Spanish vocabulary is wild. Are you ready for an embarrassing story?
When I was 20 years old, I studied abroad in Madrid, Spain. I arrived bragging to my new roommates that I spoke fluently and could help them until they learned basic Spanish vocabulary. Day 1: We sit down at a restaurant, they ask me to translate the menu, and I sheepishly announce that there are many options of “little mouths” to eat. What? Bocadillos translates literally to “little mouthfuls”, but I had no idea this meant small sandwiches.
Despite what grammar dictators at the Real Academia Española want us to believe, there are differences in the Spanish language based on geography. We’ve talked before at Lingoda how it’s important to adjust your Spanish vocabulary depending on the country. Now let’s get specific.
Learn these important Spanish words
When it comes to conjugations and common expressions, there is a short list of important words you should know. Here are the most important words in Latin American Spanish versus the most important words in Spain Spanish.
We already know that the accent from Spain is unique. Between Spain and Latin America, another difference is verb conjugation. Spaniards use the “vosotros” form for the second person plural (you all) while Latin Americans use “ustedes”. When speaking to two or more people, note the breakdown between estar “to be” for the second person plural phrase “you all are”:
Latin America: Ustedes/ellos/ellas están
Spain*: Vosotros/as estáis + ellos/ellas están
*Interesting fact: Spaniards in the Canary Islands are an exception to this rule. Native speakers from this Spanish archipelago off the coast of Morocco and Western Sahara follow the Latin American conjugation rule. Linguists believe there is a link between the Spanish spoken on the Canary Islands and the original Spanish conquistadores that invaded settlements in Latin America, which explains the phenomenon.
After grammar, it’s important to learn daily words and expressions. If you study abroad in Chile or visit Spain on vacation, you are sure to hear these common phrases.
Vale: Vale in Spain means “OK”. You ordered a sandwich, right? Right. Vale. You want to eat at the park ¿vale? Vale. You will hear this multiple times a day. Vale in Latin America on the other hand, is used when talking about prices. ¿Cuánto vale? How much does it cost (literally how much is it worth/valued)?
Concha: Concha in Spain means “shell” as in a clam or oyster shell. It’s also a common woman’s name the way you might have an Aunt Shelly. No big deal. In Latin America, concha is something very different. It refers to female genitalia and is used in a derogatory way to call people “the shell of your mother” which is quite insulting and nasty. I recommend avoiding it.
Navigating in a restaurant
Money: Eating out is universal so it’s important to know how to talk about money when the bill comes. Every country has unique slang phrases. In South America people call money lana or “wool” and plata or “silver” while in Spain they call it pasta. If you guessed that means “noodles”, you are exactly right. A Spanish waiter may ask if you want to pay a tocateja or contante y sonante which means the same as en efectivo or by cash.
Beer: My favourite subject. In Spain, ask for a caña and you will get a small (and very inexpensive!) glass of draught beer. In Latin America, ask for a cold chela and your standard beer will come in a bottle. For payments, a Spanish beer costs around 2 pavos (“turkeys” is slang for euros) while a Chilean beer will cost around 3 lucas (slang for a CLP 1000 bank note) meaning 3,000 Chilean pesos.
One last comment on the most important words to learn for a beginning Spanish learner: Por favor and gracias. In any language, “please” and “thank you” go a long way. Whether you are in Spain or Latin America, being polite is the best way to begin and end every interaction.
Do you know other important words for visiting South America or striking up a conversation in Spain?
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