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What Type of Spanish Should I Learn?

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    If you have just started learning Spanish, or have been studying for some time, you may still be wondering what is the best type of Spanish to learn.

    Spanish is a diverse language spoken in countries from Europe to South America and the Caribbean.  Some people argue that Spanish is Spanish, and it doesn’t matter what type of Spanish you learn.

    I respectfully disagree.

    When learning a language, you are not just learning about grammar and new words. Language is just one component of culture.

    To learn a language, you must learn about the culture of the people that speak the language.

    The diversity of the Spanish-speaking population makes the language just as diverse, and having a basic understanding of these cultural influences is almost as important as mastering complex grammar concepts.

    What is a Type of Spanish

    When I refer to a type of Spanish, I’m not just referring to dialects.   While there are several regional differences in the Spanish language, selecting a type of Spanish is a more targeted concept.

    These are the two most important characteristics to consider in order to identify a type of Spanish:

    1) Country/Region

    spanish spelling rules
    Map of Spanish speaking countries

    Each Spanish-speaking country and region has unique words, vocabulary, culture, and history that influence the language spoken.

    Almost every Spanish-speaking country (including Spain) has speakers of other languages.  I’m not referring to foreigners, but natives of those countries that speak other indigenous languages that have mixed in with the Spanish spoken in those places.

    This is why there are wildly different and unrelated words for some things between different countries and regions (see my passion fruit example below).

    Not being aware of this, even as a beginner, is a huge mistake in my opinion.  I would have saved myself (and others) so much confusion had I understood this early on.

    2) Context

    The next factor is the context in which the language is used.  This is, the environment, circumstances, or conditions surrounding your use of the language.

    If you are learning Spanish for work, then you may need to focus on Spanish for a particular profession. If you want to communicate with extended family and friends, you will need to learn Spanish in a more informal or conversational style.

    Putting it All Together

    To clearly define what type of Spanish you want to learn, you must consider both characteristics together.

    For example, if you elect to learn Business Spanish, it’s still important to identify the countries you will be working in or with.  For Mexican Spanish, you must still pay attention to the context.  Do you have friends from Mexico, or are you trying to get a job in a hotel in Riviera Maya?

    The answers to these questions will dictate where to focus your study.

    Here are some examples of types of Spanish:

    As you can see, these are more specific and narrowly defined than what you may be used to.

    Depending on what type of Spanish you are learning, it may be more or less difficult to find resources.  I will provide more details on how to select study materials later in this article.

    This still may seem a bit tedious to you, and you may still be in the “Spanish is Spanish” camp.

    But before you get ready to randomly dig into your next Duolingo lesson, consider the following reasons selecting a type of Spanish can save you time and confusion.


    Why You Should Pick a Type of Spanish to Learn

    1) You Will Understand Native Speakers Better

    It is true that if you learn the fundamentals of Spanish you will be able to get by in most places.

    Having a general understanding of how the language is used, and having a grasp of a well-rounded set of vocabulary will get you pretty far.

    But, there is one big caveat.

    You have to be at an intermediate or advanced Spanish level for this to be true.

    Even when you reach the intermediate level, listening comprehension may be a challenging skill to master.  Differences in speech patterns, vocabulary, and accents may still throw you off at this level.

    Even native Spanish speakers have trouble understanding Spanish spoken in different countries.  (For fun, check out this quiz from El Pais and see how many accents you recognize.)

    As a beginner, understanding regular conversational-speed Spanish spoken by native speakers will almost certainly be a challenge.

    Think about how much easier it would be to improve your listening comprehension if you focused on one type of Spanish to learn.

    Using English as an example….would you want to learn English from an Australian if you planned to move to the United States?

    If you did, you would be shocked when you arrived in the US to find out that the vocabulary is much different, and you’d have to get used to a completely different accent and flow of speech.

    I was recently having a discussion with a friend who learned English as a second language.  Her native language is Greek, but she learned British English in school.  When she moved to America with a friend from Great Britain (a native English speaker!), she explained that it took them both over a year to be comfortable having a conversation with a US English speaker.

    I was puzzled.  I asked how was this possible.

    She told me that things are just so different here in the United States, that it’s almost like an entirely different language.  And because she didn’t have much conversational practice, even learning English since grade school, it was hard for her to understand spoken American English.

