As the official language of 20 countries, it’s no surprise that Spanish is spoken by over 500 million people around the world. So if you want to learn a language that will help you open doors in all corners of the world, Spanish is one of the best ones you can master.
In fact, Spanish is so widespread that each country has adopted its unique dialects. Just like English in the United States differs from English in the United Kingdom, Spanish also varies from country to country.
Let’s explore each of the Spanish-speaking countries in Central America and dive into how their Spanish compares to Spanish spoken in South America, Spain, and beyond!
Which countries in Central America speak Spanish?
After South America, Central America is the region with the most Spanish-speaking countries. Six of the seven countries in Central America use Spanish as their official language. These countries are:
- Costa Rica
- El Salvador
Belize is the only country in Central America that doesn’t list Spanish as an official language. Although English has been given the “official language” title, more than half the population of Belize speaks Spanish fluently.
There are approximately 39 million native Spanish speakers in Central America, which is 75% of the total population. Given that, it’s safe to say that learning Spanish can help you explore any country within Central America and even go beyond borders!
Differences in Central American Spanish
Before diving into Central American Spanish, it’s important to note that Spanish spoken within Latin America, including Central America, differs from the Spanish spoken in Spain. These differences in vocabulary, pronunciation, and grammar can affect everyday speech. For instance, Spanish speakers in Spain use vosotros and vosotras, while Spanish speakers in Latin America use ustedes as the second-person plural pronoun.
Even between different countries in Central America, there are slight variations in how people speak Spanish. A corner store in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Panama is called a tienda, while in Costa Rica, Honduras, and Nicaragua, it’s called a pulpería.
Let’s take a closer look at each Spanish-speaking country in Central America.
- Capital: San Jose
- Population: 5,163,038
- Other popular spoken languages: English and indigenous languages, including Maléku, Cabécar, and Bribri
With vibrant beaches and volcanoes, Costa Rica attracts all types of adventurers from around the world. And on par with the country’s biodiversity is a language that’s just as dynamic.
Some of the most noteworthy differences in Costa Rican Spanish include:
- No rolled “r”: Costa Rican speakers do not roll the letter “r” as most speakers in other Spanish-speaking countries do. The “r” is pronounced as it is in English.
- Usted is the dominant second-person pronoun: In Costa Rica, Spanish speakers don’t use tú. Instead, Costa Ricans use usted most often and for all situations. They will also occasionally use vos for informal conversations.
Here are some common words and phrases that are unique to Costa Rican Spanish:
- tico/a = affectionate ways of referring to a Costa Rican man or woman; ticos = Costa Rican people
- pura vida = used as an answer to greetings; literally translates to “pure life”
- boca = refers to small appetizers; literally translates to “mouth”
- brete = work
- Capital: San Salvador
- Population: 6,518,499
- Other popular spoken languages: Indigenous languages, including Nahuatl
While Spanish is the de facto national language in El Salvador, it coexists with many indigenous languages, which have left their influence on Salvadoran Spanish. For instance, Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs, exists throughout the Spanish lexicon in El Salvador.
Here are a few examples of Spanish words with Nahuatl origins:
- elote = corn
- cacahuate = peanut
- mish = cat
- guacal = large bowl
Some other noteworthy features of Salvadoran Spanish are:
- Disappearing “s”: Salvadorans often replace the “s” sound with an “h” sound, or even remove the “s” sound altogether. For example, “week” is pronounced as hemana instead of semana.
- Use of vos and usted: Salvadorans typically use vos as the primary second-person singular pronoun for informal situations, but will still use tú with foreigners. Usted is used in formal situations or to show respect.
- Capital: Guatemala City
- Population: 17,109,746
- Other popular spoken languages: Indigenous languages, including Quiche
Guatemala is known for a few things, including being the birthplace of chocolate, its volcanic landscape, and its well-preserved Mayan culture. So unsurprisingly, Guatemalan Spanish is heavily influenced by the native languages of the Mayan people.
Here are a few common Spanish words that are unique to Guatemala and have Mayan origins:
- pisto = money
- chumpa = jacket
- patojo/a = child
- tuc tuc = motorcycle taxi
Guatemalan Spanish also has the following distinct characteristics:
- Use of tú, vos, and usted: In Guatemala, you have three different second-person pronouns to choose from. Vos is typically used among close friends and relatives while tú has a more formal tone reserved for strangers. Usted is also used in formal situations.
