Which Spanish Dialect Should You Learn? Latin America vs. Spain

Choose which Spanish you learn based on your goals . Depending on whether you expect to spend more time with Latin Americans or Spaniards, you can start with either one. 

In the end, though, it doesn’t really matter. All varieties are mutually intelligible. And as you progress, you will naturally learn more of some varieties based on the Spanish you hear. 

Still, it helps to have a big-picture overview of the differences in the regional dialects of Spanish. Below, we’ll get that overview and help you decide which Spanish you should learn yourself.

What are the main types of Spanish?

The two main varieties are Peninsular (European) and Latin American Spanish. Within these two umbrella categories, there are hundreds of regional varieties. 

Just like people speak differently in Michigan and California, or Birmingham and London, Spanish is different from country to country and region to region. 

Neighboring countries tend to have more similarities: Mexican and Guatemalan Spanish are closer to one another than Mexican and Peruvian Spanish.  

What is the most popular form of Spanish?

In terms of sheer population, Mexican Spanish is the most popular (126M), followed by Colombian (49M) and Peninsular (Spain) Spanish (46M).

In terms of Spanish as a second language, the most popular variety to learn depends on where you are. 

Among a small sample of English speaking countries: 

In the United States, Mexican (or Latin American Spanish broadly) is most popular. In the U.K. and Australia, learners more often choose Spanish from Spain. (source)


Does it matter which kind of Spanish you learn?

Not in the long run. If you’re a beginner, here’s what you need to know: Spanish does change from place to place, but not so much that people can’t understand one another. 

At the beginning, you don’t know what you don’t know! Be open to learning anything related to Spanish. As you progress, you’ll naturally lean towards one variety based on your personal needs and goals

And it’s not set in stone, either. Plenty of learners switch accents based on practical reasons, or even learn more than one variety! 

For example, I learned “standard Latin American Spanish” in school, then Chilean Spanish as an exchange student in Chile. I left Chile with very Chilean-sounding Spanish, and these days I speak more neutrally because I more often use my Spanish with people from Mexico and Central America. 

This same thing happens among native speakers of any language. If you meet an Australian who’s been in the U.S. for 20 years, they have likely (if unintentionally) changed their speech patterns to be more neutral sounding. It’s a natural human way of fitting in and simplifying communication.

What is the most useful Spanish dialect to learn?

I would argue that due to the sheer number of Spanish speakers in the Americas, Latin American varieties are more useful. Based on pure numbers, Mexican Spanish is the most spoken variety so it would be the most useful (on paper). 

But of course, real world decisions require more thought than that. Mainly, you want to ask yourself a few questions: 

  • Do I plan to spend a lot of time in a certain region? 
  • Do I expect to interact with people from a certain country or continent? 
  • Do I love the sound of one variety over others? 

Seriously though, just tell me: Should I learn Latin American Spanish or Spain Spanish?

Fine. To help you decide which variety of Spanish to learn, I made this very unscientific flow chart: 

Flow chart answering the question, "Which variety of Spanish should I learn?" The answer comes to this: if you live in the Americas, you probably want to learn Latin American Spanish; if you live in Europe, you probably want to learn European. Unless you have a personal affinity for one region or variety of the language.
The short answer is — unless you have a special interest or connection to one variety — it makes sense to base your initial decision on geography, then adapt as needed.

I chose to learn Latin American Spanish because it was practical and matched my interests: I knew lots of people from the region and knew I wanted to go there.

What are the main differences between the different dialects of Spanish? 

Below are 5 major categories of Spanish dialects.

The list below is not exhaustive. Differences exist within each of these regions, and this is just one of many ways that linguists have categorized Spanish dialects. 

Spanish from Spain

The sound most people associate with Spain is the “lisp” (which isn’t really a lisp at all – we’re viewing Spanish letters through an English-speaker’s lens, which says that “th” is the only letter combination allowed to make that sound. In reality, it’s just the correct way to differentiate between C’s, Z’s, and S’s in most of Spain). 

Let’s take a look at a few key characteristics of standard European Spanish. 

