Listening for origin: tricks for guessing where Spanish speakers are from

When studying Spanish, many language learners don’t realise they are picking up certain pronunciations and accents. Just like between Australians, Brits, and South Africans, native Spanish-speakers can hear a specific accent as soon as you open your mouth.

As a Chilean-American who has worked with people from all over Latin America, I have been exposed to many pronunciations of Spanish. Over the years I learned to distinguish between some of them.

When I hear Spanish being spoken in the street, I play a little guessing game. I listen for clues to identify where that Spanish-speaker is originally from. Sometimes a regional slang word gives it away. Other times, standardized “television” Spanish can be hard to place.

This guessing game is a good way for Spanish language learners to learn new vocabulary and develop a sophisticated ear. 

Here are a few tricks you can use for guessing where a Spanish-speaker is from.

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Spanish Pronunciation

Native Spanish-speakers from Spain have a distinctive way of pronouncing the letter “z”. In English it sounds like the “th” in the word “maths”. The city of Zaragoza is pronounced “Tharagotha”. The island of Ibiza is pronounced “Ibitha”.

The letter “c” in Spain also gets the “Spanish lisp” treatment when it appears in the middle of a word. 

When I studied abroad in Madrid, my landlady explained to me that Spaniard pronunciation is useful to language learners because you can clearly imagine the correct spelling. She joked that it is important to know if a guy wants you to go cazar (say “cathar”) hunting with him or casar (hard s sound) get married with him. What a mix-up!

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Chilean Pronunciation

The Chilean style of Spanish derives its pronunciation from the accent of Southern Spain. That’s because the explorers that originally brought the Spanish language to Chile were from Andalucía. 

The conquistadors of Spain were sent by the Castillian Queen Isabella before Iberian unity under the Spanish Crown. They called their language Castillian and did not make the “th” noise that is common in Spain today. 

As a result, Latin Americans pronounce “s”, “c”, and “z” all the same: like a hard s. In fact, most Chileans today don’t even claim to speak español. Instead, they say they speak castellano.

There are two dead giveaways for Chilean Spanish speakers. First, Chileans se come la “s” eat the letter s in the middle of words. They pronounce it like an aspirated letter h in English, which is practically silent. Vamonoh instead of vamonos for let’s go. ¿Como ehtah? How are you?

Another noise dropped by Chilean Spanish-speakers is the –ado ending. It gets shortened to just an –ao sound. Want to say you are tired and going to bed like a Chilean? Eh-toy cansao. Me voy a dormir.

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Countries by Spanish Slang and Keywords

Sometimes the strongest hint in the guessing game comes in a single word. 

Young people from Spain call their friends “tío” and “tía” for example. In English this means “uncle” and “auntie”. Spaniards use these words as terms of endearment. It’s a bit like calling your friends “mate” or “lads”. ¿Como están tías? How are you doing ladies?

Another key word for guessing a Spaniard is “vale”. It’s used commonly to take up silence in a conversation like the English words “okay” and to solicit agreement. Vamos a reunir en la biblioteca a las tres de la tarde, ¿vale? Vale, nos vemos entonces. We will meet in the library at 3pm, okay? Okay, we’ll see each other then. 

Slang is another way to identify where a Spanish-speaker is from. Take the word for “cool” for example. It changes from country to country. Venezolanos and some Colombianos use the slang “chévere”. La película fue chévere, ¿no? That movie was cool, right?

Chilenos on the other hand use the word “bacán” to say something is cool. El carrete del viernes pasado fue bacán. The house party last Friday was cool. 

Chileans are also the only ones to use the word “po”. It’s almost untranslatable, but comes from a shortened version of “pues” which means “then”. In fact, Chileans add it to the end of any phrase. ¿Me ves regia po? Claro que sí po. Do I look fabulous [then]? Of course [then]. 

Practise your Spanish pronunciation

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