Though there are many great divisions in the world -- the Continental Divide, Cubs vs. White Sox, the unbridgeable gap between people who say “soda” and those that say “pop”-- perhaps one of the biggest trans-Atlantic variations is the one between the Spanish spoken in Spain and the version prevalent throughout Latin America.
The Atlantic Ocean functions as a major buffer zone, enforcing the dramatic split between “Spain Spanish” and the variation of the language spoken throughout the Americas.
Though not as extreme as the gulf between the Portuguese spoken in Brazil and in Portugal, European and Latin American Spanish are quite different animals -- different enough that learning the language in one place means you’ll need some adjustment once you cross to the other side of the pond.
If you're trying to figure out where to learn Spanish abroad, below are some questions to help you figure out if you should learn Spanish in Spain or Latin America.
Snapshot of Spanish in Spain vs. Latin America
Okay, we're about to make some broad, very general statements here, but just to give you an idea of what to expect learning Spanish in Spain versus Latin America, below is a quick snapshot of some of the points we'll go over in this article:Choose Spain if you... Choose Latin America if you... Want to use Spanish in the EU Want to use Spanish in North America Have a higher command of Spanish; or are used to Spain Spanish. Are at any level of their Spanish learning! Some countries are easier than others for beginners. Want a cosmopolitan nightlife and tapas -- though, there are amazing outdoor activities as well. Want to get off the beaten path or explore the outdoors -- though, there are cities with great nightlife and cuisine as well! Are on a bit of a budget. Are on a super-tight budget -- however, there are areas suited to fit any level of comfort or spending. Want to learn Spanish at its roots. Have interest in volunteering alongside their studies.
Is Spain Spanish and Latin American Spanish Really that Different?
Yes. There is enormous variety between the accents, dialects, and vocabulary sets of Spanish spoken in Spain, usually just called español verus Latin America, often referred to as castellano. To make things even more complicated, there are even further distinctions within Latin America, between socioeconomic classes, and within countries.
Overall, grammar throughout Spanish is fairly consistent (and mercifully much less complicated than English grammar). The only major difference comes from personal pronouns and related verb conjugations -- with vosotros (y'all) being predominantly used in Spain, and ustedes more common in Latin America. Further, Spanish speakers in Argentina, Uruguay, parts of eastern Bolivia, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica will often use "vos" instead of using the common “tú” for second person.
As with any other language, accents are one of the biggest differentiators between the languages spoken in different countries. The main way to identify someone from Spain almost immediately is by the famous Castilian accent, in which the letters Z (before all vowels) and C (before E and I) are pronounced with a “th” sound – meaning the word “zapato” actually sounds like “thapato.” Of course, not everyone in Spain has this accent, especially in some of the more independent regions.
The difference between accents throughout Latin America could be the topic of a whole additional article, as there's enormous diversity from the Rio Grande to Tierra del Fuego -- though one of the easiest ways to distinguish between the major regions is to listen to how the speaker pronounces the Y or LL sound.
Vocabulary as well varies widely from country to country -- which makes our first question the most important:
What Do You Want to Use Your Spanish For?
Since vocabulary and accent vary so much between Spain and Latin America, and within Latin America, where you go to learn Spanish depends quite a bit on what you want to do with the language.
If you’re just hoping to brush up on your culinary vocabulary to apply for a job in a tapas restaurant, you’re better off studying Spanish in Spain, since that will help you the most. If you volunteer at a school where half of the parents come from the Dominican Republic, or want to gain the language skills you need to do medical translating for a predominantly Mexican population, you’re far better off learning the Spanish specific to that group, ideally in that country.
Any Spanish is better than nothing, of course, but learning the closest version to the accent used by the people you’ll be interacting with is guaranteed to make your life (and their lives) easier.
Where Are You From?
If your goals are less specific, and you just generally want to learn Spanish conversationally, take into consideration where you're from and the opportunities you'll have to speak Spanish once you're back home.
Residents of the EU, for example, may be better off sticking with the European version, while those in the United States would be best served by learning Spanish more similar to that spoken in Mexico or Central America, since those are the speakers they're most likely to interact with at home.
What's Your Level of Fluency?
It's generally accepted that the Southern Cone (Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay) and Caribbean countries have some of the most challenging accents for Spanish learners -- especially when they're talking a mile a minute. Spain Spanish can also be difficult for newbie learners, though if you've had your foundation in Spain Spanish, it could make sense to continue with this route and learn Spanish in Spain.
If you're an absolute beginner or only know a little bit of Spanish, you'll want an accent that's easier to understand without needing to say "más despacio, por favor" (slower please) every 30 seconds. For you, you're best off learning Spanish in central Colombia, Ecuador, Costa Rica, and Peru.
For Spanish learners with a higher command of the language, or with very specific goals in mind for learning Spanish, your options are much broader, and ease of understanding said country's version of Spanish might not be a deciding factor for where you ultimately learn Spanish.
For more in-depth details on the different types of Spanish you could learn throughout Latin America, below is a break down of accents and styles by region:
Mexican Spanish is so distinctive that it is essentially its own dialect, though it also includes a number of internal variations: the Yucatán Peninsula has its own unique Spanish, while speakers in southern Mexico sound more like Central Americans and those in the north and the United States speak what’s familiarly known as Tex-Mex.
Mexican Spanish incorporates a large number of indigenous words, giving it several unique sounds, while the overall preservation of the letter S at the end of words differentiates Mexican speakers from their Central American and Caribbean neighbors. Depending on your goals, this could or could not be right for you.