    So ask yourself, do you have an additional year to waste before you can have a Spanish conversation because you didn’t pick a type of Spanish to learn?

    2) You Will Avoid Confusing Yourself and Others

    Let’s stay you start learning Spanish without picking a type of Spanish to learn.

    You talk to different tutors and Spanish-speaking friends, diligently noting down new vocabulary.

    You don’t talk much about where they are from, and if you do you assume it’s not important.  I mean, Spanish is Spanish, right?

    You simply ask for meanings of words that are new to you.

    After a little time passes, you feel comfortable having a conversation.  Armed with all that you learned, you strike up a conversation at a friend’s house.

    spanish spelling rules
    Check out this quiz to see how many Spanish accents you recognize.

    If you blindly learn without paying any attention to the type of Spanish you are being exposed to, you may end up sounding like this:

    “¡Qué onda mae! No me gusta esta bebida.  ¿Qué es esa vaina?  Vos podés traerme un vaso de sumo de china?”

    (Wow, dude! I don’t like this drink. What is that crap?  Can you bring me a glass of orange juice?)

    You’ll sound like an international traveler or a very confused person.  Chances are at least one of the words or phrases you use will sound foreign to whoever you are talking to.

    Here is a breakdown of the origin of each of the phrases in this example:

    • ¡Qué onda! (wow, guau): – Mexico
    • Mae (guy, ese tipo): Costa Rica
    • Vaina (crap, thing, cosa): Dominican Republic, Venezuela
    • Vos podes (“can you”, voseo verb conjugation of “Tu puedes”) : Argentina, parts of Central America
    • Sumo (juice, jugo): Spain
    • China (orange, naranja): Puerto Rico

    Still doesn’t sound weird to you?  In English, it would be like saying…

    “Look mate, I don’t want pop from the bodega, get me a half and half and candyfloss instead.  It’s hella hot out here, eh?

    If any of these terms sound foreign to you even in English, here is a breakdown:

    • Mate (guy, buddy, dude): Australia
    • Pop (soda, soft drink): Midwest USA
    • Bodega (corner store): New York City (USA)
    • Candyfloss (cotton candy): United Kingdom
    • Half and Half (iced tea and lemonade): Baltimore, Maryland (USA)
    • Hella (really, very): California (USA)
    • Eh? (Don’t you think? Right?): Canada

    In your native language, you know what words don’t fit because you are intimately familiar with the language.  You will have the confidence to ask about the words you don’t know, and not think it’s because you have a deficiency in your language skills.

    In a foreign language, however, without awareness of what you are learning, from who, and from where, it’s easy to lose confidence when people don’t understand you.

    It’s also important to understand, that when talking to a native Spanish speaker they may not even be aware that something they shared with you is specific to where they are from.  Unless they have traveled to other Spanish-speaking countries or have friends from those places and a particular word or phrase has come up in their cross-cultural interactions, they may not know that there is a different way to say a word.

    For example, I am a native English speaker but I have never traveled to the United Kingdom (bucket list goal!).  If you ask me where does the ambulance drop you off at the hospital, I would say the “emergency room.”  That’s the only name I’ve known for it.  If I hadn’t just looked it up for this article :-), I wouldn’t know that in the UK it’s called a casualty.

    So you could fumble around and figure these things out when someone looks at you perplexed, or you could be intentional about the type of Spanish you are learning.

    Characteristics of a Type of Spanish

    By now you may have noticed that each type of Spanish has certain features that distinguish from so-called neutral Spanish:

    1) Accent/Flow of Speech

    Different types of Spanish have different cadences—they all sound a little different.  Think about the difference between hearing a British, American, or Australian speak.  They are all native English speakers but the flow of speech and accents are very different.

    Also, the pace of speech in a conversation between friends is much different from how Spanish is spoken in a boardroom.  It is also very different from the way Spanish is spoken in the evening news or telanovelas.

    2) Idiomatic Phrases and Colloquial Expressions

    It’s a common misconception that colloquial expressions are mainly informal and sometimes just “slang” that you wouldn’t speak as an “educated” person.

    The fact of the matter is that in our day-to-day speech, we use expressions all the time (see “fact of the matter” earlier in this sentence).

    They are so pervasive that we often don’t realize we are using them.  And they vary by country and context.

    3) Unique Vocabulary

    Depending on what type of Spanish you learn, words for certain things will be different.

