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I'm an American re-learning Spanish (I took classes in school years ago). However, I find it very difficult to wade through the inconsistencies between dialects.

  • Don't get me wrong, I find the intricacies and nuances interesting and even at times both rewarding and useful to get to know.

However, these inconsistencies have become rather confusing and are slowing me down.

To try to save some time and distress, I'd like to focus on learning only a single dialect of Spanish.

How do I choose which dialect will be most useful to learn as an American?

  • Which dialect will be understood by the most people in the US? (Which is the most "generic")?

  • Which dialect, if spoken, carries the least connotation (e.g., is not considered pretentious or slow/uneducated by the broader Spanish-speaking community)?

Note: I get that this is fairly subjective and almost certainly varies based on where you are in the United States. But I see signs written everywhere in Spanish -- which dialect do sign makers generally use in the US?

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    You may have two questions in one (which dialect would be best for my situation / which dialect do sign makers generally use in the US). I would say to answer the latter one that it depends on the translator. I have noticed plenty of inconsistencies myself. Not every sing will be written in the same dialect. Maybe the official ones. This wiki article claims that Mexican Spanish is used as the standardized dialect of Spanish in the continental United States but I would contrast that info. – Diego Aug 7 '17 at 4:27
  • Let me give you a subjective opinion as an argentine (different dialect than spanishs and mexicans). They say mexican cartoon dubs are trying to be made to sound neutral. But even so, they are 100 times better than spanish (from Spain) cartoon dubs. Spanish from Spain dubs sound like you are a person from medieval ages. And people who speaks spanish Spain sound the same. If I were you I would try any dialect but the original one. Speaking spanish from Spain sounds similar to me to talking English from England instead of English from America – Pablo Aug 7 '17 at 12:22
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    @fedorqui I primarily want to use Spanish for communicating with random people I meet throughout the US who do not speak English very well or at all. I typically don't go more than a day or two without hearing it spoken, so I'd also like to be able to understand what's being said around me (and to potentially interact with those people). I want to learn the most "generic"/common form of Spanish so that I can do this as seamlessly /consistently as possible. I originally took ~10 yrs of Spanish in school (teachers from US, Mexico, El Salvador, and Spain), but now use Duolingo + internet searches – theforestecologist Aug 7 '17 at 15:19
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    Well done! More correct: Definitivamente intentaré preguntar en español en el futuro, pero no estoy seguro de estar preparado :) – fedorqui 'SO stop harming' Aug 8 '17 at 8:02
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    De entrada, y en este caso, yo descartaría el murciano. – danihp Aug 8 '17 at 13:15
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According to this source, Mexican Spanish (actually ten dialects of Mexican Spanish from different parts of Mexico!) is the most spoken dialect of Spanish in the United States, followed by Caribbean Spanish (Puerto Rican, Cuban, Dominican, Panamanian, Venezuelan, and some varieties of Colombian Spanish) and finally Central American Spanish. For an American, Mexican Spanish seems like a good start.

No dialect is without some sociological baggage. You cannot and should not try to cater to other people's prejudices. Being a non-native speaker, anyway, you are most likely to be "forgiven" for speaking a non-prestige dialect.

You can learn the basics of Spanish by going to classes, but you'll only learn it truly on repeated exposure to speakers, and these will be probably diverse, so you'll pick up a mixture of dialects, if you're lucky.

Grammar does not vary a lot among dialects.* You may find differences in the names of everyday items and in slang, but this will happen no matter what. Just as you know better than to use certain words in polite company and in formal occasions, you'll know when you can get away with Spanish slang and when it's more convenient to stick to formal terms.

* Verb conjugation does vary if you consider the dialects which employ voseo, but people who use vos will understand you perfectly if you use the forms. European Spanish also uses vosotros, but I assume you weren't even considering European Spanish.

