Spanish is the second biggest language in the world with half a billion native speakers. It’s a great market for app developers, but grammar and vocabulary vary between countries.

Understanding the differences is essential to developing a Spanish localization strategy. Spanish speakers understand the different dialects, but the difference isn’t obvious and can alienate users.

Are you expanding to different Spanish-speaking markets? This article provides a primer for Spanish localization. Contact us if you want to talk about your options.

What’s the difference between European and South American Spanish?

Spanish is called “castellano” (Castilian) in Europe and “español” (Spanish) in Latin America. Both names are references to where the languages come from; the Spanish language originates in Castile in central Spain and went from Spain to South America.

The language evolved separately in the two regions and countries within them. European Spanish was influenced by surrounding countries, which introduced new vocabulary. Regional accents develop into dialects. Today the accent, grammar and vocabulary are different.

Latin American Spanish tends to use simpler construction, including simple verb tenses, and be more informal. 

Spanish localization for different South American countries

The Latin Spanish dialect doesn’t exist. It’s a compromise between the different versions of Spanish spoken in Latin America. This saves time but means no users get a translation that meets their needs.

The difference between vocabulary and grammar in South American countries makes a strong argument for completing translations for specific countries.

The biggest Spanish speaking populations in South America are in Mexico, Columbia and Argentina. Start with the markets that are most important to your business. 

It’s not just the accents; the vocabulary is different

Different Spanish speaking countries have different names for things. For example, a cell phone is called “móvil” in Spain and “celular” in Latin America. A computer is “ordenador” in European Spanish and “computadora” in Latin American speaking countries.

App translations need to take that into account. Rely on a single translation and you risk confusing users.

Understanding the formal and informal forms

Formal and informal pronouns help convey the relationship the speaker has with someone. This is sometimes called the T–V distinction because it’s based on the Latin pronouns “tu” and “vos”.

Spanish speakers use the informal form more commonly than other Latin-based languages like French.

The Spanish translation of “you” is “tú” in informal situations and “usted” in formal ones. You use the informal pronoun when talking to someone of a similar age and position. “Usted” is a more respectful and polite way of talking to someone.

Brands’ use of the formal or informal forms depends on their tone of voice; what relationship does your company have with its customers? This is an important consideration for Spanish localization.

Apps and software targeting young people might use the informal form but the formal form is more common when talking to business professionals. Use the formal form if you’re in doubt.

There are some differences between the way Spanish dialects use formal and informal pronouns too. Argentinians rarely use “tú”, for example. 

Writing translation-friendly copy

Writing simple copy makes your app easier to use, improving users’ experiences. It helps with translation too.

Avoiding slang, being careful with colloquialisms, using simpler tenses and writing shorter sentences make the localization process easier.

Understand your primary market

Localizing your app for a specific country improves the quality of the localization and your customers’ experience. Start with the markets that are most important to you.

American software companies often start with Mexican Spanish or Puerto Rican Spanish to meet domestic demand, for example.

Once you’ve completed Spanish localization for one country, you can consider the opportunities in related markets.