With the Rio Olympic Games, Latin America is in the spotlight once again. The region has seen mixed fortunes in recent decades and has usually been included in the “emerging markets” category by localizers. Most of the time, companies looked only at Brazilian Portuguese and a generic Latin American Spanish or even Universal Spanish to cover all the countries in one go.

However, there is a lot more to be aware of if you want to understand the linguistic landscape of the region. Below are some examples:

1. Latin American Spanish

While originally brought by the Spanish colonizers, in Latin America Spanish has adopted many words from native languages and from others such as English. Around the world, about 450 million people speak Spanish as their native language, and over 300 million of these are in Latin America. While there are many dialects spoken in the Americas, speakers of almost all can understand each other without major difficulties.

Does it mean that one form – Latin American Spanish – can safely be used to cover the whole region? Not necessarily, since differences between countries exist and the audience will always recognize that the text had not been localized for them, even if they understand the message. Often, only minor changes are required to adapt the content from one form of Spanish to another.

2. Universal Spanish

If Spanish speakers in Latin America and in Spain can understand each other, then maybe there is no need for Latin American Spanish at all? Does Neutral or Universal Spanish exist? The answer is: Yes and No. It does not exist as a living language that anybody uses in everyday communication, but it is an artificial construct created to answer a commercial need.

Simply put, it is cheaper and easier to use only one variant of Spanish, rather than customize the message for different markets and pay for it every time. The benefits are obvious, but what are the downsides?

  • Universal Spanish is more suitable for dry technical content, since volumes are usually high and there are fewer differences in technical language. On the other hand, marketing documents, such as ads, commercials, and brochures, should be localized for each market.
  • Universal Spanish will always be recognized as such and will feel dry and alien to the target audience regardless of the country. It is up to you to decide whether this is an acceptable price for the savings you make.
  • It will often not be possible to find a perfectly universal term which will work in every Spanish-speaking country. In some cases, you will need to decide between two mutually-exclusive choices. However, very rarely will it cause the message to be misunderstood.
  • Readers will be more forgiving if you are honest about your use of Universal Spanish. Include a note explaining that the choice was made to make the content as widely understood as possible.

3. Brazilian Portuguese

Did you know that Spanish is the most-widely spoken language in Latin America, but in South America Brazilian Portuguese has more speakers? Even though it’s limited to only one country, the size of Brazil’s economy and its population of over 200 million are enough to justify the language’s importance. It was brought to the continent in a similar fashion and at almost the same time as Spanish. How different is it from the Portuguese spoken in Portugal?

With eighteen times the population of Portugal, Brazil is significantly larger. Brazilian music is popular around the world and Portuguese speakers in many countries tune in to Brazilian “telenovelas” (soap operas). This may explain why European Portuguese speakers have an easier time understanding spoken Brazilian Portuguese than the other way around. It is similar to the situation that exists between the United States and Britain, with most people able to understand American English better than British English due to more frequent exposure.

Rigid colonization policies of Portugal banned the existence of institutions of higher education, local newspapers or any kind of press in the American colonies. Therefore, Brazil lacked some of the most powerful means available to slow down the changing process that languages naturally undergo. The result is that despite efforts at standardization by the Community of Portuguese Language Countries, Brazilian Portuguese is significantly different from the Portuguese spoken in Portugal and other lusophone (Portuguese-speaking) countries.

4. Other Colonial Languages

The New World was initially divided between the two European powers who first staked a claim on it: Spain and Portugal. The 1494 Treaty of Tordesillas split the entire non-European world between these two kingdoms, with a line drawn through South America. However, other European nations soon disputed its terms. England, France and the Netherlands succeeded in establishing permanent colonies in the New World in the 17th century.

While Spanish and Portuguese are the two dominant colonial languages by a long shot, other European languages are official in several countries. Dutch is the official language of Suriname; English is spoken in the Falkland Islands and is the official language of Guyana, while French is the official language of French Guiana. There are also pockets of immigrant communities speaking many other European languages, such as German, Italian or Polish.

5. Indigenous Languages

The European colonizers and their successor states had varying attitudes towards Native American languages. In many Latin American colonies, Spanish and Portuguese missionaries learned local languages and cultures in order to preach to the natives in their own tongues and relate the Christian message to their indigenous religions. However, since the European conquest the fate of the native languages has overwhelmingly been one of decline.

In some countries, there is official status for indigenous languages, and programs proclaiming bilingual education, but a lot of them mean little in practice. The reality is that indigenous languages remain underprivileged and are very rarely written. There is one exception to the threat of extinction hanging over native languages of the Americas: the Guaraní language. While spoken in parts of Brazil, Bolivia and Argentina, it is in Paraguay where it really thrives.

Indigenous languages in the Americas that make it to one million speakers or above are found in three areas:

  • Mesoamerica – home to Mayan, Nahuatl, Zapotec, Mixtec and many others.
  • Paraguay – the only Latin American country where an indigenous language – Guaraní – has a truly meaningful official status.
  • Central Andes – rugged mountainous regions are home to Aymara and Quechua.

Latin America is far from homogenous culturally or linguistically. Although Brazilian Portuguese for Brazil and a generic Latin American or Universal Spanish for the rest may have been sufficient in the past, it is time to question this assumption. While the two dominant languages will open the doors to Latin America, they will not be a point of differentiation any longer. As the region develops and there is a rising pride in national and cultural identities, now more than ever there is a rationale to pay closer attention to what the customers in each market respond to best.

The above article is based on Languages of Latin America, a white paper written by Andovar which can be downloaded free of charge.