Oct 26

Difference between Spain and Latin America Spanish

When I get a request for a quote on a translation, I am often asked what kind of Spanish I speak, as if every country in Latin America speaks a different version of the language.

Microsoft has probably played a part in promoting this perception with its Microsoft Office Language Options screen. (yikes!)

MS-Spanish

If I ran a translation agency and saw that list of ‘Spanish languages’, I’d be very concerned about hiring the right person for the job as well, specially in the case of a medical or legal document.

I’ve written this post to help dispel some common misconceptions about the Spanish language.

Key Differences

The biggest difference between Spain and Latin America’s Spanish is in the pronunciation of the letter “z”.

In Spain, the letter “z” is pronounced like the “th” sound in “think” while in Latin America, it is pronounced like the letter “s”.

You can hear the difference in these sample sound files: Spanish Pronunciation Sound of the letter Z

The letter “c” in some cases is also pronounced as a Spanish “z” as in the word “cocido” (cooked).

If I talk to a Spaniard and I say “zapato” (shoe) without making the Spanish ‘z’ sound I will be perfectly understood. They’ll just know I’m not from Spain.

Word usage and colloquial words

In Spain the word “ordenador” (from the French ordinateur) is used to refer to a computer while in Latin America we use the word “computadora” (as in computer).

I don’t use the word “ordenador” in my normal speech but I’m familiar with it and will use if I’m writing for a Spanish audience.

I never use the word “chamaca” (girl) in my daily speech but I am familiar with the word and its meaning as I am familiar with other slang words from various Latin American countries and Spain.

Normally, you would not use such colloquial words in standard business communications anyway, so for all practical purposes those word variations are neutral or irrelevant.

Unlike British and U.S. English, there are NO SPELLING VARIATIONS between Spanish from Spain and Latin America.

The reason for this is simple. The Spanish language is officially regulated by the Royal Spanish Academy based in Madrid. This institution is a major publisher of dictionaries and has a formal procedure for admitting words into its publications.

In contrast, there’s not a governing body overseeing the English language, which explains the numerous differences in English spellings and pronunciation. New words are added to the English language every year from many sources including social trends, the media and new technology.

Choosing a Translator

There are always exceptions but in general, if someone has been raised and properly educated in a Spanish speaking country, then there’s a good probability they have a good command of the Spanish language.

On the other hand, if someone has been raised in the U.S. or some other non-Spanish speaking country, even if Spanish is their native language it is likely they will not have mastery of the language. (The exception to the rule would be someone who has pursued advanced studies in linguistics in that language).

This is true particularly in the case of immigrants from Cuba, Puerto Rico and Mexico, who have distorted the Spanish language a bit after living and working in the U.S. for a number of years.

One can not ignore the influence and role of the media in a person’s knowledge and mastery of a language.

For instance, Spanish speaking attorneys and media personalities living in the U.S. can often be heard on Spanish TV saying “La Corte” (The Court) instead of “El Tribunal” and “ticket” as in traffic ticket instead of “multa”. Spanish speakers living in the U.S. will naturally pick up and use those words in their every day speech.

Conclusion

To summarize, If you’re trying to learn Spanish as a second language or if you’re concerned about hiring an English-Spanish translator from “the right Spanish-speaking country“ just remember:

The biggest difference among the various Spanish speaking countries is in the pronunciation of two letters (c and z), the accent and the use of slang words.

On paper we all sound the same. 🙂

British vs. American English

The differences between British and American English are much more pronounced than those between Spain and Latin America’s Spanish when you consider the vast number of spelling variations, a situation that thankfully, we don’t have in Spanish.

Maybe we’ll explore this topic in a future post.


Lisette is a freelance writer, editor and translator.


9 comments

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    • Mike S on October 26, 2009 at 8:14 pm

    This is a very helpful clarification. I have always assumed that the differences between European and Latin American Spanish were comparable to the differences between British and American English. It’s good to know that in fact there are fewer and less significant differences.

    I found your point about the greater incidence of English borrow words fascinating. That hadn’t occurred to me, but it makes perfect sense.

  1. Interesting differences and similarities! I had no idea. Especially good info on choosing a translator. Doing business on the web in foreign markets is a HUGE opportunity, so that is great info.

    • Lisette on October 27, 2009 at 12:47 am

    Mike and Michael thank you both for your comments! I’m glad I was able to shed some light on this topic and dispel some common misconceptions about the Spanish language.

    • Laurie Stankavich on October 27, 2009 at 10:09 pm

    I would agree with your comment about incomplete mastery by speakers in America. I learned my Spanish as an adult in Costa Rica so at first I was a little intimidated by teaching at an American high school where my classes included Hispanic bilinguals. But I quickly learned that many of them were surprisingly weak in certain areas and used a lot of anglicisms. Often they also can’t spell which amazes me since Spanish spelling is so wonderfully regular.

    • Lisette on October 27, 2009 at 10:57 pm

    Yes, sadly some immigrants lack a good command of the Spanish language and when they come to the U.S. they sometimes are not fully assimilated into society so they don’t learn proper English either, unless they arrive at a young age.

    It’s ironic that you would help them with their spelling having learned the language as an adult. They were lucky to have you I’m sure. A person who learns a language as an adult can sometimes be a better, more patient teacher than a native speaker. Thanks for stopping by!

    • Victoria on October 29, 2009 at 10:10 am

    I hadn’t thought of all the considerations before. Good information!

    • Iain Gray on October 29, 2009 at 10:23 pm

    I’d never really come across this before, but I suppose there must some danger of “two nations separated by a common language”, just like the US and UK!

    Do you know if there are similar differences between Brazilian and ‘original’ Portugese?

    • Andy Fossett on October 29, 2009 at 10:41 pm

    That sounds almost as complicated as the difference between Kansai-ben (the local dialect around Osaka) and the standard Japanese spoken near Tokyo.

    We also have a lot of borrowed words, called “loan words.” It’s estimated that over 10,000 Japanese words are actually bastardized from English, French, German, and Portugese – though I’m not sure if any are form Spanish.

    • Lisette on October 31, 2009 at 1:15 pm
      Author

    @Iain I don’t speak Portuguese so I can’t answer that question.

    @Andy The English language itself has traces of many languages including Sanskrit. In doing trade and commerce nations exchange not just money but their thoughts, ideas and words.

    Thank you both for your comments.

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