- Articles before pronouns: In Guatemala, articles are commonly placed before possessive pronouns. For example, Guatemalans would say voy a ver a un mi amigo instead of voy a ver a mi amigo (“I’m going to meet my friend”).
- Capital: Tegucigalpa
- Population: 9,450,711
- Other popular spoken languages: Indigenous languages, including Garífuna, Miskito, and Pech
Like El Salvador and Guatemala, Honduras’s culture and language are also influenced by indigenous peoples, especially the Mayans and Aztecs. As a result, Honduran Spanish shares many of the same vocabulary and characteristics as the Spanish spoken in its neighboring nations.
Some dialectal features of Honduran Spanish include:
- Disappearing “s”: Spanish speakers in Honduras often replace the “s” sound with an “h” sound, or remove the “s” completely. For example, “week” is pronounced as hemana instead of semana.
- Use of vos and usted: When speaking with close friends and family, Hondurans use vos instead of tú. And they use usted for both informal and formal situations, regardless of age or authority.
Here are a few Spanish words that you will only hear in Honduras:
- guineo = banana
- yuca = hard
- rapidito = minibus
- chamba = job
- Capital: Managua
- Population: 6,702,385
- Other popular spoken languages: English and indigenous languages, including Miskito, Sumo, and Rama
While 90 percent of the population in Nicaragua speaks Spanish, English creole is also spoken among some communities. And even though English is not popular, it still has impacted how Nicaraguans use Spanish.
Noticeable traits of Spanish in Nicaragua include:
- Pronunciation of “s”: The most noticeable difference in Nicaraguan Spanish is the pronunciation of the letter “s.” The “s” is often replaced with an “h” sound or a breathy sound. For example, “fishing” is pronounced as pehca instead of pesca.
- Use of vos and usted: When speaking with close friends and family, Nicaraguans use vos, not tú. Usted is reserved for formal situations or to show respect.
Here are a few words and phrases that are unique to Nicaraguan Spanish:
- arrecho = angry
- a pincel = by foot; pincel translates to “brush” in standard Spanish
- queque = cake; comes from the English word “cake”
- ¿kiubole? = a common greeting that’s equivalent to “what’s up?”; derived from ¿qué hubo?
- Capital: Panama City
- Population: 4,381,579
- Other popular spoken languages: English and indigenous languages, including Kuna and Guaymí
The Spanish spoken in Panama has been shaped by the country’s history with the United States and its immigrants from the Caribbean, resulting in a variation of Spanish that’s heavily influenced by English. Panamanian Spanish is even occasionally referred to as “Spanglish” due to the high volume of English-inspired vocabulary.
Here are a few examples of colloquial words that are English loanwords and have transformed into Spanish-English hybrids:
- chopear = to shop
- parquear = to park
- fren = friend
- charcot = shortcut
Besides mixing English and Spanish, other unique quirks of Panamanian Spanish are:
- Reversed order of syllables: In Panama, it’s not strange to reverse the order of syllables in words. For example, Panamanians commonly greet with ¿que sopa?, which is ¿que paso? (“what’s up?”) reversed. And if a Panamanian calls you a mopri, they’re calling you a close friend, as it’s the word primo (“cousin”) reversed.
- Addition of pronouns: In Spanish, pronouns are usually omitted when it’s clear what the subject of the sentence is. In Panama, however, it’s common to use the pronoun even when it’s not necessary. For example, a Panamanian would say ¿Cómo tú estás? instead of ¿Cómo estás? (“How are you?”).
- Shortening of certain words: Spanish speakers in Panama often shorten words, like saying pa instead of para (“for”) or refri instead of refrigerador (“fridge”).
Learn Spanish you can use across Central America
Whether you want to try volcano boarding or visit fascinating Mayan ruins, there’s no better place than Central America! And if you want to get around Central America comfortably and befriend the locals, Rosetta Stone’s Latin American Spanish program can help you build a solid foundation.
Rosetta Stone is the best language learning program for learners who want to acquire the language and put it to use in the real world faster. Our unique immersion method helps you learn Spanish effectively through everyday conversations, practical topics, and audio guidance from native speakers.
Jumpstart your language learning journey today at rosettastone.com or download the Rosetta Stone app!