Why is it important to know which South American countries speak Spanish? Just ask any traveller hopping around the continent and they’ll tell you! Of the 14 countries in South America, nine of them speak Spanish as their first language and mastering a few basic phrases will massively aid you in your travels.
When planning a trip to South America, it definitely helps to know which of the countries speak Spanish and what you can expect from the language there. After all, not all Spanish is the same and the type spoken in Latin America is very different to that spoken in Europe! For example, in Latin American Spanish, ‘z’ is pronounced like an ‘s’ and not like ‘th’ as it is in Castilian Spanish.
The plus point of having to learn Spanish is that unlike travelling around Southeast Asia, where every country has its own language (or several), a bit of Spanish can help you through the majority of the most popular South American countries.
Read on for everything you need to know about South America’s Spanish speaking countries, from recommended language schools to useful phrases that all travellers should know!
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South America Spanish Speaking Countries Map
List of Spanish Speaking Countries in South America
Capital: Buenos Aires
Around 41.7 million people speak Spanish as their first language in Argentina, with another million speaking it as a second language. It is one of the most unusual types of Spanish that you will hear anywhere in Latin America and sounds very different to the Spanish spoken in Mexico or Peru for example.
Argentine Spanish, sometimes called Porteño Spanish after the locals who live in Buenos Aires, is very expressive. This is likely down to a wave of Italian immigrants who moved there in the early 20th century. This influx of Europeans led to an interesting fusion of cultures and Argentinian Spanish evolved rapidly under the Italian influence. The locals are very personable and have adopted the Italian sing-song way of speaking.
The Spanish spoken in Argentina is most easily recognisable from the ‘sh’ sound which is used to pronounce ‘ll’ and ‘y’ sounds. In the rest of the Spanish speaking world, these sounds are usually pronounced as ‘ye’.
Where to learn Spanish in Argentina: Casa Spanish Academy, Buenos Aires
Bolivia is home to a number of indigenous languages, however, the vast majority of the population speak Spanish as their first language. In total, around 75% of the population are Spanish speakers.
There are 36 official indigenous languages in Bolivia, although three of these are thought to be extinct. These traditional languages have had a large impact on Spanish and have resulted in some interesting phrases, many of which are unique to the country. In Bolivia, the word for hangover derives from the Quechua word for ‘foot’. It’s ch-aqui by the way, pronounced exactly how it is written. Might come in useful for some travellers…
Unlike in some other South American countries, English is not routinely spoken in Bolivia so it is important for travellers to have at least a basic understanding of Spanish. Bolivia is commonly touted as the cheapest country in South America which makes it a great place to do Spanish lessons. You can expect to pay around $4USD an hour for group sessions or $7USD an hour for a private teacher.
Where to learn Spanish in Bolivia: Pico Verde, La Paz
Pretty much all Chileans speak Spanish, which has led to the type of Spanish being spoken there to be christened Chilean Spanish. Unlike in Argentina for example, there are not many regional differences in dialect in the northern, central and southern parts of the country. The exception to this is in the very south of the country, along the border with Argentina.
Many people say that Chilean Spanish is most similar to the kind of Spanish spoken in Andalucia in Spain. It is the fastest spoken of all of the Spanish variations and this can make it difficult to follow at times. It is particularly difficult to learn.
If you are starting out on your Spanish speaking journey in Chile, ask the locals to slow their speech a little. They are generally a friendly bunch and will be more than happy to oblige. ¿Cachai? (That is Chilean slang for ‘you got it?’) Another word you will hear a lot is ‘huevón’, which is Chilean slang for ‘mate’ or ‘brother’. Throw this into every other sentence and you’ll go a long way to sounding like a local!
Where to learn Spanish in Chile: Coined Spanish School, Santiago
There are more Spanish speakers in Colombia than any other country in South America. A whopping 99.2% of the population speaks the language and even though there are a number of indigenous languages spoken throughout the different regions, Spanish is still used at official functions.
Colombia is believed to be one of the best countries in which to learn Spanish, both because of the clarity and speed of speech and the availability of lessons. Unlike in Castilian Spanish (the type predominantly spoken in Europe), ‘z’ is pronounced like an ‘s’ and not like ‘th’.
The locals will often use slang in Colombia and it may be words you don’t recognise. One of our favourite phrases is ‘Que chévere!’, meaning ‘How cool!’ It’s a pretty useful one to master as the locals are always keen to hear what you think about the country! For more Colombian slang, check out the video below.
Where to learn Spanish in Colombia: Blink Spanish Immersion Experience
15.9 million people speak Spanish in Ecuador and regional variations can be split into three main areas: Equatorial Coastal, the Amazon and the Andes. As the coast and the Andes are the most populous parts of the country, this type of Spanish is most common. Interestingly, some of the biggest variations in Ecuadorian Spanish depend on the social class and schooling level of the speaker, more than the region.
Some say that Ecuadorian Spanish is some of the cleanest you’ll hear because it is naturally spoken slowly. This makes Ecuador a great place to come and learn the language. As well as offering group and private lessons for travellers, immersive courses are aplenty in this country.
Where to learn Spanish in Ecuador: Montañita Spanish School
87% of the Paraguay population speak Spanish, most of them alongside the other national language Guaraní. This type of Spanish has been influenced by the Argentine provinces of Formosa and Misiones. It also borrows lexicon from the Guaraní language.
