If you’re an English speaker learning Spanish, you probably understand that Spanish is a different language from English, and both are distinct from Japanese, Arabic, and other world languages — duh!
What you may not have considered during your language-learning journey, however, is the dialects of Spanish, or variations within the Spanish language.
While the distinction between language and dialect is hotly contested, linguist Max Weinreich sums it up with the following aphorism: “a language is a dialect with an army and a navy.”
For example, English in Scotland, the Northeastern United States, and New Zealand are similar enough to be mutually understandable, but they can differ substantially with respect to pronunciation and word choice.
If you’re in search of such dialectal differences, try watching a stand-up special or sitcom from another part of the English-speaking world — you may even need captions!
Why are there so many kinds of Spanish, anyway? Unsurprisingly, history and geography play a huge role. Spanish evolved from Latin on the Iberian Peninsula, and years of migration and conquest resulted in the dissemination of Spanish to the Americas, the Caribbean, and even Africa. These differences persist today: most Hollywood films shown in Spain are dubbed with a Castilian accent whereas those shown in Latin America are dubbed with a Latin American accent.
Luckily for Spanish learners, all these different kinds of Spanish are closely related, sharing grammar, spelling, vocabulary, and pronunciation. In fact, linguists call these dialects “mutually intelligible”: just as an American English speaker can understand most of what an Australian says, a Spaniard and a Puerto Rican can converse with relative ease. Compare this to Arabic, where regional variations make some dialects mutually unintelligible.
When deciding which dialect of Spanish to learn, all you have to consider is geography and personal preference.
In Europe, Spanish learners typically go for Peninsular Spanish, the dialect of Spanish spoken within the Iberian Peninsula. This would allow a Swede who speaks Spanish to communicate with their socios madrileños, or business partners from Madrid, for example.
In the United States, many students opt to learn Latin American Spanish, giving them the linguistic tools to communicate with their Mexican, Puerto Rican, and Peruvian neighbors.
If you have family, friends, or business connections from a certain region, consider focusing on that region’s accent and vocabulary. If you love the sing-songy, Italian-esque quality of Argentinian and Uruguayan Spanish, look into learning Rioplatense Spanish. If you enjoy the rich consonant sounds heard throughout Spain, try Peninsular Spanish.
An overview of Spanish dialects
How many Spanish dialects are there? To answer this question comprehensively, we’d have to unpack what a dialect even is. For now, let’s go through ten dialects most commonly spoken in large regions of the Spanish-speaking world.
This is an umbrella term referring to the dialects of Spanish spoken on the Iberian Peninsula. This excludes Spanish spoken in the Americas, the Canary Islands, and Africa.
Known as castellano in Spanish, this term refers to “official,” “standard” Spanish as outlined by the Real Academia Española (Royal Spanish Academy). Many students in Europe and some in America learn Castilian Spanish.
Andalucía (Andalusia) is an autonomous community in the south of Spain. Andalusian dialect is characterized by dropping ‘s’ and consonant sounds, especially at the end of words in coda position, which results in a more fluid, slurred sound.
Murcia is another autonomous community in southeastern Spain. The Murcian dialect — which some of its speakers consider to be its own language — is largely similar to Castilian and Andalusian. However, Murcian uses more vowel sounds and pronounces some consonants differently.
The Canary Islands are off the coast of northwestern Africa. This dialect sounds quite similar to Andalusian Spanish and Carribean Spanish due to historical migration patterns and interconnections between the archipelago, the Iberian Peninsula, and the Carribean. Many ‘s’ sounds are skipped.
Llanito translates to “little plain” and refers not only to the English-laden Spanish dialect spoken in Gibraltar, but also to inhabitants of Gibraltar. Gibraltar is technically a British overseas territory in southern Spain, which explains the heavy influence of both English and Spanish on the dialect.
Latin American Spanish
Latin America is defined as the group of countries in the Western Hemisphere where Spanish, Portuguese, French, and other romance languages are predominantly spoken. Latin American Spanish is characterized by its omission of vosotros (explained later) and high mutual intelligibility across the region.
Rioplatense Spanish is the dialect widely spoken in Uruguay and Argentina around the Río de la Plata Basin. Rioplatense uses voseo, explained later in the article. In addition, many have observed a sing-songy, rhythmic quality of spoken Rioplatense, which is theorized to stem from Italian immigration to the region — this would explain the prevalence of delicious pasta dishes there, too!
Caribbean Spanish is spoken in the Caribbean, including Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Cuba, and some regions of Central America. Like Andalusian and Canarian, many ‘s’ sounds are skipped over. There are notable differences in vocabulary from Castilian deriving from indigenous and African languages, especially for words relating to local flora, fauna, and culture.