    This isn’t just limited to nouns, it also applies to some verbs and adjectives.   This makes choosing a type of Spanish important even when learning new vocabulary words.

    When looking up a word in the dictionary, you may be given several definitions and you will have to know which one to choose. This is super important because sometimes, the same word can have a completely different meaning in a different country or context.

    If you use a good dictionary like Word Reference or the Real Academia Española, the countries or regions will also be listed so you will know where and how words are used.

    If you know what type of Spanish you are learning, you will know which definitions to disregard and which ones to commit to memory.

    I always tell the story about my favorite fruit: passion fruit.

    I discovered its deliciousness on the island of Puerto Rico.  I first encountered it in an ice cream shop as the flavor “parcha.”

    Several months later I visited the Dominican Republic and ordered a “parcha” smoothie from the pool bar at my hotel.  The bartender looked at me puzzled, and asked if I wanted “chinola.”  He showed me the juice container with a picture of passion fruit.

    Who would think that the word for a simple fruit would be completely different on two islands so close to each other?

    In preparing for my trip to Costa Rica, I had learned my lesson.  I looked up the word before my visit there and was surprised to find that my favorite fruit had yet another name: “maracuyá.”  When I arrived at a café in Costa Rica, I knew exactly what to look for on the smoothie menu :-).

    This is just one example.  The consequences of being unaware of regional differences in Spanish can be as mild as getting the wrong drink order or as severe as insulting someone unintentionally.

    4) Grammar Usage

    As illustrated in the above example that uses “vos podés,” even grammar is not “neutral Spanish.”

    Many Spanish learners know that “vosotros” (you all) is primarily used in Spain.  So if you are learning Spanish in Latin America, you may decide to remove this verb conjugation from your study and save yourself a lot of time.

    “Voseo” is another verb conjugation of the informal second person (“you” or “tú”).  It’s used mainly in Argentina but can also be found in some parts of Central America.  Not planning to take tango lessons in Argentina? Then chances are you can skip learning about voseo.

    In Spain, the past participle (ex. “ha venido” / “he has come”) is used more commonly than the past preterite (ex. “vino” / “he came”) to express actions that occurred in the past.  This feature of Castillian Spanish is peculiar to native Spanish speakers from Latin America and it takes some time to get used to.

    The Bottom Line

    From listening comprehension to speaking and grammar, choosing which type of Spanish to learn is critical to efficient and effective mastery of the language.

    So How Do I Pick a Type of Spanish to Learn?

    I think by now you realize you need to be specific about your learning goals, and decide what type of Spanish you should learn.

    Think about asking yourself some of these questions to get started:

    • Who will you be speaking to (family members, friends, clients, coworkers)?
    • Where are most of the Spanish speakers in your community from?
    • Where are your Spanish-speaking friends from?
    • What is the next Spanish-speaking country you would like to visit?
    • Are you learning Spanish for your profession? If so, what is your line of work?
    • What types of subjects will you be most likely to talk about?
    • What topics interest you the most or are you the most passionate about?

    This is where learning language demands that you also learn about the people that speak the language.

    It’s important to understand who you will be talking to, and who lives in your own community.

    There were 55.3 million Hispanics in the United States in 2014, comprising 17.3% of the total U.S. population.1  The Latino population in the United States is a potpourri of countries of origin.

    While Mexico dominates in terms of numbers, who you are most likely to encounter varies wildly by the part of the country you live in.

    Mexicans are not the dominant Hispanic-origin group in all metropolitan areas, despite their No. 1 status in the nation.  Among the Miami metropolitan area’s 1.5 million Hispanics, half (50.9%) are Cuban. In the New York-Northeastern New Jersey metropolitan area, 29.4% of Hispanics are of Puerto Rican origin and 19.7% are of Dominican origin.2

    There is also growth in numbers among other Spanish speakers.  Dominican, Guatemalan, Colombian, and Salvadoran populations grew by 85% – 180% in the US between the years 2000 and 2010.3

    If you live in Philadelphia, Orlando, Boston, Tampa, New York, New Jersey, Ft. Lauderdale, or Miami, there are more Hispanics from the Caribbean islands of Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, and Cuba than from Mexico.4

    Once you know what type of Spanish you are most likely to encounter in your community, and that correlates with your specific Spanish learning goals, you can now make the best use of your Spanish learning time.


