Which variation of Spanish should you learn? This is a question which, understandably, many new Spanish learners ask themselves. In this post I explore some considerations when answering this question, and a few of the key differences between different varieties of Spanish.
If you’re trying to decide what type of Spanish to learn, this post will help you decide!
Varieties of Spanish
Much like English, there are varieties of Spanish around the world. These vary based on region (ie, Spain vs Latin America), country (Colombia vs Mexico, for example), even individual cities and socio-economic status of speakers.
The biggest differences – at least those that we as learners should be concerned with – are on the region and country level. There are some fairly sizable differences in vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation – pretty much everything!
As a learner, however, the major decision generally comes down to choosing between “Iberian” Spanish (ie, from Spain) and Latin American Spanish.
Just how big are the differences?
Imagine the difference between British English and American English. Specific locations aside (try and think of a neutral American or British accent), there are clear differences in vocabulary, pronunciation, and generally “the way you say things”. There is a similar difference between Iberian Spanish and Latin American Spanish, but I feel that this difference is greater than British vs American English.
Just like English varieties, Spanish varieties are always mutually intelligible: if a Spanish person travels in Mexico, she will have no problem in understanding or being understood. There may be some amusing “po-tay-to/po-tah-to” type exchanges, but there will be no major communication issues.
Different varieties of Spanish are always mutually intelligible
However, the differences run a little deeper in Spanish varieties compared to English.
This is by no means an exhaustive guide, but here are some of the major differences you’ll come across in different varieties of Spanish:
Additional pronouns: Vosotros and vos
If you learn Iberian Spanish, you’ll need to know how to conjugate vosotros (“you, plural/informal”). Similarly, Argentina and several other countries use vos a lot more than other varieties.
Same words, different meanings
This can be the most frustrating for learners, and is likely to cause the most issues in communication.
To say “you should have done it” in Spanish, most Spanish speakers from Spain might say something like lo deberías haber hecho. Colombian speakers may be more likely to say lo hubieras hecho.
In most of the Spanish speaking world, demasiado means “too much”, implying excess (ie, negative). However, in many Latin American countries demasiado can also mean “very” (ie, positive).
These differences can throw you, as you already know the word, but are unfamiliar with that local meaning.
Having picked up the majority of my Spanish in Spain, it took me a little while to learn these idiosyncrasies and figure out whether these were individual instances, or standard usage. I’m still not always sure…!
Different words which mean the same thing
How you say “cup” can be different based on region. In Spain, this is una taza. In Colombia, they may also say un pocillo.
Another example: “Car” is coche in Spain, whereas it is carro in most of the rest of the Spanish speaking world.
The famous example is of the Iberian Spanish “lisped” z sound. While these differences won’t cause misunderstanding, it can mark out where you learned your Spanish.
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Which version of Spanish should I focus on?
My answer here is “it doesn’t matter, but…”
It doesn’t matter, because despite these differences in variations of Spanish, 95% of what you’ll be learning as a beginner will be the same regardless. Provided you enjoy the materials, are engaged and making progress, this shouldn’t be your primary consideration.
By the time you reach a level at which you can understand these differences in Spanish, you’ll have enough tools at your disposal to express yourself in alternate ways.
I speak from experience, having learned Spanish to a high level in Spain and then dropping myself in the deep end in Ecuador. I didn’t struggle to understand or make myself understood, but there was definitely some initial friction in communication.
There are differences between varieties of Spanish, and if you know you’ll be spending your time in one particular country it makes sense to focus on that region’s Spanish from the start. Generally speaking, Americans choose to focus on Latin American Spanish, and Europeans on Iberian Spanish. However, by focusing on one type of Spanish, you may find some difficulties of comprehension when hearing other varieties for the first time. If possible, it’s best to find and expose yourself to as many different accents and varieties as early as you can, so you can start to understand and appreciate the differences.
Our advanced podcast series is a good place to start – we have guests from Colombia, Spain, Argentina, Venezuela, Peru, Cuba, Chile, and Mexico!
Have you struggled to understand different Spanish accents? Are you focusing on one particular variety, or trying to seek out as many as you can? Let us know in the comments below!