Caribbean is spoken very quickly and characterized by the tendency to drop certain letters or syllables, particularly the letters S and D at the ends of words -- so that “helado” becomes “hela’o” and “escuelas” sounds like “ehcuela.” This accent is predominant in Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Venezuela, Panama, and Colombia’s Caribbean coast, and can be difficult for beginners.
Central American Spanish
Central American Spanish is fairly standard and not significantly different from South American Spanish, at least in terms of pronunciation. One distinctive feature is that the letter S at the end of a syllable is often pronounced like H. This castellano is spoken throughout Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua – Panama falls into the Caribbean category and Mexican Spanish is its own category. It's a great option for beginners and intermediate learners who want a more "universal" Spanish.
South American Spanish
South American Spanish is essentially a false construct, as the geography and history of the continent have helped create a number of wildly different versions of the language. Each country has its own particular style of speaking and internal accents.
Central and southern Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia speak a fairly similar style of Andean Spanish, with a significant incorporation of Quechua, Aymara, and other indigenous languages, especially in Peru and Bolivia.
Both Chile and Argentina are extremely distinctive for their accents and speaking style (Argentina being surprisingly similar to Spain Spanish), while Paraguay falls somewhere between the two, with Uruguay adopting a version very similar to Argentina.
What Else Do You Want to Do While Abroad?
Deciding where to learn Spanish isn't all about picking the easiest to learn accent or setting yourself up to communicate better with Spanish speakers at home -- you likely have some other interests that influence where you go:
- Spanish literature - do you want to learn more about Spanish literature? Consider Spain, Colombia (the birthplace of magical realism), Chile, or Mexico.
- Film - want to better understand telanovelas? Try Mexico or Argentina. More interested in classical films? Spain has a rich cinematic history.
- Volunteering - do you want to volunteer while your learning Spanish abroad? Consider going to Latin America, where volunteering projects are more numerous and varied.
- Food - if you prefer to spend your free time eating, Spain is a no brainer -- though Argentina and Mexico are also great destinations for food lovers.
- Adventure travel - again, both Spain and Latin America are great destinations for adventure travel -- from rock climbing, skiing, and hiking in Spain to horseback riding, trekking, or fly fishing in Patagonia.
What's Your Budget?
Regardless of if you choose to learn Spanish in Spain or Latin America, you're bound to find a city / country within each that matches your budget.
Spain, for example, is incredibly affordable compared to most other Western European countries -- with a monthly cost of living as low as $750 in smaller cities (like Bilbao). Even in Barcelona or Madrid, you can get by on $1,000 per month, plus the cost of your Spanish courses. Better yet, supplement your courses with free intercambios, where you meet up and chat for a bit in English then in Spanish, to help "exchange" languages.
Similarly, Latin America as a whole tends to be an affordable destination, but cost of living can vary drastically from place to place, and even within countries. For example, cost of living in Buenos Aires and Costa Rica will be pretty similar to that in a mid-sized American city, like Cleveland. In contrast, Nicaragua and rural parts of Peru will have an incredibly low cost of living.
Again, the cost of classes themselves will vary from country to country, city to city, and school to school. For more complete information, browse our Spanish Language School listings, but if you're just looking for a brief idea, below are some examples of how much Spanish courses in several popular cities will cost:
- Intercultura in Samara Beach, Costa Rica costs $295 per week.
- Maximo Nivel's immersion courses in Cusco, Peru cost from $70 - $265 per week (depending on if you want a simple group course or a group / private course combo).
- Tia Tula in Salamanca, Spain costs $326 - $663 per week.
- La Montanga in Bariloche, Argentina costs $210 per week.
- Don Quijote in Quito, Ecuador costs $20 per class (so, $100 per week if you took five classes per week).
One of the biggest price factors will be flights. While a flight between any major city in California and Mexico / Central America will likely hover in the $300 - $500 RT range, a flight to Spain will be $700+. Live in New York? Then prices could be a toss up. London? Well, you know the whole Ryanair deal won't get you to Chile...
When Do You Want to Go?Country Best time to visit Spain Spring and fall; May and October are best. Colombia, French Guiana, Guyana, Surinam, and Venezuela December to April are best; November and May are great shoulder months. Central America Great year-round, but the dry season -- from January to March -- are best. December and April are shoulder seasons. Ecuador January to May Bolivia, Peru, and Paraguay April to September Chile, Argentina, and Uruguay Varies; travel to Patagonia in December to March; the beaches in March to May / September to November.
When you're planning to learn Spanish could also influence where you end up going. Though Spain has mild winters, the best time of year to go to Spain is in the spring and fall (unless, of course, you want to go skiing).
However, our winter correlates with most of South America's summer, and Central America's tropical weather makes it more or less great to visit year round. This makes the best time of year to visit Central America is during its dry season -- generally ranging from January through March. For South America, it really depends on which part of this (huge) continent you're interested in exploring. Patagonia is great in the summer, whereas other central South America is great from April to September.
Where Will You Go?
This is part of the beauty of Spanish -- the same language can fill the verses of Pablo Neruda’s timeless poetry or the lyrics of a reggaeton song dirty enough to shock anyone’s mother. The language is a constantly living, evolving creature, and it’s a constant effort just to keep up with it -- but at least now you have an idea of where to start.Photo Credits: Rachel Stuckey, Madi Burgess, Jessie Beck, and Emily Kellner.