5 Key Differences Between Spanish in Spain and Latin America

By Daniela Sánchez • 10 minute read

When learning Spanish, a lot of people wonder if it’s better to focus on Castilian or Latin American Spanish. Although all Spanish speakers can understand each other perfectly, it’s not the same. Find out what the differences between Spanish in Spain and Latin America are, and which you should focus on when you’re learning Spanish.

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The Main Differences Between Castilian and Latin American Spanish

  • Vocabulary
  • Uses of past tenses: present perfect over preterite
  • Pronunciation of ‘z’, ‘c’, ‘s’, ‘b’, ‘v’
  • Conjugation of verbs
  • Usage of pronouns: vosotros instead of ustedes, le vs. lo 

Since Spanish has around 580 million speakers worldwide and is spoken in 21 countries, it’s normal and expected to find some variations. In order to help you understand them, in this article, we’ve compiled the 5 biggest differences between Spain and Latin American Spanish. 

We’ll also provide you with some examples, so you can see these differences for yourself. By the end of this, you’ll know the things that distinguish these main Spanish dialectshttps://www.trustedtranslations.com/spanish-language/latin-american-dialects.asp. 

Remember that choosing one variant over the other, will depend on your learning goals and where you plan to use your Spanish. But no matter what dialect you learn, people will still be able to understand you.   

1. Vocabulary

As you may have noticed, one of the biggest differences between the Spanish spoken in Latin America and Spain is the vocabulary. To put it simply, each Spanish dialect has a different word for certain objects or actions

Most speakers are aware of these words and they can identify if a word is only used in Spain or Latin America. Also, be aware that if these dialects use a different word for an object, that word may very well have a different gender (masculine or feminine), which will impact the determiners that you use. 

Here are some examples so you can see the differences for yourself: 

Castilian Spanish

  • ¿Este bolígrafo es tuyo? – Is this pen yours?
  • No me gusta el zumo de naranja – I don’t like orange juice

Latin American Spanish

  • ¿Esta pluma es tuya? – Is this pen yours?
  • No me gusta el jugo de naranja – I don’t like orange juice

False Cognates in Castilian and Latin American Spanish

You could be surprised when you order a torta in Mexico. Don't expect cake.

False cognates are words that look similar but actually have two completely different meanings. These types of words are very common between Spanish in Spain and Latin America. For example, “torta” means cake in Spain, while it means sandwich in Mexico

  • ¿Te gustó tu torta de cumpleaños? – Did you like your birthday cake?
  • Quiero dos tortas de carne con queso. – I want two sandwiches with meat and cheese.

Since there are some variations between the standard vocabulary in Latin America and Spain, you can expect more significant differences when it comes to slang and idiomatic expressions. 

In fact, El Diccionario de Americanismos gathers over 70,000 words that are only common in Latin America, but not in Spain. Although they share and are familiar with some slang words, each Latin American Spanish speaking country has its own set of informal words. 

So, if you want to learn street Spanish, you may need to focus on one country. Otherwise, you may end up saying the wrong thing in Spanish.

Words that are different in Spain and Latin American Spanish

Here is a list with some common nouns and verbs that have different words in Spain and Latin America. Although this may feel overwhelming, keep in mind that according to data Spanish speakers share 90% of the vocabulary

So this means that despite the variations in vocabulary, we all are able to keep a conversation with a Spanish speaker from another country. And yes, we can understand each other. 

English
Castilian Spanish
Latin American Spanish
Pen
Bolígrafo
Pluma
Glasses
Gafas
Lentes/Anteojos
Juice
Zumo
Jugo
To take
Coger
Tomar
Computer
Ordenador
Computadora
Pool
Piscina 
Alberca
To drive
Conducir
Manejar
Ticket
Billete
Boleto
To hurt yourself
Hacerse daño
Lastimarse
Cake
Torta
Pastel/Tarta
Fastener
Cremallera 
Cierre/Zipper
Potato
Patata
Papa
To miss
Echar de menos
Extrañar
Bulb
Bombilla
Foco

2. Pronunciation 

Another noticeable difference between Latin American and Castilian Spanish is the pronunciation of certain sounds. For example, in Spain there’s a difference when pronouncing b and v. But in Latin American Spanish speaking countries these letters sound the same. 

As you may have noticed before, when it comes to pronunciation the biggest difference between these dialects comes from the sounds of z, c and s. In Latin American Spanish, the following syllables sound the same (like an ‘s’ sound): 

  • Za, ze, zi, zo, zu 
  • Ce, ci, 
  • Sa, se, si, so, su

However, in the Castilian pronunciation, ‘z’, s’ and ‘c’ have slightly different sounds. If you’re interested in learning more about how to pronounce these sounds in Castilian Spanish, check out this video:

Although it’s good for you to be aware of the differences between these sounds, having one type of pronunciation or the other, will not affect your conversations or understanding of Spanish. 

3. Usage of Pronouns

When learning Spanish, personal pronouns will be one of the first topics that you need to know. Depending on your course and the type of Spanish you’re taking, you’ll notice some differences between the personal pronouns. 

Even though they both mean you, when addressing or referring to a group of people, Castilian speakers use vosotros while Latin American Spanish speakers use ustedes. 

  • ¿Vosotros sois de España? – Are you from Spain?
  • ¿Ustedes son de México? – Are you from Mexico?