  • C/Z/S
    • When the letters C or Z are followed by E or I, they are pronounced like a soft th.
      • Note: The letter S is always pronounced like an S (for example, it’s never “ethpañol”).
      • Listen to the differences in the letter Z here, in the word Zapatos (shoes):
“Zapatos” pronounced by a speaker from Spain
“Zapatos” pronounced by a speaker from Venezuela
  • Vosotros
    • In Spain and Equatorial Guinea (where Spanish is an official language), vosotros is used instead of ustedes for an informal “y’all”. 
  • Harder J/Ge/Gi
    • Speakers from Spain tend to have a throatier pronunciation of J, Ge, and Gi. It’s almost like the German hard “ch” sound.

Mexican/Central American Spanish

Mexican & Central American Spanish is the most familiar variety to most North Americans. Here are a few of the key characteristics:

  • Softer J/G
    • Unlike in Spain, the sounds J and Ge/Gi are pronounced softer — more like an H. So jabón sounds like habón.
  • S and D maintained
    • In contrast to Caribbean and Chilean Spanish, speakers in Mexico and Central American typically do pronounce the letters S and D (rather than skipping over it or aspirating it).
  • Mix of tú/vos in some regions
    • In some regions, including Guatemala and Costa Rica, it’s common to use vos rather than . And depending on where you are in the region, you might hear a mix of the two.
  • Vocabulary differences 
    • ¿Mande? Instead of ¿Cómo? To indicate that you didn’t hear someone (especially in Mexico)
    • Órale/Ándale as an affirmation expression of excitement, like “alright!” or “alright”. 
    • Platicar rather than charlar or conversar for “to converse”.
  • Words from Nahuatl and other indigenous languages
    • Cacahuate for peanut 
    • Aguacate for avocado
    • Chocolate for chocolate

Caribbean Spanish

Caribbean Spanish describes dialects spoken in Puerto Rico, Cuba, Dominican Republic, and coastal (Caribbean) regions of Colombia, Venezuela, and Panama. 

  • More “open” sounding
    • My own observation is that Caribbean Spanish speakers tend to sound like they’re speaking with their mouths more open. 
  • L for R sound at end of some words
  • Not changing word order in questions
    • When asking a question, Spanish speakers will often add the pronoun to the end of the sentence to emphasize or clarify who they’re speaking to (“¿Que quieres comer tú?). In Caribbean Spanish, it’s common to hear the pronoun in its normal position (“¿Qué tu quieres comer?”)
  • Dropping of S before consonants and at the end of a word
    • Las casas becomes lah casah, la’casa’, or even la’caha’. It’s common in this region to drop the letter S before a consonant or at the end of a word. 

Andean Spanish

Linguists describe Spanish spoken in parts of Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia and Venezuela as “Andean” Spanish. This is a big region (like all others on this list), so this is just a glance at some of the characteristics of speech in these countries. 

  • Mix of Quechua and Aymara words 
    • Words like choclo for corn and chacra for a small farm, and carpa for tent come from Quechua, the language family spoken by the Incas and still spoken in the region today. 
  • Use of voseo in some areas
    • Particularly in parts of Bolivia and Ecuador
  • Vowel reduction
    • I always say that vowels stay the same no matter what in Spanish. That’s true, technically. But in practice, some regional varieties reduce sounds or change them slightly. Andean Spanish speakers often reduce the vowels in unstressed words. 
    • Ian Mackenzie from Newcastle University says, “Unstressed vowels are routinely weakened to a schwa-like sound [ə] or even elided completely, particularly when next to /s/. An example of reduction to [ə] would be [ˈesəsˈtʃikəs] esos chicos ‘those kids’, while both reduction and elision are illustrated in [ˈtoðəsˈessluˈɣaɾes] todos esos lugares ‘all those places’”.

      Since these speakers also maintain their “S” sounds, their speech can sound very “S”-heavy. 

Chilean Spanish

Among the linguistic varieties in this list, Chilean Spanish is the only one entirely limited to one country. Others are comprised of multiple countries (for example, Argentine and Uruguayan Spanish are relatively similar, as are Guatemalan and Mexican Spanish). It’s also the variety I’m most familiar with personally, having learned a good chunk of my Spanish there.

