Wait, what did the chamaco say? A quick guide to understanding Mexican Spanish
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Wait, what did the chamaco say? A quick guide to understanding Mexican Spanish

Ximena Lama-Rondon

TL;DR: Understanding Mexican Spanish requires adapting your ear to a different accent and processing a distinct vocabulary. Join us in reviewing the many quirks and turns that make Mexican Spanish unique.

Have you ever wondered why the characters of Oswaldo sound so different from those of Si fueras tú?

Understanding Mexican Spanish
What is the cute guy saying? A guide to understanding Mexican Spanish

Why Learn Mexican Spanish?

The United Mexican States are home to over 125 million people, which makes them the second most populated country in Latin America. In addition, they also have one of the best-developed movie and TV industries in the region. This has turned them into one of the most culturally-influential countries in the region.

In many ways, Mexican Spanish defines the standard for “Latin American Spanish”. Most people who grew up anywhere between El Paso and Patagonia grew up within hearing distance of Televisa – so most of the time, we can understand Mexican Spanish (or at least, its more neutral variants) to a T.

People learning Spanish as a second language, on the other hand, often learn from textbooks and audio materials produced in Spain, which can cause quite the linguistic shock at first.

How is Mexican Spanish Different?

The first thing we need to know about Mexican Spanish is that it’s still Spanish. Most of the vocabulary is the same, and it operates under the same basic rules and logic.

Colorful skulls for sale in Mexico City during Día de los Muertos.
Photo by Jeremy Lwanga / Unsplash

Plus, it is no less correct than Peninsular Spanish (or “Castilian”). This variant (just like the people who speak it) has simply been shaped by 400 years of different influences.

When we compare Mexican Spanish to Peninsular Spanish, we can spot three main sources of differences. Let’s go over them one by one, from the smallest to the largest.

Grammar usage differences

Mexican Spanish doesn’t have different grammar rules as Peninsular Spanish. However, Mexican Spanish speakers often tweak these rules a little bit, or choose to say things differently.

First, they like to use undefined articles more often. Where a peninsular speaker would say “el lapicero” or “the pen”, Mexican speakers would gravitate towards “un lapicero” or “a pen”.

Next, they also like to ask questions in the negative. Take a look at the classic invitation to come upstairs for a nightcap. Most countries would use “Would you like a cup of coffee?” (¿Gusta pasar por una taza de café?).

But in Mexico, the default invite would be “¿No gusta pasar por una tacita de café?” or “Wouldn’t you like a cup of coffee?”

Why? In a way, it’s considered more polite. But doesn’t it make the coffee sound much more tempting?

Understanding Mexican Spanish: Use of the negative
It didn't work for her, however

Finally, Mexican Spanish speakers also like to keep the past simple – that is, to use the simple past instead of the present perfect. So this side of the Atlantic, expect to hear more “I ate everything” than “I have eaten everything.”

Intonation differences

If you were to hear a group of Mexican Speakers through a thick brick wall, you probably wouldn’t be able to make out what they’re saying. However, you’d be able to tell that they’re Mexican. Meanwhile, most Mexicans will be able to tell you which part of Mexico they’re from.

Depending who you ask, there are either four of seven distinct regional accents across Mexico.

Even if you are not very good with accents, you should be able to tell apart the melodies of:

  • The “standard” Chilango accent, spoken in the capital and highlands around it
  • The clipped coastal accent
  • The northern drawl, from the regions closer to the United States
  • The nahuatl-influenced Southeastern accent

If you are really into accents, check out the following compilation of people from all 32 Mexican States saying the same phrase:

Vocabulary differences

When it comes to Mexican Spanish peculiarities, their special vocabulary takes the cake. The country is infamous for its colorful slang expressions, which most Latin Americans know thanks to Televisa. However, they also have a lot of polite, yet uniquely Mexican, vocabulary that can easily confound newcomers.

Unlike Peninsular Spanish, the Mexican variant draws from two additional influences: nahuatl (the old Aztec tongue) and English, since the United States are right there.

Mexicans tend to be much more open than Spaniards to borrowing English words, and of keeping the English pronunciation of these loanwords. You can say something like “OK”, “cool”, or “miel de maple” (maple syrup) instead of the traditional “está bien”, “genial” or “miel de arce”.

They also adapted other verbs and gave them a Spanish conjugation, like checar (or to check, which would be revisar in Peninsular Spanish).

Meanwhile, you would be hard-pressed to discuss Mexican food without a few nahuatl words, like elote, aguacate, or petaca (that is, corn, avocado, or that little bottle that you use to sneak liqueur into a formal function).

Mexican Slang 101

We couldn’t finish a blog post on Mexican Spanish without a compilation of their most popular slang terms.

  • ¡Aguas!: Literally “Waters!”, but it really means “Watch out!”
  • Wey: Just like chamaco, “dude”
  • Naco and fresa: The two sides of the Mexican Social Force. Nacos are lower-class people or habits, while Fresa is anything bougie.
  • ¡Qué padre! or ¡Qué chido!: So cool!

Does it look like we are missing something? Since our moms read this blog, we have steered clear of anything too R-rated.


We could probably write an entire encyclopedia about Mexican Spanish words and slang (and someone has)

The best way to learn how to use all these words naturally? Just spend a few hours hearing the locals speak among themselves. At Lingopie, we have hundreds of hours of content that will let you do just that.

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