Spanish Dialects: What’s a dialect and which one should I learn?
In this post, I’ll be talking about different dialects in Spanish, what’s unique about them and how to learn one. You’ll often hear people talk about the difference between the Spanish of Spain and that of Latin America, but the range of dialects in the Spanish speaking world is actually much wider. What dialect are you focused on? Leave a comment and let me know!
What is a dialect and how many different Spanish dialects are there?
The Cambridge English dictionary defines a dialect as
a form of a language that people speak in a particular part of a country, containing some different words and grammar, etc.
Companies selling language courses often like to divide Spanish into Peninsular/Iberian Spanish (from Spain) and Latin American Spanish but in reality there are far more than two dialects in the Spanish language. Most Spanish speaking countries have their own dialects and many contain multiple sub-dialects within their borders. For example, there are considered to be 10 sub-dialects in Mexico and up to 6 in Argentina; however, you’ll find that the differences within a country are not nearly as large as the differences between different countries. This means that although the Spanish spoken in Buenos Aires and Córdoba (both in Argentina) has some differences, these are relatively small. In contrast, the difference between Argentine Spanish and Mexican Spanish is comparatively large. Check out all the different dialects on this map!
(Note: There is also a unique Spanish dialect spoken in the Philippines which is not shown on this map)
What’s unique about these dialects?
There are lots of differences between dialects, one of the most common being the slang used in each country or region. Just like in English, the people of each country have unique ways to express themselves and learning about these local slang phrases can be one of the most enjoyable parts of learning Spanish!
Take the simple phrase ‘How are you?’ for example. In English, you could say ‘What’s up?’, ‘How are things?, ‘What’s the story?’ or ‘What’s the craic?’ depending on who you’re speaking to and where they’re from! Spanish is no different! Textbooks will teach you that ‘How are you?’ is ‘¿Qué tal?’ or ‘¿Cómo estás?’, however here in Argentina I’ve also heard the following used very frequently:
- ¿Cómo andás? (The verb has an accent because Argentine Spanish uses the vosero form. More on that in a future post!)
- ¿Todo bien?
- ¿Todo tranqui? (‘tranqui’ is short for tranquilo/tranquila and means literally means ‘Is everything relaxed?’)
- ¿Cómo te va?
As you can see, real-life language is different from what you find in books and courses and although everyone will understand your neutral ‘textbook’ Spanish, learning some of the slang helps when you’re trying to understand others!
Which dialect should I learn?
The truth is it doesn’t really matter! Spanish isn’t like Arabic where each dialect is almost like a different language. Spanish dialects are very closely related but have unique subtleties that give them their colour. No matter where you go in the Spanish speaking world, you will be able to make yourself understood. Understanding others may be a little more tricky but once you get accustomed to the local accent, you’ll find that most of the language is the same. When locals realise that you’re a foreigner, they’ll likely switch to speaking a more neutral Spanish anyway just as we do in English when we speak with people from abroad. I know I definitely speak differently with friends from England or the USA than I do with my family or friends in Ireland because if I start using Irish slang, my UK and US friends will quickly be lost. The same applies to Spanish, so don’t worry too much if you don’t understand everything in a particular dialect.
However, even though learning a particular dialect is not necessary you may still want to do so; especially if you have a strong reason for your decision. Using the local slang and accent can be an incredibly rewarding experience and does allow you to engage in conversations in a more profound way. If you’re not sure which dialect you should learn, consider some of the following reasons you might choose one dialect over another:
If you’re travelling to a particular destination, it’s important to recognise differences in the local accent and at least understand a few words of slang. You may want to ‘coger un taxi‘ in Spain, but doing so in Mexico would not be such a good idea! (Sorry everyone, this blog is rated PG, so you’ll have to google that one if you’re curious!)
2. You’re passionate about a particular country and its culture
As always with language learning, follow your heart and do what makes you passionate! Motivation is essential to successfully learning a language, so choose the dialect of a country or region that particularly interests and excites you!
3. You have friends and family who speak a certain dialect
If you already have friends or family who speak a particular dialect you might have an easy solution! At the end of the day, the goal for most of us is to speak the language with real people. Consider who you’re likely to want to speak Spanish with and consider learning the dialect they speak.
4. You’re moving to a new country!
If you’re planning to move to a new country, then learning its dialect is essential. Chatting on Skype or while traveling is one thing but if you plan to stay in the country for extended period of time picking up the local dialect is essential to meeting new people!
If you really have no preference, Colombian Spanish is generally considered the most neutral dialect and Castillian Spanish (the dialect spoken in Madrid) is considered the purest Spanish, so either one is an excellent choice.
How to focus on a particular dialect
In my opinion, there are two elements you need to focus on that will help you learn a specific Spanish dialect.
If you want to learn a particular dialect then chose immersion materials that use that dialect. For example, if you want to learn Mexican Spanish, listen to Mexican radio stations, watch Mexican TV shows and read Mexican newspapers and websites.
If you’re not sure where to start, check out this post to learn how you can use music to immerse yourself in a language or dialect and where you can find that music for free!
2. Speak with people who speak the dialect you want to learn
Hire a tutor or find a language exchange partner from the country whose dialect you want to learn. For example, if your goal is to learn Colombian Spanish, you can take lessons with Study Spanish Colombia and focus exclusively on that dialect. If Argentine Spanish is your goal, I can help you! Just go to my courses page now and you can book a free consultation to get started learning Argentine Spanish today!
You can also do language exchanges via Skype with native Spanish speakers and find people who speak the dialect you want to learn. Most of them will be delighted to talk to you about their local dialect and you can even ask them to teach you some slang!
Do you want to learn Spanish too? Download your FREE Spanish Conversation Cheatsheet and start learning today!
Are you currently learning or want to learn Spanish? Send me an email or leave a comment below and let me know your plan! If you’ve found this post useful, please consider sharing it on your favourite social media platform. I’d really appreciate it!