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  • You do bring up a good point about vosotros, actually. I have learned it on and off again throughout the years (depending on instructor). Will a Spaniard (or other European Spanish speaker) understand and/or be offended if I fail to use vosotros conjugation? Or alternately, are American Spanish speakers (e.g., Mexican, Latin America, etc.) familiar with the vosotros form -- I would assume many would not understand what I was saying...? – theforestecologist Aug 7 '17 at 15:39
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    I'll leave the first question to the European speakers. AFAIK the main actual difference is that ustedes, which is neutral in Latin America, is formal in Spain. As for the other thing: most of us Latin American were actually forced to learn the vosotros form in school, so there should be no trouble there. It's only that using those forms will instantly mark you as someone who has learned Spanish in Spain. – pablodf76 Aug 7 '17 at 15:45
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    As someone who learned European Spanish I can say that my trips to South America never made me feel unwelcome although there was occasional mutual incomprehension and I was teased about my European accent (but in a nice way). – mdewey Aug 7 '17 at 17:13
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    When speakers from different regions get together, each speaks whichever variant they first learned to speak in terms of grammar or word order or word choices or pronunciation or intonation. Nobody attempts to "conform" to the other's style, and everyone always knows what each other is saying. There are a few classic vocabulary gotchas that elicit laughs when first misapprehended, but that's all. It's all the same language – tchrist Aug 13 '17 at 17:28
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    In Mexico, you'd refer to elders, people you don't know (and respect), and children you're scolding, with 'usted'. People you're familiar with are addressed with 'tu'. Some parents, grandparents, and older relatives, prefer being referred to with 'usted'. However, 'tu' does not have a plural form, so we defer to 'ustedes' when speaking in plural. 'Vos' and 'vosotros' are hardly ever used in Mexico, but 'nos' and 'nosotros' are common. – psosuna Oct 6 '17 at 21:16
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First, most Spanish speakers very much enjoy communicating with Spanish speakers from other countries or regions. One can enjoy the feeling of speaking slightly differently but still understanding each other. Also, finding differences in, for example, the names of foods, is fun.

It will be a little bit less confusing for the people you communicate with if you are able to pick one version, and learn that version consistently.

Which one you pick doesn't really matter. So, if you find a book at your second-hand bookstore that appeals to you (the presentation, the illustrations, the approach, the smell of the glue, whatever), then go with that. If you find a conversation partner who is from Country X, Region Y, then this (X, Y) combination would be a natural choice. If you know that you are going to do some field work next year in a particular country, then choose that country, to make your transition smoother when you arrive.

Note, I think variant would be a better term than dialect.

  • Which dialect will be understood by the most people in the US? (Which is the most "generic")?

Probably Mexico in most places, but I imagine in New York City it might be Puerto Rico or Dominican Republic.

  • Which dialect, if spoken, carries the least connotation (e.g., is not considered pretentious or slow/uneducated by the broader Spanish-speaking community)?

I don't know any versions that might be considered slow/uneducated. As for pretentious, you will only come across pas retentious if you put down others for the way they speak, or put on airs, claiming that your way of speaking is the only good way.

  • Which dialect do sign makers generally use in the US?

Many publicly available signs (e.g. in hospitals) that show phrases translated from English to Spanish are full of mistakes. That, in my opinion, is the primary unifying thread. (Remember, I said many Spanish speakers are almost too tolerant of mistakes?)

  • Will I be okay with a Spaniard if I fail to use vosotros?

Yes.

  • Will I be okay with Latinamerican Spanish speakers if I use vosotros?

Yes.

In general, in the U.S., I would recommend that you not bother learning to conjugate for vosotros. However, if it gives you some sort of aesthetic or sensory pleasure, you could use vosotros in a quirky, personal way. There are weirder characteristics or customs one could have.

Important: If you find two or three learning sources that are particularly confusing in their differences, do post specific questions on this site. General remarks such as what I tried to give you are necessarily limited in usefulness.

