When people think of places in the world where people speak Spanish, South America usually comes to mind. Spanish is the primary language in large swaths of the continent, and two fifths of the world’s Spanish speakers live there.
As big as Spanish is in South America, though, it’s not a universal language there. Many South Americans don’t speak Spanish, and those who do speak a regional dialect that can be hard for non-native speakers to understand. So, how do you know where Spanish will be useful? We’ll review the countries in South America that speak Spanish, and highlight the differences in Spanish spoken by people from those countries.
Which countries in South America speak Spanish?
Nine out of the twelve sovereign nations in South America use Spanish as either their official or de facto national language. These countries are:
In total, approximately 210 million people in South America speak Spanish, which is slightly less than half of the continent’s total population of 422 million.
Differences in South American Spanish
It’s important to note that the Spanish spoken in the Americas, including South America, is different from the Spanish spoken in Europe. There are differences in pronunciation and vocabulary that can affect everyday speech. For instance, in Spain, people use the pronouns vosotros and vosotras as the informal plural form of the second person (“you”). In South America, people use the pronoun ustedes instead.
There are also differences between the Spanish spoken in different South American countries, and even between regions of the same country. One example is that, in Argentina, Paraguay, and Uruguay, people use the pronoun vos instead of the more standard tú. Here are some broad characteristics that can help you identify the Spanish spoken in each country.
Capital: Buenos Aires
Population: 45.8 million
From Patagonia to Iguazu Falls, Argentina has natural beauty in spades. To fully appreciate a visit, though, you’ll need to learn your way around the country’s dialect of expressive Spanish. It’s spoken in a musical way—similar to Italian—and speakers pronounce “ll” and “y” with an “sh” sound instead of the typical Spanish “y” sound. Appropriately, Italian is actually the second most spoken native language in Argentina because many Italians immigrated there in the 19th and 20th centuries.
Capitals: Sucre and La Paz
Population: 12.1 million
Bolivia has a staggering 37 official languages, 36 of which are indigenous. Even though Spanish is the country’s majority language, with about 75 percent of the population speaking it, many Bolivians also speak indigenous languages, which have influenced the country’s Spanish vocabulary with a variety of loanwords.
Here are some unique phrases you’ll hear in Bolivia, influenced by indigenous languages:
- quelliskiri = a person who has a hot temper
- ¡Jallalla! = Hello, everyone!
- Elay puej = Well, yes, of course
Population: 19.5 million
In Chile, Spanish speakers are known for speaking very quickly, and with an intonation that rises and falls rapidly while they speak. Because of this, even native Spanish speakers from other countries can have a hard time understanding Chilean Spanish. If you’re having difficulty keeping up with a Chilean Spanish speaker, you may need to politely ask them to speak slower by saying, Hablas lentamente, por favor.
Population: 51.5 million
Colombia is home to more Spanish speakers than any other country in South America, with over 99 percent of Colombians speaking the language. The Spanish spoken in Colombia is friendly to non-native speakers because people tend to speak slowly and clearly, though there are a number of unique slang words that Colombians frequently use. Some examples are parce (“friend”) and chévere (“good” or “cool”).
Population: 17.8 million
Ecuador has two main dialects: coastal and Andean. The coastal dialect is, as you may have guessed, spoken along the Pacific coast. The most noticeable feature of this dialect is that it pronounces an “s” at the end of words and before other consonants as an “h” instead. For instance, you would pronounce buenos días (“good day”) as buenoh díah, or me gusta (“I like it”) as me guhta.
The Andean dialect is spoken in the highlands, including the capital Quito. It’s common to hear words that begin with “r” pronounced with an “sh” sound instead. Instead of roja (“red”), you might hear someone say shoja.
Population: 6.7 million
While most people in Paraguay speak Spanish, Paraguay is the only country in the Americas where a majority of the population speaks an indigenous language. About 70 percent of Paraguayans speak both Spanish and the native language Guaraní, so even Spanish speakers there use some Guaraní words. An example is the word karape, which means “short.”
Population: 33.7 million
Similar to Ecuador, the two most common dialects of Peruvian Spanish are coastal and Andean dialects. Coastal Peruvian Spanish has a reputation for clear pronunciation. Andean Peruvian Spanish is often spoken slowly and seemingly doesn’t distinguish between the vowels “e” and “i,” as well as “o” and “u.”
Both are influenced by Quechua, the main language family of the Inca Empire. Quecha has contributed many words to Spanish, both in Peru and across South America. Some you may know, like llama and quinoa, and here are some others:
- choclo = ear of corn
- cancha = soccer field
- cura = priest
Population: 3.4 million
Uruguayan Spanish shares similarities with the Spanish spoken in Argentina, including the Italian influences. Like Argentinian Spanish, speakers in Uruguay pronounce “ll” and “y” with an “sh” sound. However, some vocabulary is different. For instance, while the Argentinian Spanish word for “bus” is colectivo, the Uruguayan word is ómnibus.
Population: 28.2 million
Venezuela, located on the north-most end of South America, is home to millions of Spanish speakers with a passion for abbreviation. Venezuelan Spanish speakers sometimes shorten words, like shortening para (“for”) to just pa. They also drop “d” sounds when they’re between vowels, so a word like helado (“ice cream”) would be pronounced e’lao.
Why do so many people in South America speak Spanish?
Spanish is spoken across South America for largely the same reasons people in the United States and Canada speak English: colonization by European countries. Christopher Columbus and other Spanish-speaking colonists brought the language to the Americas. As they conquered native populations and colonized regions on behalf of Spain, the language spread. Aiding this were Catholic missionaries who taught Spanish to indigenous groups in South America so they could talk to them and convert them.
What other languages are spoken in South America?
In addition to Spanish, there are four more commonly recognized languages spoken in South America:
Portuguese is almost as common as Spanish in South America, with 206 million speakers. This is due to the fact that Portuguese is the national language of Brazil, which has more than half of the continent’s total population. English is the third most spoken language and is the official language of Guyana. French and Dutch are the official languages of French Guiana and Suriname, respectively.
There are also hundreds of indigenous languages, some of which are recognized as official national or regional languages in certain countries. In Peru, for instance, the indigenous Quechua and Aymara languages share co-official status with Spanish.
Learn Spanish you can use across South America
There is so much diversity of language in South America, but if you want to speak to people from these countries, Rosetta Stone’s Latin American Spanish program will give you a solid base to work from. Rosetta Stone uses a unique immersion approach to language learning, and breaks lessons down into bite-sized pieces that fit into the busiest of schedules.
Start your language journey today at rosettastone.com, or download the Rosetta Stone app to learn on the go!