The Differences Between Spanish in Spain and Mexico

So, it’s finally time. You’ve been brushing up on your high school Spanish on a language learning app during your lunch break for months. You’ve been pestering your one Spanish-speaking friend for conversation practice at every happy hour. You have chanted phrases and conjugations to yourself all morning in the Airbnb with the solemn dedication of a monk. You are ready for your payoff.

You can almost taste the satisfaction of a casual interaction with a native speaker which neither of you will remember (nor obsess over) later. Your mouth is watering for it – or that could just be the scent of tapas in the air and the sweet promise of sangria. So you stand on a teeming street corner in Spain and seek out an approachable person to whom you will pose your first inquiry in Spanish:

“¿Dónde puedo tomar el camión?”

“Cómo?”

“¿La estación del camión? ¿Del carro grande?”

She leans closer with knitted eyebrows. Did you manage to pick someone hard of hearing?

“¿Camión?” You mime steering the wheel of a bus, and your voice grows fainter. “¿Manejar un carro grande?

By now you’re completely deflated, not to mention flushed with embarrassment. How horrible can your pronunciation really be? Did you somehow study the wrong language?

Due to geographical separation, the consequential cultural divergence, and the influence of indigenous languages in the Americas, European Spanish as spoken in Spain differs in several key ways from the language spoken in Latin America. What’s more, dialects differ between the countries and/or regions within both of these areas. For example, if you visit Uruguay or Argentina, you will find that “ll” is pronounced not as /ʝ/ (“y” as in “yes”), as in most dialects of Spanish, but as /ʃ/ (“sh”) instead. Therefore, you would need to alter your pronunciation of the introduction “me llamo…” from “me yamo…” to “me shamo…” in order not to stand out as a foreigner. Of course, most likely you will still be understood, as the pronunciation doesn’t differ that much.

The bottom line? Language is fluid, dynamic, and region-specific (otherwise the United States wouldn’t have been able to contribute essential words such as “hangry” and “bingeable” to the English lexicon in 2018 – you’re welcome, world).

Though different types of Spanish are mutually intelligible for the most part, you do run the risk of miscommunication (and in some cases, accidental disrespect) if you’re not prepared. As varieties of Spanish are numerous, we’re focusing on Mexican Spanish (spoken by 103 million people) and Iberian/European Spanish (spoken in northern and central Spain) to get your journey started.

History of Spanish map

The status of the Spanish language in Mexico

The 2005 Mexican census found that at least 0.8% of the population spoke only an indigenous Mexican language, while a further 5.7% spoke both Spanish and an indigenous language. You might bear this in mind if you ever travel to a rural part of Mexico, where there’s a small chance of meeting locals who are not fluent in Spanish.

Many of Mexico’s indigenous languages are endangered, which has prompted the government to recognize sixty-two co-official Mexican languages alongside Spanish. The most commonly spoken ones are Nahuatl (with its origins in the Aztec civilization), which had over 1.6 million speakers at the last count, and various forms of Mayan, which are not necessarily mutually intelligible but taken together are spoken by almost two million people.

Despite this recognition, the overwhelming majority of official documents are prepared in Spanish.

Spanish speaking countries in Europe

Many different types of Spanish are spoken throughout Europe, including Mexican Spanish. However, Iberian or European Spanish is by far the most common, even outside of Spain.

In France, 13% of residents report being able to speak at least conversational Spanish, while 1.2% of the population speak the language natively.

In Portugal, it’s estimated that about 7-10% of residents are native or confident second-language speakers of Spanish, but there’s also an intermediate level of mutual intelligibility between Spanish and Portuguese.

In most other Western European countries, between 4% and 9% of the population report speaking at least conversational Spanish.

Vocabulary (a non-exhaustive list):

WordSpainMexico
CarCoche (m)Carro (m), Auto (m)
BusAutobús/Bus (m)Camión (m)
PotatoPatata (f)Papa (f)
Cell/Mobile phoneMóvil (m)Celular (m)
PenBolígrafo/Boli (m)Pluma (f) (like “feather”)
ApartmentPiso (m)Apartamento (m) / Departamento (m)
ComputerOrdenador (m)Computadora (f)
EyeglassesGafas (fpl)Lentes (mpl)
StrawPajilla (f)Popote (m) (derived from Nahuatl, the Aztec language)
To drive a carConducir un cocheManejar un carro
To take a busTomar un autobúsCoger* un camión

In Spanish, nouns are either masculine or feminine.

(m) = masculine(f) = feminine(pl) = plural noun

*In Mexico, the verb “coger” (“to take”) has sexual connotations, so use with caution!

Pronunciation:

Most regions of Spain pronounce the letters “s,” “z,” and “c” before an “i” or an “e” as a /θ/ (“th” in the English word “thing”). In Mexico, this is pronounced as an /s/ or /z/ sound. For example, “gracias” is pronounced “grasias” in Mexico. In Spanish from Spain, it’s often “grathias.”

Bonus points: Check out the Academy-Award-nominated movie Y Tu Mamá También to hear the differences in pronunciation between the Spanish and Mexican protagonists.

Addressing others (vosotros/ustedes):

In the Spanish spoken in Spain, a formal version of the second person is used when addressing someone you don’t know, someone older, or someone you wish to demonstrate respect for (e.g., when your extensive travels culminate in a meeting with the Prime Minister of Spain). When speaking to a peer, use the “” form of the verb. When using the formal version, use the “usted” (singular) or “ustedes” (plural) form.

In Mexico, it’s not necessary to differentiate. The same goes for the second-person plural (used when addressing a group, such as “you all”). In Spain, you should use “vosotros,” whereas in Mexico you use “ustedes.”

AddresseeEnglishSpainMexico
A singular peer (second-person singular)You eatTú comesTú comes
Multiple peers (second-person plural)You all eatVosotros coméisUstedes comen
A singular elder/respected person (second-person singular formal)You eatUsted comeUsted come
Multiple elders/respected persons (second-person plural formal)You all eatUstedes comenUstedes comen

Seems like a lot to keep track of? Don’t worry – here’s how the rest of the earlier example conversation could go:

“Me gustaría ir a un bar de tapas. No quiero coger un taxi. Me gustaría usar el transporte público… como un carro grande… con muchas personas. ¿Entiendes?”

“Ahh, sí, sí. Entiendo. ¿Quieres un autobús? ¿Un bus?”

“¡Sí! ¡Muchas grac(th)ias!”

With enough related vocabulary as your ammunition, you can eventually get to the bottom of varietal differences and successfully communicate. The trick is choosing to persevere through the initial miscommunication (don’t give up or feel embarrassed!) and, of course, having an arsenal of vocabulary to help you describe the word that you’re having trouble with.

Luckily for you, Lingvist recently added 1,900 new words to its Spanish course, bringing the total amount of words you can learn to 6,000. Lingvist’s Spanish language content is based on Neutral Spanish, which is a kind of “standard” Spanish used for dubbing TV and films. Lingvist for American Spanish has just been released in beta!

Lingvist provides personalized content, which means you won’t waste any of your precious lunch hour (or daily commute ¡en el autobús!) revisiting content you’ve mastered. Start increasing your Spanish fluency with Lingvist now to avoid being slowed down by miscommunication mishaps.