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Argentine Spanish versus Spanish from Spain: Do they even speak the same language?

One of the most frustrating things about learning Spanish is that, somewhere along the line, students realize that the Spanish they hear spoken by native speakers may or may not be the same Spanish that they had been taught at their university or high school.

Say, for example, it’s your first time traveling in Latin America and you go into a green grocer’s in Buenos Aires to ask the price of a box of strawberries that you saw in the display stand.

“¿Cuánto cuestan las fresas?” you ask, proud of your linguistic skills – the complete sentence, the verb that is properly conjugated, the Spanish 101 vocabulary that you remembered at just the right moment.

But instead of smiling and answering your question, the green grocer stares at you blankly, as if you have two horns growing out of the top of your head: “¿Eh?” It’s the reaction that every foreigner learns to know and to dread.

Your problem isn’t that you have a faulty memory – in Spain they would have understood you perfectly – it’s just that you’ve stumbled across one of the many linguistic variations in Spanish. Whereas in many parts of the Spanish-speaking world “fresas” is indeed the correct word for strawberries, in Argentina they are more commonly known as “frutillas.”

Frustrating? Yes. But should it be entirely unexpected? Just think about English and how many different ways the same thing can be expressed: a truck in the US is known as a lorry in Britain, and the Americans’ bathroom is known by the Brits as a loo; an American eraser is known as a rubber in England, whereas a rubber in the US is . . . Needless to say, the potential for confusion, and even embarrassment, is hardly lacking, especially if you’re a foreign speaker who is new to the language.

It’s no different in Spanish. Languages are big, complex phenomena and the ways we express things are constantly changing. Naturally, after several hundred years of minor mutations, the Spanish spoken in Mexico is somewhat different from the Spanish spoken in Argentina, which in turn is different from the Spanish spoken in Spain.

But that’s not to say that the native speakers from these different countries can’t understand one another – because they can. The differences between their ways of speaking the language are most likely to be a source of amusement and interest than anything else, something along the lines of: “You mean you guys say ‘frutilla’? Really? Because here we say ‘fresa’.”

That’s one of the great things about studying abroad: that you can become aware of the things which make language a living creature – unpredictable and surprising – rather than an artifact from a textbook.

Neutral Spanish isn’t spoken in any Spanish speaking country or city. Becoming aware of regional differences between the varieties of the language, as well as the things which the language has in common and which tie its 400 million speakers together, is part of the fun – and the challenge – of learning the language.

About the Author: Scott Ferree is a translator and English instructor, as well as the study abroad coordinator for the Interhispanica Language School in Buenos Aires, Argentina:

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