Notice that ustedes can be used to refer to both groups formed of men or women. However, ‘vosotros’ changes depending on the gender of the people that you’re talking or referring to:

  • Vosotras: a group formed by only women
  • Vosotros: a group of only men or a mix of men and women 

Here are some examples: 

  • Vosotras habláis español muy bien – You gals speak Spanish very well
  • Ustedes hablan español muy rápido – You gals speak Spanish very fast 

Keep in mind that by using ‘ustedes’ or ‘vosotros’ other pronouns (such as possessive or reflexive) will also be affected: 

  • Señorita, creo que esta bolsa es vuestra – Miss, I think this bag is yours
  • Vosotros os ducháis todos los días – You guys shower every day
  • Señor, creo que esta cartera es de usted – Sir, I think this wallet is yours
  • Ustedes se bañan todos los días – You guys shower every day

When it comes to personal pronouns, some Latin American countries use vos instead of which is the standard, informal personal pronoun for ‘you’. 

  • ¿Vos de dónde sos? – Where are you from? 
  • ¿ de dónde eres? – Where are you from?

The Latin American countries where you can find this exception are:  

  • Argentina
  • Uruguay
  • El Salvador
  • Paraguay
  • Costa Rica
  • Nicaragua 
  • Guatemala
  • Bolivia
  • Colombia

Pronouns are different between Spanish in Spain and Latin America

Indirect and Direct Pronouns

When it comes to using pronouns, Spain and Latin American Spanish also have different preferences when using indirect and direct object pronouns for the third person. As a reminder, these pronouns are:

  • Direct object pronoun: Lo, La, Los, Las
  • Indirect object pronoun: Le, Les

Direct and indirect pronouns are not interchangeable. In fact, there are grammar rules that dictate when to use one or the other. However, Castilian Spanish tends to overuse the indirect pronouns (le and les) even when they need to use direct object pronouns (la, lo, los, las). 

This effect is called ‘leísmo’ and is not normally used in Latin American Spanish speaking countries. 

Spain

  • Sus amigos les quieren mucho – Your friends love you guys so much
  • Señora, si quiere, le puedo ayudar con sus cosas – Madam, if you want, I can help you with your things

Latin America

  • Sus amigos los quieren mucho – Your friends love you guys so much
  • Señora, si quiere, la puedo ayudar con sus cosas – Madam, if you want, I can help you with your things

4. Conjugation

Another big difference between Spain and Latin American Spanish is the conjugation which is affected by the usage of the pronouns vosotros and ustedes. In other words, if you use ‘ustedes’ or ‘vosotros’ you’ll need to use different endings for your conjugations. Here are some examples:

  • Vosotros habláis muy rápido – You guys speak very fast 
  • Ustedes hablan muy rápido – You guys speak very fast
  • Chicos, ¿queréis beber algo más? – Guys, do you want to drink something else?
  • Chicas, ¿quieren beber algo más? – Gals, do you want to drink something else?

So that you can see these differences clearly, here is a table with the endings that you need to use for ustedes and vosotros when conjugating regular verbs in the present tense. 

-AR
-ER/-IR
-IR
Ustedes
-an
– en
– en
Vosotros
– áis
– éis
– ís

As you may imagine, the conjugations will also be affected if you use vos instead of tú:

  • Vos vivís en Argentina – You live in Argentina
  • vives en México – You live in Mexico
  • ¿Vos querés ir al cine conmigo? – Do you want to go to the movies with me?
  • quieres ir de vacaciones a Madrid – You want to go to Madrid on vacation

Here are the endings that you would use in each case for conjugating verbs in the present tense:

-AR
-ER/-IR
-IR
-as
– es
– es
Vos
– ás
– és
– ís

Notice: Remember that using vos instead of is only common in a few Latin American countries. So don’t be surprised if you don’t hear this pronoun as often. 

5. Uses of Past Tenses

Even though it may not be very obvious for new Spanish learners, Castilian and Latin American Spanish speakers have different preferences when it comes to using past tenses. This variation is present specifically with the preterite and the present perfect. 

So, in Latin America, the use of present perfect is very limited and very similar to English. We use it to talk about experiences and past actions that still continue in the present. For actions that are finished, we use preterite even if they’re close to the present.   

Spanish in Spain vs Latin America

However, in Spain, the use of present perfect is more extensive. Unlike Latin America, Castilian Spanish uses the present perfect to talk about past actions that took place recently. Here are some examples: 

Latin America

La semana pasada fui a Madrid – Last week I went to Madrid

Hoy desayunamos dos quesadillas – Today we had two quesadillas for breakfast

Hablé con Julia esta mañana – I spoke to Julia this morning

Todavía no he visto esa película – I still haven’t seen that movie 

Julia no ha terminado de hablar por teléfono – Julia hasn’t finished talking on the phone 

Spain 

La semana pasada fui a Madrid – Last week I went to Madrid

Hoy hemos desayunado dos quesadillas – Today we had two quesadillas for breakfast

He hablado con Julia esta mañana – I spoke to Julia this morning

Todavía no he visto esa película – I still haven’t seen that movie 

Julia no ha terminado de hablar por teléfono – Julia hasn’t finished talking on the phone 

Spanish in Spain and Latin America Are Mutually Intelligible

Despite the variations you may find, focusing on one of these Spanish dialects will not prevent you from understanding the other. Of course, when it comes to vocabulary, there will be some words exclusive to Castilian or Latin American Spanish, but it will be up to you to learn those words

Hopefully, now you don’t need to worry about the difference between these Spanish dialects. 

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Daniela Sánchez

Daniela Sánchez is a former Spanish teacher in Mexico where she taught young professionals language and vocabulary specific to their fields and industries. Now, she’s the editor and lead writer of the Tell Me In Spanish Spanish blog that offers content and real information that Spanish learners can use to improve their language skills and communication.