As native English speakers, we can easily pick up on the differences (obvious to us, petty to ESL students) between Anglosphere countries when it comes to local accents or colloquialisms. For example, in the minds of Americans, Brits tend to drop the r at the end of a word; and vice versa, if you ask a Brit, Americans generally over-pronounce the AHRRR.
Not surprisingly, these same differences exist between countries of the Spanish-speaking world. If you’re American, it’s likely that you’ve studied Mexican Spanish in elementary or high school. However, when it comes to university study abroad programs, that’s a different story. Although Mexico is a neighbor of the US, Spain comes in at number two in the rankings for top study abroad destinations for American students. Therefore when lots of American students get off that plane in Spain, they soon realize that the Spanish they learned back at home isn’t exactly the same. Not better nor worse, but some slight differences.
In this article, we are going to explain to you some of the key differences between Mexican Spanish and Spain Spanish (also known as “Castellano” in Spanish or Castilian Spanish in English). Let’s take a look!
Let’s start with the more obvious. If you decide to study abroad in Spain, you will quickly learn which words are unique to Castilian Spanish that may not be used in Mexico. Just like the Brits say aubergine instead of eggplant, you will find that lots of vocabulary words will greatly vary from country to country. Here are some examples:
-corn: maíz in Castilian Spanish, elote in Mexican Spanish
-potato: patata in Castilian Spanish, papa in Mexican Spanish
-candy: chuches in Castilian Spanish, dulces in Mexican Spanish
-bus: autobús in Castilian Spanish, camión in Mexican Spanish
-car: coche in Castilian Spanish, carro in Mexican Spanish
-computer: ordenador in Castilian Spanish, computadora in Mexican Spanish
-cellphone: móvil in Castilian Spanish, celular in Mexican Spanish
-remote control: mando a distancia in Castilian Spanish, control remoto in Mexican Spanish
So you may or may not be wondering about the second sentence of this article. If you caught on with the strange spelling, you were already aware that in Spain the soft c and the z are pronounced like the th sound in English. That is unless you’re from Huelva or a few other towns in Andalusia that are an exception to this rule of pronunciation. In their case, they actually pronounce the c and the z like an normal s sound in English. There is even a term to describe this in Spain, which is known as seseo. In some rare cases, natives of these towns pronounce the s like a th sound, however this would be called ceceo (THeTHeo).
In Mexico, the soft c and the z are always pronounced like an s in English. So instead of pronouncing the word zapato like THapato, they say it more like SSSapato. There is really no advantage to either; however, in the Castilian Spanish, their unique pronunciation of some words can avoid confusion. For example, the verbs casar (to marry) and cazar (to hunt) would have the same exact pronunciation in Mexican Spanish. However the latter would pronounced more like caTHar in Castilian Spanish. This won’t be a problem with understanding the context of a sentence.
Vosotros vs. Ustedes
As Americans, most of us who had Spanish classes growing up have learned that ustedes is used to speak to more than one person. In Spain, ustedes is only used in formal situations or to speak to elders. Spaniards almost always use another subject, vosotros, which may sound familiar depending on where your Spanish teacher is from or learned Spanish as a second language. It is used as the second-person plural form for informal situations or when there is already familiarity between people. While ustedes uses the same verb conjugation as ellos, vosotros takes on a completely different verb ending. For -ar verbs it would use -ais and for -er/-ir verbs it would be -eis. So instead of saying “Cómo están (ustedes)?”, as in Mexican Spanish, it would be “Cómo estáis (vosotros)?” in Castilian Spanish.
One unique thing that happens in Spain, even though it isn’t technically correct grammar, is the mixing up of object pronouns. In Spain it is known as leísmo, which happens when the indirect object pronoun le is used instead of the correct direct object pronoun lo or la when they are using it to refer to people. Here’s an example:
-I didn’t see Javier last week.
-A Javier no le vi la semana pasada (uses indirect object pronoun – leísmo)
-A Javier no lo vi la semana pasada (uses direct object pronoun – Standard Spanish)
Although leísmo is accepted in Spain when referring to men, it is actually not permitted when referring to women or using the plural form. Here are some examples to help you better understand this confusing rule:
-An example for referring to women: “I didn’t see Marta yesterday.”
-A Marta no le vi la semana pasada (this would be incorrect even according to leísmo)
-A Marta no la vi la semana pasada (this is correct according to Standard Spanish)
-An example referring to multiple people: “I didn’t see Javier and Marta last week.”
-A Javier y Marta no les vi la semana pasada (incorrect – leísmo is not permitted)
-A Javier y Marta no los vi la semana pasada (correct according to Standard Spanish)
Slang / Colloquialisms
This tends to be the more fun difference between Spanish from Mexico and Spain Spanish. Whether you decide to study Spanish in Mexico or Spain, you will quickly pick up on the local slang and colloquialisms that are unique to a particular region. For example, in Spain they use the words guay and chulo to describe anything that they consider to be cool. In Madrid, they even have a verb, molar, to express that something is cool or awesome- “Este bar mola un monton!”.
In Mexico, they would use completely different words to express that something is cool. You may here the words chido or padre for example. This is just one example of slang, but you will likely encounter plenty of other unique words or expressions once you start up a conversation with the locals.
Grammar (past tenses)
The past tenses in Mexican Spanish tend to be much like the past tenses in American English. The means that the past simple and present perfect tenses are used more or less in the same fashion. For example, if an American were to tell someone what he or she did this morning, they would use the past simple and say something like “I went to the supermarket this morning” instead of saying “I have gone to the supermarket this morning”. Consequently, a native speaker of Mexican Spanish would say “Esta manana fui al supermercado”. However, in Castilian Spanish they would use the present perfect: “Esta manana he ido al supermercado”. The main difference here is that in Spaniards use the present perfect for any recently completed actions or events.
The best way to fully understand these differences and avoid mixing up the two different kinds of Spanish is to take a course abroad and get a clear explanation from a qualified teacher. There is no right or wrong, rather they are just a bit different. All these little quirks and differences that you find out along the way are what make your experience more exciting!