When I was a kid, I thought that it was the same time of day everywhere Spanish was spoken. Eventually, I figured out that that’s not true, of course. And as I grew up, I learned that time was not the only difference between Mexico, where I’m from, and Spain. Even when sharing the same language, Mexican Spanish and European Spanish have little differences between them that beginners and more advanced learners should know about.
Commit the following little differences to memory, and then when you’re done, check out Babbel’s new Mexican Spanish courses.
It is strange to hear the name of your country pronounced differently than what you’re used to, but as a young learner of English, I became aware of the difference in pronunciation between the English and Spanish “x,” and things got really strange when I saw that Spaniards wrote “Méjico.” Another thing that caught my attention was the way Spaniards pronounce the “j.” American English does not have this sound, which is similar to the sound of the letter “h” in “hello” and “home,” but pronounced more strongly.
One of my first surprises was that tortilla, the cornerstone of Mexican food, meant something else in Spain. Tortilla is a word that has been exported from Spanish to many other languages. Spaniards and Mexicans use it to refer to different things, however. The Spaniards call their traditional potato omelette tortilla, while Mexicans use the same word to describe the corn flour layer used to wrap tacos.
During my first trip to Spain, I also realized that zumo is not a Japanese fighter but instead fruit juice, and jugo (as they say in Mexico) is specifically “meat juice.”
Sometimes regional variations can become misunderstandings. When I was a little kid there was this song by the Spanish band Hombres G called “Devuélveme a mi chica,” where the singer describes the guy who stole his girlfriend as a “niño pijo con jersey amarillo,” which didn’t make any sense until I realized that the word for sweater in Spain is jersey (suéter in Mexican Spanish), and has nothing to do with a sports jersey. So the guy who stole David Summers’s girlfriend wasn’t a jock, but a rich kid with a yellow sweater, most likely hanging around his shoulders.
I had heard the word piso in several contexts growing up, but never in the way Spaniards use it. In Spain, piso refers to the whole apartment, whereas in Mexico, it refers only to the floor of your departamento.
Although English speakers know “pasta” as one of the most beloved dishes in Italian cuisine, in European Spanish slang, it means “money.” In Mexico, pasta refers solely to the many varieties of Italian pasta or to pasta de dientes (toothpaste). The Mexican Spanish equivalent of pasta (as in money) is lana (wool) or varo. If you ever fancy a plate of pasta in Spain, however, you can still ask the waiter, ¿Qué tipo de pasta tiene? Remember that in language learning, context is everything!
Vale is an everyday word in Spain to express agreement (equivalents in English could be “deal” or “roger that,” depending on the context). In Mexico, sale is way more common. Mexicans also have an expression that combines them: Sale y vale (which is basically “okey dokey”).
Words matter, and grammatical structures do too. A good example of this is the difference in the presente perfecto, or the present perfect tense (He visto esa película — “I have seen that movie”). While it’s widely used in Spain, Mexicans tend to use the past simple more often. So while a Spaniard would say No he encontrado leche en el supermercado (“I haven’t found the milk in the supermarket”), a Mexican is more likely to say No encontré leche en el supermercado (I didn’t find the milk in the supermarket).
Ustedes Vs. Vosotros
Vosotros is the second person plural (“you all”) in European Spanish (e.g. Me voy con vosotros — “I’m coming with you”). In Mexico and throughout many countries in Spanish-speaking America, they use ustedes instead. I became familiar with vosotros through church, because the available translation of the Bible was in European Spanish. Given that the use of vosotros is not common in Mexico, I always thought it was some sort of Old Spanish. It wasn’t until I heard a Spaniard speaking that I realized it was still alive and kicking. And contrary to the gender-neutral ustedes used in Mexico, you have to change to vosotras when addressing a group of women.
One of my favorite features of the Spanish language is the way Europeans lisp when they pronounce the letters “c” and “z,” which is nowhere to be found in Spanish-speaking America. As an English teacher, I would always use this sound as a reference to illustrate the pronunciation of words such as “think,” “thumb” or “thunder”: pronounce it as Spaniards pronounce the letter “z” in zapato. They immediately knew the sound I was talking about.