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Latin American Spanish and Mexican Spanish: where and when to use them

Clients often ask us about how they should localize for the Latin American markets. Apart from Brazil, Spanish is obviously the dominant language in this region. But which form of Spanish should they use and where?

It’s an important question because, out of 480 million native Spanish speakers worldwide, around 360 million of them live in Latin America. 

Many people think the answer is straightforward: Latin American Spanish, of course. Unfortunately, it’s not quite that simple.

There is a common misconception at work here. People often believe it’s the same as selecting between UK and US English. There is a simple choice between European Spanish and Latin American Spanish, right?

Not quite. 

Linguistically speaking, there is no such thing as Latin American Spanish. Outside of Spain, there are 20 countries in Latin America that have Spanish as their official language. Each of them has its own differences in vocabulary, pronunciation and sometimes even grammatical structures.

Of course, localizing into 20 country-specific versions of Spanish for the Latin American market is beyond the budget of most clients. Especially when many of these countries have relatively small populations.

So that’s why a language that doesn’t really belong to any country exists: Latin American Spanish. Basically, it’s a “neutral” Spanish that has been created by translators to be understood by people across the 20 Spanish-speaking countries in Latin America.

It takes out the phrases and terminology that are very specific to individual countries and uses more commonly understood vocabulary, idioms and structures instead. As its intention is to engage with the largest number of people possible, it is often based more on the Spanish spoken in more populous countries such as Argentina, Colombia and Mexico. 

That means there are no specific rules for Latin American Spanish, no dictionaries and no official reference guides. So how do you know what the correct version to use is?

The simple answer is: experience. Using a localization provider with a strong track record in translating into Latin American Spanish (or LatAm Spanish as it is sometimes referred to) is definitely an advantage. Any professional provider will have its own detailed style guidelines and termbases for LatAm Spanish so that all its translations are consistent. 

All of the above brings us to another question our clients sometimes ask: should I use Mexican Spanish instead of Latin American Spanish when I localize in Mexico?

This is a common question because Mexico, with more than 120 million inhabitants, is by far the most populous Spanish-speaking country in Latin America. (As a comparison, second-placed Colombia has only 46 million inhabitants.)

So brands looking to make a market entry in Latin American often prioritise Mexico. As with other Latin American countries, it has its own distinct form of Spanish that has developed over centuries. Of course, if budget permits, we would always recommend clients to localize directly into Mexican Spanish.

However, each case is different. If a client wishes to enter the market in Mexico and other Latin American countries using the same localized content, LatAm Spanish may be the best option. It’s a question of weighing up the benefits of country-specific cultural adaptation against the cost-benefits of localizing for a much broader potential audience.

Timings, content type, target audiences and product/service offering are all important considerations here as well. 

Luckily, it’s not a decision you have to make all on your own. If you’ve got any questions about localizing for the Latin American market, we’d love to hear from you. Drop us a line at lifestyle@thisisalpha.com.