The Spanish spoken in Paraguay shows some interesting characteristics inherited from the language previously spoken in the north of Spain. This is because the majority of the earliest settlers in Paraguay were from the Basque Country.
Where to learn Spanish in Paraguay: Hispana Paraguay, Asunción
Spanish was brought to Peru by the conquistadors in 1532. Now around 80% of the population speak the language and there are four varieties spoken across the country. These are Amazonic Spanish, Andean Spanish, Peruvian Coast Spanish and Andean-Costal Spanish.
Andean Spanish is the most common of the Peruvian types and is very similar to the Spanish widely spoken in both Ecuador and Bolivia. As one of the favourite countries among backpackers, Peru has more than its fair share of Spanish schools and lessons are pretty cheap.
You can find Spanish schools anywhere there is a decent traveller scene but most tourists tend to learn in either Cusco or Lima. Survival Spanish is commonly offered here to those hoping to master the basics.
Where to learn Spanish in Peru: Peruwayna, Lima
Spanish is the official language of Uruguay and it is spoken by around 3.4 million nationals. It is also referred to as Rioplatense Spanish which takes its name from the Rio de la Plata basin and surrounding areas.
As with Argentine Spanish, European immigration has definitely shaped the language. Italian influence can be heard in food-related terminology especially.
Where to learn Spanish in Uruguay: Academia Uruguay, Montevideo
Venezuela scored lowest in terms of safety out of all the countries in South America (as ranked by the World Peace Index) so learning a bit of Spanish is bound to come in useful if you are brave enough to make the visit.
Even though Venezuela is home to around 40 different languages, Spanish is the most widely spoken. It was first introduced by the Spanish colonists, most of whom came from the Basque Country, Galicia, Andalusia and the Canary Islands. The latter has had a monumental impact on modern-day Venezuelan Spanish and the accents are very hard to distinguish from each other.
One notable characteristic of Venezuelan Spanish is that they have a tendency to shorten words, for example, ‘para’ (for) becomes ‘pa’. They also often drop the ‘d’ sound when it is in between vowels. For example, helado (ice cream) would be said ‘eˈlao’.
Where to learn Spanish in Venezuela: IPSA, Caracas
History of the Spanish Language
Spanish was first brought to the Americas by Christopher Columbus in 1492. After this, it was the Catholic church that really pushed Spanish into the mainstream. They were on a mission to convert as many locals to Catholicism as possible and therefore, they needed them to learn Spanish.
Castilian Spanish began to be taught in schools but the church was unable to eradicate the influence of the indigenous languages spoken widely across the continent. These ancient languages went on to influence Spanish and as such, many modern day Latin American Spanish variations are an amalgamation of new and old.
Spanish in South America further evolved as those from other areas of Spain headed to the continent. Those from Andalusia were particularly important in shaping the pronunciation of Latin American Spanish to change it from Castilian Spanish.
Nowadays, we know that the types of Spanish spoken across South America vary hugely by country and region. It can even be impacted by wealth or social status. However, all of these variants come under the umbrella of Latin American Spanish.
21 Spanish Phrases Travellers Should Know!
- Hello: Hola
- Goodbye: Adiós
- Thank you: Gracias
- I don’t understand: No entiendo
- I speak a little Spanish: Hablo un poco de español
- Do you speak English?: ¿Habla inglès?
- I am English: Soy inglés/a
- Excuse me: Disculpa
- Yes: Sí
- No: No
- Can I have a menu please?: ¿Me da la carta, por favor?
- Can I have the bill please?: ¿Me da la cuenta, por favor?
- Two beers please: Dos cervezas por favor
- How much does it cost?: ¿Cuánto cuesta?
- Cheers: Salud
- Do you have a bed in a dorm?: ¿ Tienes una cama en un dormitorio?
- What time is the bus/train?: ¿A qué hora sale el bus/el tren?
- Today: Hoy
- Tomorrow: Mañana
- Where is the market?: ¿Dónde está el mercado?
- That is my backpack: Esa es mi mochila
How many countries in South America speak Spanish?
Nine of the countries in South America speak Spanish.
How many people speak Spanish in South America?
210 million people speak Spanish in South America.
Do you need to learn Spanish to travel South America?
Although you don’t strictly need to learn Spanish to backpack South America, there is no doubt that you will get far more out of your trip if you take the time to learn some basic phrases. It can also help keep you safe too!
What is the most spoken language in the world?
English is the most spoken language in the world with 1.35 billion speakers. Spanish comes in at number four, after Mandarin Chinese and Hindi.
How many people speak Spanish in the world?
510 million people speak Spanish across the world (around 7.6% of the world’s population).
How do you say ‘South America’ in Spanish?
‘Sudamérica’ is the Spanish translation for South America. Now what are you waiting for? Get started learning the handy travel phrases listed above!
How is Castilian Spanish different from Latin American Spanish?
We’ll try to keep this as simple as possible because language is pretty complicated! Essentially, as previously mentioned, pronunciation varies between the two. They also use different forms of address and there are vocabulary variations too. For example, ‘car’ in Castilian Spanish is ‘coche’, whereas in Latin America, it is referred to as ‘carro’.