interested in Argentinian culture? If you plan to spend time in Spain or a South American country, then you might want to learn a few vocabulary words and pronunciations that are common to that specific region. This will boost your confidence when talking to friends and meeting new people, and can help you fit right in. When you feel confident about speaking in a foreign language, people won’t feel awkward about having conversations with you.


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