Translating Latin American vs European Spanish: Top 10 Differences
The most striking differences when comparing Latin American vs European Spanish come down to accent and pronunciation, but vocabulary and even grammar can be very different between the two. Here is our top ten list of the main differences.
- Nouns – Spain has its own way of saying things, and many everyday terms are different from those used in Latin America. For instance, a lightbulb is a bombilla (rather than a foco), a peach is a melocotón (rather than a durazno), and a carro is a shopping cart (rather than a car).
- Slang and idioms – Slang and colloquialisms reflect a unique and valuable insight into different regions. ‘Dar la lata’ means ‘to be a pain in the neck’ in Spain, but this expression wouldn’t mean much in Latin America. It’s worth noting however that different slang can be seen across the Americas as well as across the ocean. You can expect every country in Latin America to have its own style of slang, and this kind of language can change from region to region, even within the same country.
- Anglicisms – The influence of English words is far more common in Latin America than in Spain, due to the stronger and more direct US influence. These differences are especially evident in recent technical terms, one example being the use of the word email or e-mail in Latin America instead of the more literal translation correo electrónico in Spain. Equally, indigenous languages have also left their mark on Latin America more so than Spain.
- Cultural habits – These two parts of the world have very different cultures in terms of food, drink, society and customs, and these are reflected in language too. For example, in Latin America the soft, flat bread known as a tortilla is a staple food, whereas in Spain the same word means ‘omelet’. A bocadillo is a particular kind of sandwich in Spain, which isn’t served in Latin America. Latin Americans would use bocadillo to mean ‘snack’, which could be translated by a Spaniard as tapas, the signature Spanish small dish. A knowledge of the target country’s culture is important in order to select the correct word.
- Vosotros/Ustedes – European Spanish has two ways of referring to a group of people (roughly synonymous with “y’all” in English): vosotros and ustedes. Vosotros is the choice for informal conversations, while ustedes is used only in a few formal contexts. But not in Latin America. Unlike Spaniards, Latin American speakers only use ustedes to refer to a group of people. Spain’s vosotros comes with its own set of verb conjugations, which end in -áis, éis, or -is. Therefore, Spanish speakers in Spain would say “¿cómo estáis? (how are you?)” whereas speakers of other Spanish dialects would say “¿cómo están?” A Latin American might find the use of vosotros humorous but understandable, and a Spaniard would feel like you were being too formal if you didn’t use vosotros.
- Use of Voseo – In many parts of Latin America (Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, Central America, and portions of Venezuela, Colombia, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador and Chile), Spanish speakers use vos instead of tú. Both of these translate to the pronoun ‘you’ (used to informally address an individual). However, vos is not used at all in Spain. So, if you’re in Buenos Aires and someone asks where are you from you’re likely to hear ¿De dónde sos? But if you’re in Spain you’ll probably hear ¿De dónde eres?
- Formality – European Spanish uses usted (formal ‘you’) relatively rarely. You can call most people tu (informal ‘you’), even people you don’t know or those who are older than you (unless they are actually elderly). Usted would sound overly formal unless you are in a very formal situation. In many (but not all) Latin American countries, usted is the normal form used for addressing people, unless you know them well in which case tú is used.
- Past tense – between Spain and Latin America, there are some subtleties when it comes to using verb tenses. In European Spanish, it’s far more common to hear the present perfect tense than the preterite to express the past. This means you’re more likely to hear “He hablado con ella (I have spoken with her)” in Spain, versus “Hablé con ella (I spoke with her)” which you’ll hear more in Latin America.
- Leísmo – Leísmo is the term to describe when an indirect object pronoun is overused, and used inappropriately in situations where the direct object pronoun would normally be used. To break down that grammarese, it simply refers to when you use the pronoun ‘le’ where you’d normally use ‘lo’. So in Spain, where leísmo is common, people might say, “Le veo (I see him)” or “Le escucho (I hear him),” overusing le where you should be using lo. This can seem strange and incorrect outside of Spain.
- Seseo – In voiceover projects, we can really hear the differences between the different kinds of Spanish come to life. Perhaps the most distinctive feature of the European Spanish is the seseo, its treatment of “s” sounds. If you want to sound like a Spaniard, you’ll have to learn the various ways that “c”, “s”, and “z” are pronounced. The famous “lisp” occurs when a “c” or “z” is pronounced like the “th” in “thin”.
Can you think of any other differences that didn’t make it onto our list? Let us know in the comments! Here is some additional information on our Spanish translation services.