A Comparison of Spanish-Language Variants

written by A. L. Hart Havens on November 1, 2021

Latin America is unquestionably the preferred destination of libertarian-minded American and Canadian citizens seeking to escape their home countries’ increasingly detrimental economic and social policies.

Naturally, among the primary concerns are determining the extent to which learning Spanish is worthwhile and identifying the locations in Latin America where Spanish is spoken in a clear and understandable manner with the least amount of regional slang.

These are certainly legitimate considerations for any language learner seeking to practice and master Spanish in an immersion environment, particularly as there are considerable differences among the variants of Spanish spoken across Latin America.

This essay provides a brief overview of the Spanish variants spoken in the 19 predominantly Spanish-speaking countries in the Western Hemisphere before ranking the countries from best to worst as locations for an American or Canadian citizen wishing to acquire fluency in the Spanish language in the most efficient manner possible.

Spanish as a Sensible Choice for Mobile Libertarians

The Spanish language has approximately 500 million native speakers worldwide with an additional 100 million proficient speakers of Spanish as a second language. Spanish undoubtedly qualifies as a world language in light of its status as one of six official UN languages (alongside English, French, Russian, (Mandarin) Chinese, and Arabic) and its widespread popularity among schoolchildren and university students throughout the world.

Spanish is the primary language of 20 different countries, 18 of which are located in Latin America. And although many of the Spanish-speaking countries have small populations and territories, it should be emphasized that the number of national jurisdictions in which a particular language is spoken is far more important than the countries’ land area or total number of native speakers.

For example, if an individual’s preferred Spanish-speaking country were to unexpectedly introduce authoritarian policies, he would have numerous other options to choose from in which interpersonal communication with locals would be enabled from the very outset. By contrast, someone who made an effort to learn Japanese would simply be out of luck from a linguistic perspective if the government of Japan were to suddenly begin pursuing highly objectionable policies.

Furthermore, while it is clear that no language is easy to learn, Spanish is regarded to be one of the least difficult for native English speakers due to its much simpler grammar and pronunciation, more familiar vocabulary, and use of the Latin alphabet.

The Defense Language Institute (DLI), a US government agency that provides language instruction to the US military, designates Spanish as a Category 1 language, the lowest of four categories on its language-learning difficulty scale. To provide some context, the FSI also places French and Portuguese in Category 1, while assigning German and Indonesian to Category 2, Russian and Turkish to Category 3, and Chinese and Arabic to Category 4.

The Foreign Service Institute (FSI), which provides high-level training to US diplomats and foreign-affairs officials, applies a five-category scale that also places Spanish among the easiest languages for native English speakers to learn. The two organizations’ full language-difficulty scales can be found with a simple internet search.

The next section contains a very basic overview of the 19 Latin American national variants of Spanish, which are examined within the scope of four geographical subregions – the Caribbean, North and Central America, the Northern Andes, and the Southern Cone. Puerto Rico is treated as a country for the purposes of this article.

The analysis excludes the predominantly Spanish-speaking countries in other world regions like Spain and the tiny western African nation of Equatorial Guinea as well as countries in which Spanish is a firmly established minority language like Brazil, Belize, and the United States.

The Caribbean

The Caribbean is simply not a great region to choose to pursue the acquisition and mastery of the Spanish language.

For instance, Cubans are often described as talking a mile a minute with a hot potato in their mouths. In light of this, Cuban Spanish features a very weak pronunciation of consonants that makes the vernacular fairly difficult for the untrained ear to understand. This problem is only amplified by Cuba’s relative political and geographical isolation.

Dominican and Puerto Rican Spanish are spoken at a similarly rapid pace, marking a challenging linguistic attribute that is enabled by the frequent omission of sounds and the shortening of words, in particular by way of aspirating S sounds at ends of words. Another issue for listeners to contend with in the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico is the arbitrary interchanging of L and R sounds. Puerto Rican Spanish is known for its frequent usage of English loanwords.

North and Central America

As the most populous Spanish-speaking country by a clear margin, Mexico projects its dominant cultural presence throughout the Latin American region. Mexico is similar to the United States in this regard, as standard American English is generally better understood throughout the English-speaking world than is any other English variant.

Other Latin Americans have a certain degree of familiarity with the Mexican accent, vocabulary, and idioms due to the country’s leading role in the Spanish-language mass media industry, as Mexico City has established itself as the premiere Latin American venue for TV voiceovers and the dubbing of Hollywood movies. And despite its fair share of regionalisms, Mexican Spanish is spoken at a slower pace than the Spanish of most other Latin American countries.

With regard to Central America, Guatemalans in particular are known for their slow and clear style of speaking and the use of relatively little regional slang, while Panamanians stand out as speaking quickly and placing less emphasis on enunciation. CH sounds are pronounced as SH in Panamanian Spanish, which also uses numerous English loanwords pronounced with a Spanish accent.

Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and El Salvador each have their own separate quirks but are viewed to be generally comprehensible to other Spanish speakers. Interestingly, the R sound in Costa Rican Spanish is not spoken as a rolling R like in most Latin American countries, but instead approximates the pronunciation of the letter R in American English.

