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Spanish in Latin America – You Might Think It’s All One Language, But Then You’d Be Wrong


If you’re studying the Spanish language or are thinking about doing so, get ready for limitless opportunities for adventure and excitement. Yes, learning the language will take lots of time and hard work, but speaking Spanish will open doors to explore the world and meet people from different cultures. While you can always make friends simply by smiling and getting by with hand gestures or broken English, actually being able to communicate with people from nearly almost every country between here and the tip of South America, plus Spain itself, is an invigorating and empowering skill that makes those acquaintances much more rewarding.

While a broad-based knowledge of the Spanish language will take you far, we feel obligated to share the insider’s tips that anyone who speaks Spanish as a second language discovers at some point or another:  a ton of words and phrases have different meanings from country to country and some have a completely different name altogether. Using the wrong word or phrase can lead to a whole lot of laughter, a questioning look, or maybe even some harmless embarrassment.

One Word with Two Very Different Meanings

Let’s first take a look at the multitasking words that, despite looking and sounding the same, somehow mean two completely different things in different countries:

Your friends are called patas in Peru, but that word means nothing more than “feet” in neighboring countries.

In the Dominican Republic or Puerto Rico you hop on the guagua, or bus, to get downtown. Say you’re going to tomar la guagua in Peru or Chile and they’ll wonder how in the world a guagua, or baby, plays into your plans.

If your answer is “maybe,” you’ll say de repente in Peru, while that phrase means “all of a sudden” in most other Latin American countries.

Throughout all of Latin America, everyone agrees that playa means “beach,” but in Peru it has a second, distinct meaning that no one can seem to explain: parking lot. So don’t be surprised to be deep in the desert or mountains of Peru and see a sign for the playa in 50 meters.

Interestingly, most of the words that have dual meanings in different Latin American countries mean something semi (if not completely) vulgar in one of the locations. Without going into detail, let’s just say you order a pincho when you want a meat skewer from a Costa Rican street vendor but would be better off never saying that word while traveling in Peru. Likewise, ask someone to coger something when you need them to grab it off a grocery store shelf in Panama, but it’s best to find another verb when in Mexico and Argentina.

You Say Potato, I Say Papa…or Patata (Depending on What Country I’m In)

Now the linguistic differences between Latin American countries doesn’t end with just words that carry different meanings. Naturally, every country has their own words and expressions that somehow stays within its own borders.

Glasses are called lentes in most places but are known as anteojos in Costa Rica.

Say “¿Bueno?” when taking a phone call in Mexico, but ¿Álo?” when answering the phone in most of Central and South America.

If you’re looking for a bus in Argentina, ask where the colectivo picks up people, but be sure to ask for the bus in most other countries. In Peru, you’ll catch a ride on a combi.

When you feel like a beer, ask for a chela if you want to blend in with the locals in Peru, but better to ask for a birra in Argentina or a cerveza anywhere throughout Latin America.

The corner store in Costa Rica is called la pulperia, which sounds like a place where you might buy fresh seafood to other Spanish speakers. In other countries it’s the mini super or simply tienda.

In Costa Rica, you’d ask for a fresco de melocotón if you want some peach juice, while in other Latin American countries the correct phrase would be jugo de durazno.

Finally, one of the most fun and interesting linguistic differences between countries is the way locals say something is “cool.” In Mexico, it’s padre (yes, as in “father), while in Argentina and Peru awesome things are labeled as being chévere. Costa Ricans proclaim things to be chiva, or if they’re truly awe-worthy, chivísima. Luckily, no matter where you are, you can use the word bacan to describe that which is rad (it might be spelled as vacán, depending on who you ask, but that’s a topic for another day–pronunciation and the sentiment remains the same.) Genial is yet another option that is universally accepted.

For a totally hilarious, yet completely accurate, glimpse at the struggle to learn local linguistic preferences throughout the Spanish-speaking world, check out this awesome video on YouTube:

As the official language of more than 20 countries, it should come as no surprise that that Spanish has lots of regional variations. Just like British and American English have a number of differences, the accent and even many vocabulary items are drastically different between Mexico, Chile, and all the Spanish-speaking countries in between. Throw Spain into the mix and the variations are even more dramatic!

If you’re ready to take your knowledge of Spanish from minimal to master-level, be sure to contact us at Listen & Learn and you’ll be ready to mingle with locals around the globe in no time at all!