    Now That I’ve Picked, What do I Do?

    Once you find out what type of Spanish you want to learn, you need to adjust your study plan and practice time accordingly.

    1) Conversation Partners and Tutors

    Pick conversation partners from the country and context you have selected.  Sure, you could chat with anyone to increase your Spanish exposure.  But to make the best use of your conversational practice, talking with speakers that speak the type of Spanish you are targeting will be immensely more useful.

    Although some brag of having a neutral accent, I find that the Spanish you understand best is based on what you’re more accustomed to hearing.

    Getting used to an accent is like getting used to a genre of music. At first, a new type of music will sound odd and novel.  You may not recognize the recurring patterns and characteristics at first.  But after you listen to 100 rock songs, for example, you know what the expect to hear and how it will sound.  You know you will hear a guitar, you are familiar with the common topics, and you can almost predict what might come next in a song.

    For example, if you are a social worker learning Spanish for your job, you will have to be conversant about job-specific topics including family and daily life.

    If you find out that the majority of your clients are from Mexico, talking to tutors and conversation partners that are exclusively from Mexico will tune your ear to the Mexican Spanish accent and also afford you the opportunity to ask cultural questions that will help you be more effective at work.

    If you are interested in several types of Spanish, just pick one to start.  Visiting Dominican Republic next summer? Maybe you could start with Dominican Spanish for travelers and move on to a different type of Spanish if your goals or interests change.  I wouldn’t recommend switching too often, so try to stick to your decision for at least a few months.

    2) Spanish Courses and Apps

    Although a general Spanish course will get you through the absolute beginner phase, you will want to find courses, websites, and apps specific to the type of Spanish you are learning.

    At minimum, most courses will allow you to select either Castilian Spanish or Latin American Spanish.  Spanish Pod 101 has an awesome regional Spanish series, which features courses for Spain, Mexico, Peru, and Costa Rica.  You can also find courses for business and medical Spanish.

    3) Audio and Video Content Selection

    You want to target your exposure to audio content (songs, movies, TV shows, podcasts, etc.) in the type of Spanish you have selected from the beginning.  Look for content from the countries you are interested in.

    Learning how people speak in real life is important.  Using a service like Yabla allows you to review clips of authentic Spanish with transcripts and featured vocabulary.  Each video includes the country of origin, so you can filter for all Spanish videos from Venezuela if that is your focus.

    You can also find music genres, artists, and favorite songs. This will increase your understanding of the culture through the expressions and topics that come up frequently in music.

    This will help your listening comprehension improve by leaps and bounds over time, and you won’t have to worry about readjusting your ear to a new accent.

    Sure, this will still happen when you encounter Spanish speakers from other countries, but you will be much more confident since you have already developed a keen awareness of the Spanish spoken by people more familiar to you.  This is the same way native speakers learn growing up.

    4) Reading Materials

    Reading newspapers from a specific country, or even reading local papers that may be published in your local Spanish-speaking community will help you learn more about the people that speak the language you are learning.

    Also, look for websites, blogs, and magazines that are about the type of Spanish you are learning.  I’ve found resources from a newsletter for mothers of young children from Argentina to a course on how to text in Spanish.

    There are so many resources available if you know what you are looking for.

    Hopefully by now you’re convinced that selecting a type of Spanish can speed up your path to fluency with intentionality and focus.

    So what type of Spanish will you be learning?  Let me know in the comments below.



    1. Statistical Portrait of Hispanics in the United States by Renee Stepler and Anna Brown, April 19, 2016: http://www.pewhispanic.org/2016/04/19/statistical-portrait-of-hispanics-in-the-united-states-key-charts
    2. Metropolitan Area Diversity by Mark Hugo Lopez and Daniel Dockterman, May 26, 2011: http://www.pewhispanic.org/2011/05/26/ii-metropolitan-area-diversity
    3. U.S. Hispanic Country of Origin Counts for Nation, Top 30 Metropolitan Areas by Mark Hugo Lopez and Daniel Dockterman, May 26, 2011: http://www.pewhispanic.org/2011/05/26/us-hispanic-country-of-origin-counts-for-nation-top-30-metropolitan-areas
    4. Hispanic Country-of-Origin Groups, by Metropolitan Statistical Area, by Mark Hugo Lopez and Daniel Dockterman: http://www.pewhispanic.org/2011/05/26/appendix-5

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