Here are some of the key features of Chilean Spanish:

  • Mix of Quechua/Mapungdun/Mapuche words
    • In Chile, we get words like guata (belly), guagua (baby), and guácala (gross!)
  • Significant dropping of S and D sounds
    • Throughout the country, most S’s are aspirated (pronounced like an H) or omitted entirely. D’s are often not pronounced either (baila’o, habla’o instead of bailado, hablado)
  • Fast speech
    • I don’t have any real studies on this, but my experience Chileans speak more quickly than many other speakers. 
  • Chilean voseo 
    • In informal speech, you’ll hear a unique version of the voseo. Typically it’s used with the pronoun , and you take the vos conjugation and swap out the final “s” for an “i”. 
    • For example, ¿cómo estás? becomes “¿cómo estai?; “y vos qué pensás?” becomes “y tú qué pensai?” 
  • Vocabulary differences
    • Common Chilean words include 
      • ¿Cachai? (got it? You know?)
      • Porotos rather than frijoles for beans
      • Choclo rather than maíz for corn
      • Palta rather than aguacate for avocado 
      • Bencina rather than gasolina for gas

Rioplatense Spanish

Rioplatense Spanish refers to mainly Spanish spoken in the region around Buenos Aires, Argentina and Montevideo, Uruguay. But in practice, it’s also used to describe Spanish spoken in all of Argentina and Uruguay.

Here are some of the key features of Spanish in Argentina and Uruguay:

  • Vos
    • In rioplatense Spanish, it’s uncommon to hear the pronoun (there are some exceptions, like in Santiago del Estero province in Argentina). Instead, speakers here use vos for friendly/informal situations. 
    • With vos, the accent goes on the last syllable of the verb. So haces becomes hacés, tienes becomes tenés, llamas becomes llamás.
  • Ll/Y pronunciation
    • Maybe the most telling part of this accent: rioplatense Spanish speakers pronounce Ll and Y as “zh” or “sh”. 
    • For example, the typical word for North Americans here is yanqui (not gringo), pronounced “Shanki”:
  • Italian intonation
    • Spanish in Argentina and Uruguay, especially in the capital cities, tends to have a noticeably Italian-sounding intonation pattern. Some research attributes this to the wave of 3 million plus Italians who emigrated to Argentina in the early 20th century. 
  • Vocabulary differences
    • El laburo instead of el trabajo for work
    • Pibe as slang for kid
    • Quilombo instead of lío for “a mess”
    • Nafta rather than gasolina for gas

Can Latin Americans understand Spain Spanish and vice versa?

Yes. Even with all the differences listed above, Spanish speakers from different countries generally have no real trouble making themselves understood

Like in English, there are accent and vocabulary differences between regions. But as long as speakers avoid using tons of slang, understanding one another is easy. 

Which Spanish is the easiest to understand?

In the Spanish speaking world, you often hear people say that the Spanish spoken in cities like Bogotá, Colombia or Lima, Peru are the clearest (and therefore the “best). 

But this is a subjective question with a lot of myths and cultural biases attached to it. 

For example, what’s considered “standard”, “pure”, or “correct” has a lot to do with which groups have historically had power. And those “standard” versions tend to be spoken mainly in capital cities, while “non-standard” versions are often looked down upon (just like in English). 

On top of that, the average person does not speak like a newscaster in their everyday life — regardless of nationality or background. 

That said, as a learner, you might find it easier to understand Spanish spoken by clear speakers from countries like Spain, Peru, Colombia or Mexico. 

But regardless, you’ll need to adapt to the Spanish spoken wherever you are. I recommend listening to Spanish from as many different places as possible.

Given the variety, the more you practice understanding different accents, the better. 

Which Spanish is hardest to understand?

Chile, Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, Cuba, and Andalusia (Spain) are a few of the places considered to speak more difficult Spanish. If you end up learning in those places, fear not! It will make understanding Spanish from elsewhere easier. 

In my case, I learned Spanish in Chile, which is notoriously fast and tricky. It was challenging, but I think it has given me a leg up when listening to other Spanishes. It’d be like learning English in Scotland — after that, talking to someone from Ohio is a piece of cake. 

When choosing a variety of Spanish, follow your interests and goals

If you have a personal connection to a specific country, it makes sense to learn regionalisms from that area, watch content from that country, and practice with speakers from that country. 

Regardless of what you choose, Spanish is Spanish wherever you go. After a bit of adaptation to some new sounds and vocabulary, you’ll have no trouble speaking or being understood.

Connor Kane, Spanish coach

Thanks for reading! I'm Connor Kane, the Spanish coach and creator behind Breakthrough Spanish. I'm not a native Spanish speaker — which means I know exactly what it's like to learn Spanish from scratch, like you. Breakthrough Spanish helps you save time, get focused, and speak confident Spanish faster.

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