Having just recently taken up Spanish and connecting with lots of people from Spanish speaking countries lately (as is the case when you are in blockchain/cryptocurrency circles), I find myself not being able to tell the difference between Spanish speakers from Mexico, Colombia, Venezuela and Spain (sorry if I have missed other major Spanish speaking countries).

From my experience with English and Chinese, it is usually possible to tell where the person is from if you listen closely. However, since I am a beginner it is probably a lot harder to tell from listening to someone speak (because of the speed) or from reading something online (e.g. IM or chat).

Are there any tips from people who are more experienced or native speakers?

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    Can you expand a bit on why you want to know? Is it (a) not to offend people by calling them Cuban when they are from Uruguay (for example), (b) to be able to adjust your Spanish to their dialectal word usage and grammar, (c) to be able to tune in more quickly to their accent, (d) something else? – mdewey Aug 9 at 10:13
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    i think he's talking about the different "accents" of spanish, like british english, american english, Southern american english, northern american english. – Mike Aug 9 at 15:00
  • @Mike you are correct, and also (c) from mdewey's comment is something that would be helpful in learning the language from different Spanish speakers. – Michael Lai Aug 9 at 21:17

Identifying where exactly a Spanish speaker is from might be very tricky, but I can offer several important distinctions.

American vs. European

By European Spanish I mean the Spanish that is spoken in Spain. The standard European Spanish (the prestige dialect, the one most associated with Spain, etc.) is easily distinguishable from most varieties of American Spanish because it has the sound /θ/, which is like English th in thorn, and it contrasts with /s/. If you hear the z in zapato and the c in cerca pronounced like this, while the s in súper is pronounced differently, then the speaker is almost surely from Spain. In most of Spain, also, the /s/ often comes out with a kind of "whistle" or "rustle" (technical details aside).

Most American varieties of Spanish don't have this distinction, so the initial sounds of zapato, cerca and súper are the same: /s/. This /s/ is also pronounced differently; it sounds flatter, more like English /s/.

There are places in Spain (Andalucía mostly) where people do not distinguish /θ/ and /s/, and sometimes they only use /θ/ (but these are the minority).

Mexican vs. others

Standard Mexican Spanish has a particular rhythm. According to some it has taken after English in that it's stress-timed. This means that the time between stressed syllables tends to be the same, and the non-stressed syllables in between tend to get squeezed, their vowels shortened or dropped.

In contrast, other varieties of Spanish are syllable-timed: they have a more-or-less constant tempo, all syllables lasting about the same, and vowels are not consistently dropped or reduced.

Rioplatense vs. others

Rioplatense Spanish is spoken by many Argentinians and Uruguayans, not all around the mouth of the Río de la Plata, but along its tributaries and in the south of Argentina. It's very recognizable because its rhythm and intonation resembles that of (standard) Italian. It has a particular way of pronouncing the sounds written ll and y, with a strong friction (almost like English sh or French j), and it also employs voseo, whereby the second person singular pronoun is vos and the corresponding verb endings change. Even if you don't know these verb endings, you'll immediately notice that the stress is on the last syllable (over the ending) instead of on the verb root as usual.

Voseo is found in many other dialects but only in Rioplatense is it almost universal to the exclusion of other conjugations.

Andean Spanish

Andean Spanish is spoken by people mostly in Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia and northwestern Argentina (also parts of Chile and Colombia). One salient feature is that the rr sound (or r at the beginning of words) becames a voiced retroflex sibilant. This is difficult to explain, but you can hear it here (the singer says: «cantando al sol como la cigarra»).

Some dialects of Andean Spanish are also notable for pronouncing ll and y distinctly, which is not done in most other dialects.

  • +1 really thorough answer with nice explanations! I will keep this in mind next time I am speaking Spanish. What about writing style then? – Michael Lai Aug 10 at 22:14
  • @MichaelLai you can learn this but you are not need to speak using option (c) "to be able to tune in more quickly to their accent", People dislike those who try to imitate the way they speak (A la gente le disgusta aquellos no-nativos que tratan de imitar su manera de hablar) – alvalongo Aug 11 at 2:47
  • @alvalongo I don't think I'd be able to imitate accents :D But at least you can make an educated guess about where they might be from? – Michael Lai Aug 11 at 2:50
  • I'm not sure I'd call the Spanish s whistling (that's a word we associate in English with a peculiar characteristic of some people —especially in older folk— who literally making whistling noises when speaking. It's normally used in movies for humoristic or rustic/charming effects. I'd just say it sounds closer to English sh – guifa Aug 11 at 6:05
  • @alvalongo it can be difficult to avoid imitation. I find it quite hard to maintain the pronunciation of z and the soft c that I normally use when in countries where they pronounce them as s. – mdewey Aug 11 at 13:16

The only way to tell one accent from another is getting used to it, listening to it. If you don't get the difference is because you haven't listened enough to different types of Spanish.

Each country, and even city, can have their own accent. You can easily distinguish some of them with practice, but the more versed you are in Spanish the more accents you'll be able to notice.

  • But what is it about the accent that is different? – Michael Lai Aug 9 at 21:16
  • How letters are pronounced, the words intonation and vocalization, here's a fun video of different countries youtube.com/watch?v=2qQKtaSPxOY – Mike Aug 9 at 22:58
  • En el video el acento de Colombia, es propio de la región de Antioquia y no representa a al generalidad de la población. Es más representativo el habla de la ciudad de Bogotá. – alvalongo Aug 10 at 17:44
  • es un video humorístico @alvalongo, en méxico tenemos muchísimos acentos diferentes, el representado en el video es mas común en ciudad de méxico (el cual se distingue por tener mas acentos de los que podría contar) – Mike Aug 10 at 18:08
  • @Mike de acuerdo es humorístico y muestra el estereotipo que tenemos en la cabeza de la manera de hablar de cada país. Me imagino que en una megaciudad como Ciudad de Mexico hasta puedes distinguir de cuál zona de la ciudad es la persona. – alvalongo Aug 11 at 2:50

La pregunta es bien curiosa y bastante difícil de responder por escrito.

Nací en Colombia, por lo tanto mi lengua nativa es español.
Con el tiempo uno aprende a distinguir que cada país cuya lengua nativa es español tiene una manera y ritmo particular (que denominamos "el dejo") para pronunciar y usar el idioma, que todos los nativos de ese país usan independiente de la región/provincia/departamento de donde provengan.

La única manera de aprender a distinguir es escuchando.

Y para complicar aun más el asunto, cada región/provincia/departamento de un pais tienen además variaciones de ritmo dejo que el permite a uno, como en mi caso en Colombia, determinar de cuál región colombiana es la persona.

The question is very curious and quite difficult to answer in writing.

I was born in Colombia, therefore my native language is Spanish.

Over time one learns to distinguish that each country whose native language is Spanish has a particular way and rhythm (which we call in Spanish "el dejo") to speak y use the language, which all natives of that country use regardless of the region / province / department where they come from.

And to further complicate the matter, each region / province / department of one country also has variations in rhythm, which allows one, as in my case in Colombia, to determine from which Colombian region is the person.

The only way to learn to distinguish is by listening.

(Sorry the english, I can read but I need google to translate).

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