Equatorial Guinea is the only African country with Spanish as an official language. Some palabras préstamos (loaner words) come from nearby African languages, and some grammatical idiosyncrasies exist. For instance, prepositions like a, en, and de (“to,” “in” / “on,” and “of” / “from”) are interchanged and conjugations for tú and usted violate traditional agreement rules.
While these dialects are largely mutually intelligible across the Spanish-speaking world, there are key regional differences in grammar, pronunciation, and vocabulary that affect how natural and normal your Spanish will sound in a given country or region.
In this article, we’ll focus on the regional differences for second-person pronouns. Remember that to speak Spanish correctly, you can work with any grammatically correct and situationally appropriate combination of tú, usted, vos, ustedes, and vosotros, but vos and vosotros are the least common worldwide.
In any case, your choices will be understandable throughout the Spanish-speaking world, so no pressure to get these variations down immediately! Below is a chart summarizing these pronouns; asterisks are explained in the following paragraphs.
1. Second-person plural: vosotros vs. ustedes **
In Spanish, you’ll learn that there are two main ways to refer to “you all,” the second-person plural pronoun, depending on the formality of the situation — also known as “sociolinguistic register” — and/or dialect of Spanish you’re speaking. In most of Spain, two words are frequently used: vosotros (“you all,” plural informal) refers to family, friends, and peers while ustedes (“you all, plural formal) is for meeting strangers, addressing elders, and maintaining formality in professional relationships.
In most of the rest of the Spanish-speaking world, this distinction dissolves, and speakers opt for ustedes in all cases. The following chart gives examples for each scenario.
2. Second-Person Singular: Tú and Vos **
In Spanish, it is taught that there are two main ways to refer to “you,” the second-person singular pronoun, again depending on the formality of the situation. Tú (“you”, singular informal), like vosotros, is typically reserved for family and friends while usted (“you,” singular formal), like ustedes, is for strangers, elders, and professional relationships.
The conjugated verbs following these pronouns have different endings, reinforcing the difference in register. This distinction exists in French, Russian, German, and many other languages, too.
Things get a bit more complicated with voseo, or the use of the word vos, in some regions of Latin America, namely Argentina, Uruguay, Chile, Bolivia, Paraguay, and Central America.
In Rioplatense Spanish and other dialects, vos replaces tú and conjugations for vos are slightly different from those for tú, too. In Chile, Spanish speakers continue to use tú but use verbs conjugated for vos, a phenomenon known as “verbal voseo.”
The following table can help you sort out these differences.
While spelling is consistent across the diverse dialects of Spanish, a few key differences in pronunciation persist. As a beginner, it’s generally best to stick with Castilian pronunciations and pronounce all non-silent letters.
Learn more in the sections below.
1. C, Z, S, and seseo
In Castilian Spanish, c’s before e’s and i’s and all z’s are pronounced like the ‘th’ in the English word “thing” and s’s are pronounced like the ‘s’ in the English word “sing.” This phenomenon is known as distinción (“distinction”). In other dialects of Spanish, such distinction disappears, and all of these sounds collapse into the ‘s’ sound.
This phenomenon is called seseo. Here are some illustrative examples — note that in some cases, you’ll have to use context to differentiate between homophones, like casa and caza.
2. Aspirated S in the Caribbean, Andalusia
Speakers of Carribean and Andalusian Spanish — and speakers of almost all dialects that speak quickly — aspirate their s’s to some degree. This means that in place of a sibilant s sound, there’s no sound or a hollow h sound like h- in the English word “hat”.
A couple examples are included below.
3. Yeísmo in Argentina and Uruguay
We couldn’t talk about dialectal diversity without mentioning yeísmo! In non-Rioplatense Spanish, the letters y and ll are pronounced as the ‘y’ in the English word “yes.”
Some Andalusians and others may put more force behind this sound, approximating the soft ‘g’ / ‘j’ sound from words like “gesture” and “joy.” In Rioplatense Spanish, the y and ll take on the sound of ‘sh’ from “shoe,” which makes the dialect identifiable from miles away. An example sentence is provided below.
In American English, a large vehicle transporting goods is called a “truck.” In Britain, this same vehicle is called a “lorry.” Another example is the difference between the words American “elevator” and British “lift.”
Such differences in vocabulary also exist in Spanish across the Atlantic Ocean and between regions. Some examples are listed below.
Which Spanish dialect should you learn?
If you’re feeling unsure of which Spanish dialect to start with, ¡no te preocupes (don’t worry)! Experienced Spanish tutors will integrate grammatical features and vocabulary from Latin American, Caribbean, and Peninsular Spanish.
Such a worldly combination of dialects will ensure that you will learn Spanish useful all over the world, whether your travels take you to South America, Central America, the Caribbean, Europe, or Africa.