Cracking the Mexican Spanish Dialect

From its distinctive (and delicious) cuisine, its expansive beaches, and its rich artistic and literary tradition, Mexico has certainly made its mark on the English-speaking world. And with a population upwards of 100 million, it’s easily the most populous Spanish-speaking country in the world. Due to its vast geographical size and population, it’s difficult to isolate a single, all-encompassing Mexican dialect. Still, nearly all regional variations of the Spanish that is spoken in Mexico share some common grammatical and vocabulary features. If you want to learn distinctive traits of Mexican grammar, as well as which vocabulary to use (and which to avoid), read on: you’ll master the dialecto mexicano in no time.

GRAMMAR: One fewer conjugation to memorize

Spanish learners can breathe a sigh of relief: Mexican Spanish has fewer conjugations than the dialect that is spoken in Spain. Specifically, vosotros — the second-person plural pronoun which is synonymous with the English “you all” — is absent from the Mexican dialect. In its place, Mexican Spanish uses ustedes, which uses the familiar conjugations of the third-person plural pronouns ellos and ellas (“they”). The below table summarizes this difference:

English Spanish (Mexico)

Spanish (Spain)

you all/y’all/you guys ustedes vosotros
You all eat hamburgers. Comen hamburguesas. Coméis hamburguesas.
You all ate hamburgers. Comieron hamburguesas. Comisteis hamburguesas.

Another grammatical trait of Mexican Spanish is their sparse use of the present perfect verb tense (e.g., I have done something). Whereas many Spanish dialects (such as those spoken in Spain) make extensive use of the present perfect to talk about a variety of temporal relations, in Mexican Spanish, it is typically reserved for situations where it is very important to stress the ongoing nature of a particular action.

For example, instead of saying Ya he comido (“I have already eaten”), it would be more common to hear the simple past rather than the present perfect, such as Ya comí (“I already ate”). In fact, a recent study shows that, in Mexico City, the simple past is used four times more frequently than the present perfect; in contrast, in Madrid, both tenses are used almost equally.

VOCABULARY: Words to use and words to avoid

Like all Spanish dialects, Mexican Spanish uses a particular set of words to describe everyday things. The following table summarizes some of the key differences in common vocabulary between Spain and Mexico:

English

Spanish (Mexico) Spanish (Spain)
car coche carro
peach durazno melocotón
pen pluma bolígrafo
lightbulb foco bombilla
candy dulce caramelo
court (of law) corte tribunal
closet clóset ropero
monkey chango mono
cell phone celular móvil
handbag bolsa bolso
ticket boleto billete
mushroom hongo champiñón
(fruit) juice jugo

zumo

In addition to individual words, there are certain expressions that are common in Mexican Spanish, but may sound strange to those who speak other dialects. One is the use of qué tan to mean “how”, in sentences such as ¿Qué tan inteligente eres? (“How smart are you?”). Other Spanish dialects would be more likely to pose this as a simple yes-or-no question (e.g., ¿Eres inteligente? or “Are you smart?”). Here are a couple more examples:

¿Qué tan bien hablas inglés?How well do you speak English?

¿Qué tan graves son los daños?How severe are the damages?

Another thing to watch out for in Mexican Spanish is the use of the word coger, which sometimes means “to catch”, but has a multitude of vulgar uses as well. If you’re in Mexico and you’re looking for a taxi, it’s best to avoid saying that you want to coger un taxi (“catch a cab”) so as to avoid being misunderstood (or laughed at). Rather, use a synonym, such as tomar (take) or buscar (look for).

Spanish: Yo likeo Mexican Spanish

In the above vocabulary table, you may have noticed that Mexican Spanish words often more closely resemble English words (e.g., clóset for “closet”, corte for “court”) than ones from Spain do. This isn’t coincidence: Mexico shares about 2,500 kilometers (1,500 miles) of border with the United States, and as a result, there has been a heavy influence of American English on Mexican Spanish, especially in globalized urban areas and cities closer to the border.

This cultural give-and-take has resulted in hundreds of hispanicized English words being introduced into the Mexican Spanish vernacular. For instance, in many Mexican dialects, you can parquear (park) your car, rentar (rent) an apartment, likear (like) something on Facebook, or even janguear (hang out) with your friends. More traditional Spanish versions of the above examples would be estacionar (park), alquilar (rent), gustarle (like; literally “be pleased”), and pasar tiempo (spend time/hang out). If you’re in Mexico and you’re worried that your use of Spanglish will make you sound like a gringo, fear not: despite their English origins, these words are used commonly in everyday speech, even by those who speak little to no English.

Due to its enormous population and vast physical size, there are hundreds of sub-dialects within Mexico. Still, this article summarizes some of the major features that are prevalent throughout the entire country. So if you’re taking a business trip to Mexico City, you’re visiting relatives in Oaxaca, or you’re spending spring break in Cancún, study up on the differences mentioned here to blend in with the Mexican Spanish-speaking locals. And if you really want to perfect your Mexican dialect — or any Spanish dialect that you please — check out our tailor-made Spanish courses in your area.

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