Patagonia and other adventure travel destinations

South American languages: Know your lapicera from your lápiz pasta

If you’re planning a trip to South America, you may be dusting off your Spanish dictionary or downloading Duolingo in preparation for your adventure. However, there’s much more to South American languages than you might think. For a start, not everybody speaks Spanish, and secondly, not all Spanish is the same! This short guide will outline what you need to know about the different languages of South America, and the little idiosyncrasies of the continent’s numerous Spanish dialects.

South American languages: It’s not all Spanish

There are actually two main South American languages: Spanish and Portuguese. In fact, Portuguese is the most spoken by a narrow margin – however, this is because Brazil is very populous. Otherwise, the vast majority of South American nations, including Argentina and Chile, use Spanish. There are also several countries whose official languages aren’t either – just to keep you on your toes. These are Dutch in Suriname; English in Guyana; and (no prizes for guessing this one) French, in French Guiana.

However, the distribution of European languages in South America is due to colonialism. Before Europeans arrived on the continent, there was a huge number of indigenous languages, which are still spoken today. The most widely used is Quechua, which is spoken in Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, Argentina, Chile and Colombia. Another example is Guarani, which is spoken in Argentina, Bolivia and Paraguay.

However, nestled in Argentine Patagonia, there is a more curious legacy of European colonialism. In the land along the Chubut River, there is a cluster of towns where Welsh is spoken. These settlements were founded in 1865 by Michael D. Jones, a Welsh preacher, who wanted to begin a “little Wales beyond Wales” away from the influence of English language and culture.

Spanish in South America and Spanish in Spain

south american languages

Despite the amazing diversity of South American languages, Spanish is the one that you’re most likely to come across. However, there are some important differences between Spanish in Latin America and Castilian, the official Spanish of Spain. But don’t panic! With a few basic rules, it’s easy to get by.

Modes of Address

If you’re familiar with Spanish, you’ll know that there’s an informal and formal way of addressing people. On top of that, there are more different words depending on how many people there are. If you’re addressing one person, you’re likely to use tú or usted, depending on how well you know them. If there are several people, you’ll use either vosotros or ustedes.

Perhaps the most important thing to note is that vosotros isn’t used at all in South American languages (except occasionally in Argentina). Generally, South Americans will always use ustedes when addressing a group. Furthermore, there’s a much greater tendency for politeness in South American dialects – therefore, if in doubt, use usted to avoid appearing over-familiar.


Like English, there are inevitably words which vary from country to country. For instance, a pen is a bolígrafo in Spain, lápiz pasta in Chile, and a lapicera in Argentina. A few useful more ones to know are: the Castillian for a car, coche, is auto in Chile and Argentina; mobile phone, or móvil, changes to celular; apartment, or pisos, is departamentos; and ordenador, computer, changes to computudora.

One very important difference

Overall, these quirks are nothing to be worried about. Generally speaking, most people can get by with their own variations on vocabulary. There are, of course, exceptions – but there’s one that perhaps warrants it’s own discussion…

In Castilian, it’s perfectly normal to use the verb coger – meaning to catch, grab, or take – when referring to transport. For example, “Voy a coger el autobus” – I’m going to catch the bus. However, if you use this phrase in Latin America, you may get a different reaction, ranging from laughter or surprise to downright embarrassment.

This is because in South American languages, coger, means to fornicate, or more accurately, its rude four-letter counterpart. In Latin America, use “voy a tomar el autobus” – I’m going to take the bus – which should keep you out of trouble!

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