Formal or informal? Differences between countries

Published on 29/05/2023

Every translation agency has to take into account the differences between countries and their respective languages when communicating. Today we will talk about some of them: the use of formal or informal language.

Generally speaking, there is a guideline that applies in the vast majority of regions: depending on the scenario in which a communication takes place, the interlocutor adapts his or her way of expressing him or herself. Several aspects are taken into account: the age of the other person, the position held, the message to be conveyed, and so on.

While it is true that this basis is maintained in many countries, there are some details that change when it comes to the use of formal or informal language, which we will go into in more detail below.

This is how formal and informal language is used in Spain

To understand the differences, we first need to know how we make use of these two types of languages in our country.

Informal language is commonly used by Spaniards in colloquial conversations, especially with friends. It is then that terms that have a certain vulgarity and even certain expressions that become part of the vocabulary.

Informal language can also be seen in conversations between Spanish family members, but this is not always the case. For example, it is usual to speak to a sibling in informal language, but depending on the child's upbringing, he/she may address his/her parents in a formal way, though the formal way would extremely rare these days. It is even rare nowadays that formal communications take place when communicating something to grandparents.

It is precisely in this sense that the education received in our country is designed to make it clear from an early age that the elderly should always be addressed as "sir” (usted), never as "guy” (tú). The same applies to people in certain professions: from a doctor to a teacher, judge or police officer.

This is in Spain, but... what happens in other countries? As a translation company, we can tell you that the use of formal and informal language is quite different in different regions.

Differences between Spanish in Spain and Latin America

European Spanish and Latino-American Spanish shared many features, but when it comes to the use of formal and informal language, there is one detail that changes and which should be described in order to avoid confusion.

In both Spain and Latin America, the word “tú” is used to address someone informally, while if the communication is going to be formal, the word “usted” is used. But what if we refer to several people in the conversation?

In European Spanish, a word can cover two or more individuals in an informal way by using the term “vosotros”, while if it is intended to be formal, it is possible to use the word “ustedes”. On the contrary, the latter is the only one used in Latin America, without distinguishing between formal and informal when referring to a minimum of two people.

Differences between Spanish and English

If there are already differences when comparing Spanish in Spain with that of Latin America, it is to be expected that with other countries where the language is completely different, the examples are much more numerous. But the fact is that the differences are not large either.

For example, a comparison between Spanish and English shows that formal language is more commonly used in English. The English use it every time they speak to someone for the first time, which is not the case in the Iberian country.

Are there differences between Spanish and other languages such as German, Italian or Portuguese?

While it is true that the word for “usted” changes completely - “lei” being the word we use when translating into Italian, “Sie” in German and “senhor/a” in Portuguese - the situations in which formal and informal language is used are practically identical.

Virginia Pacheco's picture
Virginia Pacheco

Blog writer and Community Manager interested in multiculturality and linguistic diversity. From her native Venuzuela, she has travelled and lived for many years in France, Germany, Cameroon and Spain, passing on her passion for writing and her intercultural experiences.

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