Salvadorians have a habit of pronouncing the letter M as an N sound and the letters C and Z as an S sound, while Hondurans and Nicaraguans pronounce the letter N at the ends of words as an NG sound.

It is notable that all Spanish-speaking countries in North and Central America other than El Salvador have both a Caribbean and a Pacific coast. The Spanish spoken on the Caribbean sides of these countries tends to more closely resemble the aforementioned Caribbean dialects and thus presents a greater challenge with regard to comprehension.

The Northern Andes

Colombian Spanish, particularly the Spanish spoken in and around the capital city of Bogotá, is often referred to as the purest and most neutral Latin American Spanish variant due to the clear enunciation and relatively slow pace of speaking. However, other regions of the country such as the Caribbean coastline deviate significantly from this standard.

Despite Venezuela’s location on the South American mainland, the dialect of Spanish spoken in the country exhibits many similarities to the Caribbean Spanish variants, which is not surprising given that the capital city of Caracas is located on the Caribbean coast. Additionally, the evolution of Venezuelan Spanish was significantly influenced by the languages of indigenous tribes, African slaves, and Italian and Portuguese immigrants.

Ecuadorian, Peruvian, and Bolivian Spanish score fairly well in terms of comprehensibility, although each variant is influenced to a small degree by indigenous Incan languages like Quechuan. Peruvians stand out for their pronunciation, as they generally do not omit sounds at the ends of words and tend to enunciate vowels both clearly and slowly.

Bolivians are known for replacing the word ending ITO with INGO and the ending OTE with ANGO as well as swallowing the D sound in IDO and ADO word endings. Ecuadorian Spanish often omits the S sound at the end of many words and features a prevalence of indigenous Kichwa loanwords and idioms.

The Southern Cone

The dialects spoken in the southern cone countries – Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, Paraguay – come close to qualifying as languages which are separate from Spanish. However, in spite of this stark deviation from any reasonable definition of what constitutes standard Latin American Spanish, there is surprisingly little similarity among the four southern cone variants.

Argentina and Uruguay are the two that do in fact exhibit a large degree of linguistic similarity. Both countries speak what is known as River Plate Spanish (Español Rioplatense), which refers to the Spanish spoken around the Río de la Plata basin region stretching across much of the two countries. River Plate Spanish features numerous quirks, including pronunciation and verb conjugation rules unfamiliar to native Spanish speakers from other regions.

And due to the massive influx of Italian immigrants in the late 1800s and early 1900s, the Spanish spoken in both Argentina and Uruguay has been heavily influenced by Italian vocabulary and the sing-song melody of the Italian language. Uruguayan Spanish has also absorbed some attributes of Brazilian Portuguese.

Chileans are often described as the fastest speakers of Spanish, a feat that is achieved by omitting sounds and stringing separate words together by way of contrived contractions. Combined with strange verb conjugations and the use of much vocabulary particular only to Chile, the Chilean vernacular undoubtedly ranks among the most challenging variants for students of Spanish.

The Paraguayan dialect also falls well short of qualifying as broadly comprehensible Spanish, as it is characterized by a heavy usage of loanwords and grammatical features from the indigenous Guaraní language, which is widely spoken throughout the country. This comes in addition to influences from River Plate Spanish resulting from the country’s proximity to the Rioplatense region.

Ranking the National Variants

While it would be easy to assert that all dialects are special in their own way and therefore equal (as many academics self-righteously profess), Liberated Services has decided to be bold and rank the Spanish-speaking Latin American countries from best (1) to worst (19) as locations for mobile Spanish-language learners with the flexibility of relocating within the region as needed.

In other words, which country’s Spanish will allow for the greatest degree of comprehension across the entire Latin American region? For Latin American countries with significant sub-variants, preference is given to the Spanish spoken by literate people in the capital city region.

The primary factors considered are clarity of speech, enunciation, speed of talking, accent, use of regional slang and indigenous or foreign loanwords, irregular grammar and conjugation rules, and the degree of exposure to and familiarity with the variant throughout the Latin American region. As such, it focuses solely on language and does not take into account the ease of obtaining a residency permit or citizenship or other factors such as the cost of living, crime, taxes, coronavirus restrictions, the weather, etc.

The list below is the product of independent research, discussions with experienced travelers and expats, and a survey of 20 professors of Spanish in the United States and Canada. Now, there is obviously an element of subjectivity involved in such an endeavor, and it should be emphasized that opinions among academic experts on this topic can vary considerably.

So without further ado, and without wishing to ruffle any feathers or hurt any of our readers’ national pride, here’s the list already. No ties, too-close-to-calls, or other copouts, of course.

1. Mexico                    8. Honduras                15. Dominican Republic

2. Colombia                9. El Salvador             16. Argentina

3. Guatemala               10. Nicaragua              17. Uruguay

4. Peru                         11. Panama                 18. Paraguay

5. Ecuador                   12. Venezuela             19. Chile

6. Bolivia                    13. Puerto Rico

7. Costa Rica               14. Cuba