Why the worry about accents? Some feel that a little bit of an accent may give a person a sophisticated touch. While that may be so, too much of a good thing can be a liability when people simply do not understand what we are attempting to convey. I learned English as a youngster, along with my native Spanish. I attribute my strong accent mostly from having learned English from people who had an accent.

Are there different types of Spanish? National and regional differences in vocabulary do exist, but they are minor, probably involving less than ten percent of the words used in Spanish. Nations and regions incorporate some native vocabulary into the language. For instance, seaweed is alga marina in most Spanish-speaking nations, while in Chile we use the native cochayuyo for edible seaweed. Apricots may be known by a number of different names, including albaricoque or chabacano in México and damasco in Latin America. Differences between Spanish-speaking nations are underscored when slang is used, and minimized when a more formal Spanish is utilized.

False friends. When it comes to vocabulary building, English speakers have a great advantage when learning Spanish, as so many words have a common etymology or root. These cognates make it so much easier to learn without having to completely start from zero. Sometimes we encounter faux amis (or, false friends), that is, words that sound the same, come from a common etymology, but over time have come to take on different meanings. (In contrast, false cognates are words that sound alike but never had a common root.)A young woman, after some coaxing, was prodded by her boss to say a few words in Spanish to a group of colleagues. “Estoy muy embarazada,” she began. And turning to point to her supervisor, added with a smile, “¡Y toda la culpa es de él!” (She thought she was saying, “I am very embarrassed and it’s his fault!” Instead, she had exclaimed, “I am very pregnant, and it’s his fault!”).

Unintended consequences. Most of these differences, or faux amis, are cause for a little comic relief, although at times they may have serious unintended consequences. They may occur between native Spanish-speaking individuals from different—or even the same—nation. I once thought I was asking a Mexican woman if she was sad, “¿Siente pena?” But when she was offended I realized something was wrong. The most common acceptation in México for pena is embarrassed. A better question, one that means the same in Chile and México, would have been, “¿Está triste?” It happens, then, that our false friends can play their little tricks on anyone.

Are there differences in accents? National and regional differences in accents are much more pronounced than differences in vocabulary. Four very general types of Spanish accents would include those that (1) emphasize the letter “z” as distinct from the “s” (e.g., parts of Spain); (2) have a nasal quality (e.g., Cuba, and some Central American nations); (3) accent a different part of the word (senTAte vs. SIÉNtate) and tend to use a “sh” sound (e.g., Argentina, Uruguay); and (4) non-nasal (e.g., México, Colombia, Chile), often with regional “sung” qualities. So, given a choice, it is ideal to learn Spanish from someone in the target nation that most interests you.  

Learning Spanish, or another language, then, takes commitment, but the rewards are enormous, even if your focus at first is only on learning some very basic vocabulary and polite expressions.

Gregorio Billikopf is a labor management farm advisor for the University of California. He may be reached at gebillikopf@ucdavis.edu.