People who are learning a new language typically start with classes, apps, or other educational media. But anyone who has had the opportunity to go and try to use their new skills out in the wild knows that this can be a rude awakening. Especially for Anglophones, the uphill intellectual and social challenge can send us rolling back to our linguistic comfort zone.
If you are a native Spanish speaker, the topic of accents is probably one you have heard discussed a lot (and probably have some opinions about). If you are one of millions of people around the world trying to learn Spanish, and are interested in pushing yourself to the next level, the good news is that you have plenty of amazing destinations to choose from. I have had a fantastic time in places from Madrid to Patagonia, but for the purposes of this linguistics blog, I will confine myself to the question of whose Spanish is the easiest for foreigners to understand.
I should also clarify that, in spite of the (intentionally provocative) title of this piece, I of course do not ascribe a value judgment to anyone’s dialect. Some of the countries nearest to my own heart also happen to take the most creative liberties with the language. With that said, let’s start with the hardest.
Is This Another Language?: Chile, Dominican Republic, and Puerto Rico
Unfortunately for tourists, three of the most beautiful and popular destinations in Latin America are also home to notoriously difficult accents. Chile is widely regarded, including by Chileans, as the single weirdest dialect of Spanish. It is something akin to Scottish English, spoken extremely quickly with a lot of particularly unusual slang. When I did an internship at a law firm in Santiago, I kept a list on my phone of Chilean vocabulary to remember, which after two months ended up being at least ten pages long. A single word, weon (“way-OHN”), is so versatile that one can construct an entire (not too polite) sentence using only that.
Islands usually end up being linguistically unique, and the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico are no exceptions. The former, in particular, as a historically poorer country populated mainly by the descendants of African slaves who did not have the standard register pedantically drilled into them in schools, drifted from standard Castellano. Dominicans are famous for rarely pronouncing the letter S — Hola, Carlos, cómo estamos? ends up sounding something like, “Hola, Carlo, como ‘stamo?”
Puerto Rico, in spite of its proximity, is rather different. The island has a lot of fun slang, but luckily for English-speakers, a good amount of it does derive from American English. My mother is from San Juan, so this accent does come more naturally to me, but even I sometimes have an easier time in countries lower down this list.
A Mixed Bag in the Mother Country: Spain
Languages develop over time, so naturally older countries tend to be more diverse. Just as Britain is far more varied than much-larger North America, Spain is home to a wider range of dialects than all of Latin America. Indeed, to Spanish speakers the world over, their language is actually Castellano, the tongue of the central plains of Castile.
Like standard British English, the Spanish of Spain has diverged from the original article, in ways more so than some New World dialects. It is noteworthy that a large share of conquistadors came from Extremadura, whose dialect hewed relatively close to standard Castilian. Unfortunately for foreigners, this poor, dry region did not have much influence on the linguistic development of the mother country.
The most famous eccentricity of Spanish Spanish is the lisp many speakers apply to the S, which we learn the annoying way when our friends tell us about their wonderful trips to “Ibitha.” They are also pretty much the only ones who still address groups of friends as vosotros, where Latin Americans have shifted to using ustedes, traditionally the more formal form, in all cases.
Overall, I would say the difference between standard Latin American Spanish and Spain itself is a bit wider than that between American and British English. The fact that Madrid has a tricky local accent, and in Barcelona they speak (and make sure all signs are in) Catalan, does not make things any easier.
And that is to say nothing of the fact that many parts of Spain have their own languages. I have written about this complicated topic at greater length, but many of Spain’s autonomous regions jealously guard their ancestral tongues. These range from Leonese, which is basically mutually intelligible with Castilian, to Galician, which is arguably Portuguese, to Catalan, whose most zealous speakers want to secede from Spain, to Basque, which is completely unrelated to any other language spoken anywhere in the world since the Neolithic age. Some people, in Barcelona especially, can get touchy about this, but you can get around anywhere in standard Castilian.
Creativity Within Limits: Argentina, Cuba, and Mexico
Argentines glory in what most people consider the most eccentric Spanish accent. They have their own verb tense to address people informally — where everyone else says tú dices, “you say,” they say vos decís. Thanks to a massive wave of Italian immigration at the turn of the last century, Argentine Spanish took in a hearty admixture from its Romance cousin. Buenos Aires is even home to a sort of Italian-Spanish creole language called Lunfardo (see an example here), as well as some really excellent pizza.
They also buck the trend on another important distinguisher in Spanish dialects. Yeísmo refers to the subtle difference in pronunciation between the Y sound and the double-L, which is preserved in most of Spain, Colombia, and the Andes, but has been elided to the same thing elsewhere. Argentines throw the whole thing out the window and pronounce it something like an SH — thus, yo me llamo becomes “sho me shamo.”
All that said, once you get used to these eccentricities, Argentine Spanish is at least fairly clear and not too fast. In my personal experience, it took me much less time to get accustomed to Argentina than to Chile. Likewise, Cubans tend to speak quickly, but somewhat more clearly than their Caribbean neighbours.
Mexico presents an interesting case. It is a large country, home to a lot of people whose indigenous ancestors learned Spanish as a second language, a factor which tends to keep things relatively simple. In my experience, locals will pepper casual speech with a lot of local slang, but can easily switch to speaking more formally. I have recently been watching Narcos: Mexico, and have found that I have no trouble understanding scenes where the kingpins are speaking at formal meetings, but I have a harder time when they are chatting with their underlings. The good news is that Mexicans tend to be friendly people who will happily use the former register with bewildered tourists.
Mexicans also tend to draw some inspiration from American English. For example, in Mexico and other countries closer to the United States, a car is usually a carro, whereas in Argentina and Chile, it is more likely an auto. To Spaniards, it is a coche. People from anywhere will understand all three words, but it is a good example of how trade and immigration patterns influence language.
To be perfectly honest, I am not very familiar with Central America and Venezuela. However, I believe that they probably fall into this category. If anyone has more colour to add, I would be happy to hear from you.
Lo más claro: Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru
Throwing a lot of people together in one place tends to have a simplifying effect on language. In the chaos and invasions of the Middle Ages, both Old English and Latin simplified radically into the English and Romance languages we know today.
According to most Spanish speakers, native or otherwise, Colombian Spanish is the easiest to understand. This makes sense linguistically: even by Latin American standards, it is an extremely diverse country, with citizens who trace their roots to Europe, South America, Africa, or often all three. All these people living together had to communicate, and the result is a dialect that varies relatively little from the written standard version.
Peru and Ecuador, both of which were home to densely-populated civilisations before Francisco Pizarro arrived, stayed relatively standard for similar reasons. In some parts of the Andes, you will still meet a lot of people who speak native languages, and often speak Spanish with unique accents. My Ecuadorean-American friend went through his whole life thinking chuchaki was the Spanish word for “hung over,” before someone got confused and he looked it up to discover that it is actually Quechua.
An Honourable Mention: Estadounidense
I have a very hot take: if you are looking to improve your Spanish, the clearest, most standard version you will find anywhere is on Univisión in the United States. The fact that diversity and cultural interchange force languages to keep simple has been a common theme here. Where is there more of that than a country home to tens of millions of people from across the Spanish-speaking world?
The variety of dialects from Chile to Colombia to Cantabria is a beautiful thing. But in an age when information and people travel easily across the world, there is a strong centripetal force toward standardisation. Learning a new language is hard, but in an interesting way, it is getting easier.