Spanish Language: Are You Using the Right Dialect?

Spanish Language: Are You Using the Right Dialect?

After completing her Spanish course in Belgium my aunt was enthusiastic to try out her new-found language skills. As she is a keen tango dancer she booked a flight to Argentina to dance her holidays away. But when she arrived she was not able to understand the taxi driver, let alone anyone else. Little did she know, Spanish is not the same everywhere.

Until a few years ago, whenever we were asked to translate into Spanish, we could safely assume that the translated text was probably for the Spanish market. The changing global economy means that those days are long gone!

As Latin American countries gain importance on the global economic stage, the tables have turned and we have seen a dramatic shift in requests for translations into the so-called Latin American Spanish language.

Where is Spanish an official language?

Spanish is an official language in 21 countries and it is the second most spoken language on the planet in terms of native speakers with 470 million.

The Spanish language has an official status in:

Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Equatorial Guinea, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Puerto Rico, Spain, Uruguay and Venezuela.

Therefore , it’s not surprising that there are a number of linguistic differences between local variants that need to be taken into account when targeting each region.

Download our infographic of Spanish dialects around the world

Differences between European Spanish and Latin American Spanish

The main differences in the Spanish-speaking world are between European Spanish and Latin American dialects. However, within Latin America, some terminology and verb conjugations can also vary from one country or region to another.

Terminology and idioms

An example of the differences within countries and regions is the word “T-shirt”. In Spain and some Latin American countries, they call it “camiseta”, in Argentina it’s “remera”, in Chile and Bolivia “polera” and in Venezuela “franela”.

Another good example is the word “juice”. In Spain, you would say “zumo de naranja” if you want an orange juice, whereas in Latin American countries, you would say “jugo de naranja”.


Idioms and popular expressions also vary greatly and can lead to misunderstandings. For example, in Spain they use the phrase “ponerse las botas” (Spanish for “to put your boots on”), for having a feast. However, in Latin American Spanish it means to actually put one’s boots on.


Some of these differences can generate funny mix-ups and misunderstandings. That’s why it’s so important to know the audience you are addressing!

Personal pronouns

In European Spanish, people use the second person plural “Vosotros” in informal speech and “Ustedes” in formal speech. In Latin American Spanish (but also in Southern Spain and the Canary Islands) they use “Ustedes” indistinctly.


Verb Conjugations and Tenses

Also verb conjugations and tenses are different. In Latin America, the past simple tense is used to refer to an event that has taken place in the recent past, even two seconds ago. In Spain, they refer to such events with the past perfect tense:


Main Dialects of Latin American Spanish

The differences don’t stop here though! Spanish, like its distant cousin English, is a pluricentric language, meaning that it has multiple national and regional standards that often vary greatly in pronunciation, word choice, idiom, and even grammar.

There are countless linguistically discrete dialects in every country, region, and even city of the Latin Spanish-speaking world, but we can divide them into these four broad categories:

Mexican and Central American Spanish

Mexico is by far the world’s largest Spanish-speaking country, and also the heart of the Latin American foreign film and media world. Mexican Spanish is often considered one of the ‘clearest’ Latin American dialects, and it has greatly influenced the Spanish spoken in Central America and the rest of the continent.

Mexican Spanish is known for its strong pronunciation of most consonants, tuteo (use of  rather than vos), and the famously rich Mexican slang. As you move further South through Central America, the language use will change gradually. And particularly in Costa Rica and Panama the language will feature more of its own local quirks.

Andean Spanish

Another Latin American dialect frequently described as ‘pure’ or ‘clear’ is Andean Spanish. It is the language spoken by city-dwellers in Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and parts of Venezuela and Bolivia. This collection of dialects is influenced by its European heritage, as well as by local indigenous languages like Quechua and Aymara.

Rioplatense Spanish

The Spanish spoken in the Southern Cone of South America is often described as sounding exotic and intriguing even to native Spanish speakers from other regions. The speech of Argentina and Uruguay (and to a lesser extent Chile, with its own distinctive but Argentinian-influenced dialect) is one of the most distinct dialect families of Spanish, and it is either loved or hated.

Rioplatense Spanish uses the voseo, which means that in place of the perhaps more familiar “tú”, you’ll hear vos and its corresponding verb conjugations, for example, “Y de dónde sos vos?” (Spanish for “And where are you from?”).

Caribbean Spanish

Caribbean Spanish can be one of the most difficult to understand for learners who aren’t used to its speed, sounds, and many distinctive words and phrases. From the Caribbean coasts of Venezuela and Colombia, through Panama and coastal parts of Central America, and throughout the Caribbean islands, Caribbean Spanish is like its own little language in the region.

International Spanish

So, what can you do to avoid having to translate into 20 different variants of Spanish? A possible solution is to ask your translation company to translate into “International Spanish”.

International Spanish should not be considered a special Spanish variant or flavour. Rather, it is a neutral version of Spanish that is free of regionalisms and colloquialisms and can be easily understood by the wider Spanish-speaking community. You may think of it as a one-stop-shop neutral or universal Spanish.

This is a good option when your budgets do not allow for translating into several Spanish variants. However, if you want to be perceived as a truly local company in a specific market there is no substitute for a locale-specific translation —like for instance Mexican Spanish or Argentinian Spanish.

What’s your flavor?

So, next time you need a translation into Spanish, take a few minutes to think about the most suitable Spanish variant for your company’s needs. Do you need European Spanish, Latin American Spanish, Peruvian Spanish or will International Spanish suffice? If you need help making this decision, download our infographic Spanish Dialects Around the World.

Alternatively, if you need a little help, why not try asking your translation company for some advice? By telling your translation company where the texts will be used, your translation company will be able to select the right local translators for the job, and will help you understand the local conventions that may have an impact on your communications.

Buena suerte, y hasta luego

By | 2017-06-06T13:16:45+00:00 July 13th, 2016|Blog, Translation Industry Explained|

About the Author:

Inge Boonen – Sales Director International
Inge Boonen has been active in the localization industry for 15 years. She is currently Sales Director International at Arancho Doc focusing on providing value-added language services and solutions to her customers. Prior to joining Arancho Doc, Inge held various positions at a world top 20 language service provider, including project manager, account manager and sales manager. With an academic background in languages and translation, and practical experience as a translator and proofreader, Inge is passionate about all aspects of the translation industry. Inge's ultimate aim is to support the global development strategy of her customers thanks to her in-depth knowledge, extensive experience and hands-on approach.

Leave A Comment

By continuing to use the site, you agree to the use of cookies. more information

The cookie settings on this website are set to "allow cookies" to give you the best browsing experience possible. If you continue to use this website without changing your cookie settings or you click "Accept" below then you are consenting to this.