Learning Spanish On Your Own? Start by Picking a Country

Many commercially sold Spanish self-study courses offer two distinctly different versions of their product: 1) Peninsular Spanish (The Spanish spoken in Spain and also known as Castellano, and 2) Latin American Spanish (basically, every other Spanish speaking country lumped together in one category).

This “lumping together” can lead to students becoming frustrated and discouraged when learning Spanish because they are constantly bombarded with conflicting information. You will learn one thing from your Cuban friend and when you repeat it to your Mexican friend, he tells you you’re wrong. This pattern tends to repeat itself over and over.

The fact is that Spanish differs significantly from country to country in terms of pronunciation, word preference, word meaning, idiomatic expressions, and of course, slang. That’s why I tell everyone who is interested in learning the language to pick a country and focus on learning the Spanish spoken there.

Differences in Vocabulary

I’m not a native Spanish speaker but I do speak it fluently. I learned it on my own out of necessity while working as a deputy sheriff in Central Florida. The area where I worked had a substantial Mexican population (over 50,000 people) and many did not speak English. As a result, my Spanish is very Mexican.

My wife, Linda, is originally from Colombia and Spanish is her first language. When we first met, we would speak Spanish with each other but we often had very different words for the same thing. I would call the trunk of a car a cajuela and she would call it a baúl. She literally had a different word for everything from straw to store. I felt like I was learning a second foreign language.

Differences in Meaning

Even words that I knew and used on a regular basis at work would have a completely different meaning in Colombian Spanish. For example, to me, the word mono meant monkey but Linda uses it to mean blonde. In case you’re wondering, she uses mico for monkey.

There are numerous words that fall into this category, so you have to be careful. Some words that are common in one country can actually be considered vulgar in another. One example of this is the Spanish verb coger.

In Colombia, coger is a very common verb that is translated as “to take” or “to grab”. You would use it in sentences like: “I have to take the bus,” or “grab that.”

In many Latin American countries, including Mexico, the verb coger has a very different meaning. It is commonly used as a vulgar way to say “to have sex”.

In fact, if you look up this verb in the dictionary of the Real Academia Española (the leading authority in the Spanish language), you will find this definition along with a list of the countries where it is used that way:

31. intr. vulg. Am. Cen., Arg., Bol., Méx., Par., R. Dom., Ur. y Ven.: Realizar el acto sexual.

Several years ago, Linda and I were on vacation in Mexico and she used that word with a taxi driver. He started chuckling and the conversation turned to how differently that word is used in Mexico. The taxi driver then told us a joke about a Colombian who asks a Mexican where he can coger the bus. I’m sure you can imagine where this one is going.

I would love to post the whole joke here — because it’s pretty funny — but I think it’s a bit too risque for this site. However, if you happen to run into me at a beach bar, ask me to tell it to you.

Let’s Wrap This Up

So, what does all this mean? It means that if you’re thinking about making Mexico your home then you should get a Mexican Spanish teacher or tutor. I know that your Argentinian tutor might try to talk you out of making the change, but be strong!

If you think about it, it really makes sense. After all, if a native Spanish speaker told you that he or she wanted to learn English and move to the U.S., would you recommend that they get a good English tutor from Scotland? Of course not.

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About the Author

Q-Roo Paul
Paul Kurtzweil (Q-Roo Paul) was a deputy sheriff in Florida for 25 years before retiring at the rank of lieutenant in 2015. He and his wife moved to Mexico looking to maximize their retirement income. In 2016, they started a blog called Two Expats Mexico (qroo.us) sharing their experiences, as well as information about the logistical and legal aspects of retiring south of the border. The blog has been viewed over two million times and the articles have been republished in numerous periodicals across Mexico.

23 Comments on "Learning Spanish On Your Own? Start by Picking a Country"

  1. Linda Zaworski | February 13, 2018 at 9:21 am |

    To confuse the issue even more, there are some differences both in pronunciation and meaning with some words between mainland Mexico and the Baja, or so I have been told by a Mexican friend who has lived both places.

    • Yes, there are some regional differences too. It is similar to the U.S. where someone from New York has a different accent than someone from New Orleans.

  2. Great advice. Thanks Paul!

  3. My wife grew up on the mission field and learned Spanish in Cali Colombia and later in Guadalajara. The Mexican people don’t expect a blond headed white lady to speak their language so well. In fact, when she speaks Spanish to them they are so confused that they reply in broken English and she has to tell them to speak in Spanish. And, the Mexicans here in Texas insist she is Mexican.

  4. Really enjoying your blogs Paul, thanks for taking the time to write.

  5. Edith Henneberg | February 13, 2018 at 10:13 am |

    We were trying to decide whether or not to come yo Akumal before heading to Isla Mujeres on our next trip. Now I think we may have to just to hear the joke

  6. Marga Rootlieb | February 13, 2018 at 10:24 am |

    Hmmm yes the language, makes it even harder to choose which country…Mexico or Spain(closer to home;)) Well we still have a few years so i keep practicing Latin Spanish and reading your blog(which has tons of great info TY!!)

  7. The Spanish teacher from Scotland comment made me laugh because I found my friend from the USA trying to learn Mexican Spanish from lessons created by a Scot. I never use the word “fenomenal”, but apparently it was one of the things she learned because she says it a lot. Good fun!

  8. Jan Bachmeier | February 13, 2018 at 12:27 pm |

    so I live in deep south Texas with 90 per cent Mexican because I am only 30 minutes from the border….love it and wouldn’t leave it….the word chonga is used for monkey here, am I saying something “funny” when I watch a guy trip and palm tree and he goes up to the top like a chonga?

  9. I ordered in a restaurant last night in Spanish. And, for the first time ever, the waitress said, ‘Claro.’
    I felt very smart, until the meal came. Obviously, it not as Claro as I thought. My Mexican friends re-ordered my meal in correctly pronounced Spanish. But that was OK because, I was still basking in the ‘Claro’ Euphoria, Right or wrong, it was still my first ‘Claro.’

  10. Daniele Meilhan | February 13, 2018 at 12:57 pm |

    A Mexican realtor corrected me when I said I was interested in “Alquilar una casa”, he said “rentar” was the proper word? Sounds like Spanglish to me….

  11. Interesting article – thanks for sharing! I guess I had assumed that the differences between Spanish dialects was similar to the differences between, say, American English and British (?) English. In other words, I had expected it to be different but still manageable. Guess not!

  12. Interesting piece. I have not done a better tutorial than your lessons. I thank-you again.

  13. I’m not certain about other similarities or differences, but Argentina’s Spanish is likely closer to Castellano – they use the second person plural vosotros conjugations.

  14. Paul, so what’s your advice for learning Spanish if a person is focused on using the language primarily in Mexico? I’ve lived in Miami, Albuquerque, Manhattan, and San Diego, so I know how much the language can vary within the US. I’m gearing my language learning towards a potential move to Mexico, so I’m having to sift through all of the Spanish language programs out there. I’ve started using the material you’ve created and posted. Thanks!

    • Hi Ann,

      My advice is to look for Spanish programs and tutors that focus on Mexican Spanish in particular.

      Youtube is a great source. Here is a video focusing on Mexican Spanish:

  15. Learning Spanish from a Scotsman! Actally not that difficult. Check-out https://radiolingua.com/coffeebreakspanish/

  16. Is Cuban Spanish that much different than Mexican Spanish?

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