By Mara Rutherford
This post is about a typical experience of non-native Spanish speakers visiting Latin America: some words they hear are different Spanish words than the ones they learned! That’s because in Latin America, there are small regional variations in vocabulary. For those of you who have a copy of one of our Spanish at Home books or follow us on Facebook, you know we include dozens of examples in our vocab sections. Here are some common word variations from a contributing writer living in Lima, Peru.
Growing up in Southern California in the 1990s, it was pretty much a given that I would study Spanish in high school. The only other option was French, which isn’t nearly as practical when you live just a couple hours away from Mexico.
Somehow, those three years of high school Spanish managed to stay with me better than almost any other subject I studied. Don’t bother asking me who our 21st president was, but I’ll happily tell you all the words to “El Chico Del Apartamento 512” (a song by popular Latina singer, Selena). When, over fifteen years after I graduated from high school, I found out my husband and I were moving to Peru, I still knew quite a bit of conversational Spanish, though my conjugation skills had suffered considerably. But compared to Russian (our last overseas post was to Yekaterinburg, Russia), I thought Spanish would be easy. At least I could pronounce the name of our street.
Almost immediately after moving to Lima, I began to realize that my “Mexican” Spanish didn’t always translate. The first time someone said ciao to me instead of adios, I thought it was a fluke. But in the seven months since we moved here, I’ve only heard one person say adios (the mother of a Peruvian friend). Other words quickly began cropping up: avocado isn’t aguacate, as I’d learned, but palta; instead of saying aquí for “here,” it’s much more common to hear acá.
Of course, it makes sense that there are regional variations in the Spanish spoken throughout Latin America, just as common English words vary by region (soda vs. pop, for example). The list is long, but here are some of the ones I’ve encountered most often:
Looking for a parking lot? In high school, I learned the word estacionamiento, so I was very confused when I kept seeing signs for the playa pointing away from the beach. Yep, here in Peru, playa means parking lot. Parqueadero is another word used in some parts of Latin America.
On a sunny day, our nanny asked me for a gorro for our son. It took me a minute to realize she was referring to a hat, which I’d always known as a sombrero.
Need to write something down? You might ask for a bolígrafo, or a pluma, or a lapicero, depending on where you are.
Everyone has heard of the three amigos, but what about amistades? This is the word my husband has encountered here in Lima for “friends.”
I constantly find myself apologizing here, whether for mispronouncing something, bumping into someone, or not understanding the woman at the checkout counter in the grocery store. I was taught the phrase lo siento, but a friend who lives in Bogotá told me that que pena (which translates to “what a shame”) is much more common where she is. Peruvians use it too, but generally not as a way of apologizing.
Cognates are the best friend of the language learner, but while refrigeradora is often used for refrigerator, nevera is another word used in Latin America.
I’ve always thought the word for swimming pool in Spanish was piscina, but a friend who currently lives in Mexico says alberca is the word in common usage there.
Fortunately, stop signs in Latin America are recognizable by the familiar red octagonal shape, because while some say pare, others say alto. Here in Lima, I often see signs that say “stop,” too!
One word I felt very confident about when I moved to Peru was car, or coche. It’s one of those Spanish words even people who don’t speak Spanish know. But here in Peru, it’s carro. The only time I’ve heard the word coche is in reference to the baby’s stroller.
For someone with a sweet tooth like me, it’s very important to be able to communicate properly about dessert. Here in Peru, the word queque is used for cake, as well as torta. Bizcocho and pastel are other words used throughout Latin America. Oddly, you might think a taller de confecciónes is a candy shop, but it’s actually a clothing store.
Now here’s a word that can really confuse you: straw. As in what you sip a drink through. There’s only one word in English. But in Latin America, there are supposedly eleven: absorbente (Cuba), bombilla (Bolivia, Chile), calimete (Dominican Republic), cañita (Peru), carrizo (Panama), pajilla (Costa Rica, Guatemala), pajita (Argentina, Spain), pitillo (Colombia, Venezuela), popote (Mexico), sorbete (Argentina, Ecuador), and sorbeto (Puerto Rico).
Fortunately, in my experience, Latin Americans are generally friendly and willing to help out a gringa. When all else fails, pantomimes and hand gestures can really help fill in the gaps. Just be sure not to give the “a-okay” sign to someone; in several Latin American countries, it’s considered rude.
Mara Rutherford is a journalist-turned-novelist inspired by her travels around the world. Along with her diplomat husband and two sons, she currently lives in Lima, Peru, where she is slowly eating her way across the country.