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  • (+1) especially for the bit about weirder characteristics and customs – mdewey Aug 11 '17 at 12:09
  • @mdewey - You mean the part about the way the book smells? – aparente001 Aug 11 '17 at 20:23
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    “Many publicly available signs (e.g. in hospitals) that show phrases translated from English to Spanish are full of mistakes. That, in my opinion, is the primary unifying thread. (Remember, I said many Spanish speakers are almost too tolerant of mistakes?)” agree 1000%. Esto me molesta bastante y hasta me hace enfurecerme jajajaja – gen-ℤ ready to perish Aug 13 '17 at 5:48
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A few pieces of advice which --I hope-- complement the other suggestions:

  • There actually exists a neutral-by-design dialect used in dubs known by names as varied as castellano/español latino, de latinoamérica, internacional or neutro. Market targeting as well as loss of specialization has led it to give room to local varieties, but it is still very well known and received in most countries. The idea is to chose words and other nuances by their understandability rather than local popularity. Most of us in Latin America grew up listening to this without even knowing. It sounds a bit foreign, yet very familiar to everyone here. Netflix offers Español Latino dubs, at least in Latin America. Book translations to Spanish tend to take care of this too, especially those from the XX century.
  • I can't source this, but marketing professionals of international brands focused in Latin America are aware of a complex graph of how well each dialect is received in different countries. There are some better received than others, but if you want to avoid inconvenience, go international.
  • The more formal the speech you learn, the less dialectal differences there will be (up to a limit, of course.) In turn, I wouldn't advise you to try to sound colloquial. It is hard not to sound foreign, (unless you are really gifted,) and it seems that foreign formality is better received in general. This is the kind of language you'll probably find on grammar books.
  • If you want to stick to a natural dialect (as opposed to artificial Latino), Mexican or Cuban should be more fit for your potential audience, as already mentioned, depending on which State you live at: e.g. you'd find a huge community of Puerto Ricans in NYC, while Spanish in FL (especially Miami) is strongly biased toward Cuban, but toward Mexican in the remainder of the Sun Belt.
  • I think Mexican varieties tend to be more available to learn in the US, but I might be proven wrong. If you choose one of these, be careful to avoid slang or less formal speech: idioms could limit your understandability.
  • Whatever you learn, I regret to tell you to avoid Argentinian and Chilean Spanish, since these are probably less useful for you, and considered outliers even by their own speakers.
  • Regarding Spanish from (most of) Spain, it is a strategic decision (and up to you.) Although Spanish originated there, differences in grammar (vosotros) and pronunciation (c, z as /θ/) make it quickly sound odd to Latinos, marking a difference. You may want to use it in your favor, (e.g. if you are into business with Europe,) or avoid it altogether.

An interesting (though not necessarily very scientific) reading: mejor & peor español en latinoamerica.

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    The more formal the speech you learn, the less dialectal differences there will be (up to a limit, of course.) In turn, I wouldn't advise you to try to sound colloquial. It is hard not to sound foreign, (unless you are really gifted,) and it seems that foreign formality is better received in general. This is an excellent point!! I'd never thought about it that way. Thanks for the answer! – theforestecologist Aug 11 '17 at 20:11
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    @theforestecologist - It's clear Rafael knows what he's talking about and I will not disagree with anything he said. But I've been in the situation of struggling to learn a language four times (once unsuccessfully, in Denmark), and I think that at this stage you should set aside Rafael's answer and come back to it at some point in the future, when you've finished working your way through your first basic grammar book, and you're comfortable conversing with some friends in Spanish. Reason: I think Step One in learning a language is to relax and let go of a bunch of inhibitions. – aparente001 Aug 11 '17 at 20:21
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    The ceceo is relatively rare in Spain, being limited to parts of Andalusia. What is mainstream there but nonexistent in Latin America is the distinction between c,z /θ/ and s. – jlliagre Aug 12 '17 at 0:54
  • @jlliagre Thanks, I'm sorry. That's what I meant. Corrected... – Rafael Aug 12 '17 at 1:14

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