Speaking Spanish in Peru

We live abroad in other countries to actively experience the cultural differences and this usually involves interacting with the local population in their language. Subtle and not so subtle differences between languages are wonderful things to explore, in Peru it’s about learning Spanish and how to speak it like a local. As a basic introduction, let’s take a look at the way Spanish is used in Peru, its slang and the subtle but important differences between Spanish and English.

A Way With Words

Spanish is an expressive language, the latinos that speak it use it expressively and passionately and Peruvians are no exception. From the waitress who calls you mi rey o reyna (my king/queen) to the random stranger who passes you on the street and asks if you’re an angel fallen from heaven, the affectionate way in which they use Spanish is significantly different from English. Being a Latin based romance language Spanish seems to allow for a level of passion, and at times exaggeration, that just doesn’t work in English. Nevertheless, in Spanish it sounds lovely and part of trying to speak like a native is expressing yourself in this affectionate way.

Slang – Long Live Jerga!

To try and pass as a real limeno or peruano, you will need to work on your street Spanish and Peruvian slang is known as jerga. Jerga is widely used and once you’ve dominated Spanish enough to be able to hold a decent conversation, you will want to incorporate these words and expressions to sound more colloquial, and above all more Peruvian. Remember that the use of the diminutive (basically adding an “ito” or “icillo” to the end of words), is very common in Peru particularly in the provinces, and although it may be criticized by traditional linguists it certainly adds an endearing quality to the language. There are plenty of websites and articles which introduce you to jerga and the basic words and expressions so here we will look at a few examples so you can sound like a local and understand them when they’re being thrown at you:

  • Chévere, bacán – basically means cool, great, a very common expression with disputed spelling even amongst Peruvians.
  • Cerveza – beer is definitely a national drink in Peru and is most commonly known as chela or it’s affectionate diminutive chelita. And be sure to ask for it bien heladita (nice and cold).
  • Dinero (money) – soles are known as lucas, and cocos are dollars.
  • Amigo – a pata can be a friend or a guy in general (the same word for an animal’s foot, go figure) and a causa is a close friend (not to be confused with the delicious mashed potato & tuna/chicken dish causa).

For a much more comprehensive list of words and phrases in jerga please see the How to Peru website.

Subtle But Important Differences

Because Spanish and English share a lot of words with Latin roots, at times it’s easy to understand Spanish words and sentences. However, there are words that appear to have the same connection but have a completely different meaning and these are known as “false friends.” Here are some common Spanish-English false friends to watch out for:

  • Embarazada – it looks like embarrassed, however it means pregnant. Embarrassed is avergonzado or roche in Peruvian jerga.
  • Nudo – it looks like nude, however it means knot. Nude is desnudo o calato (naked) in Peruvian jerga.
  • Pariente – it looks like parent, however it means relative. Parent is padre.

Learning Spanish, just like any other language, is a challenge however it’s a rewarding life-long experience which will ultimately enrich your life and open doors to new worlds and cultures.


About the author: Ellie Ryan is an Aussie expat working and living in Peru. She is the Founder of TEFL Zorritos, a TEFL training institute which trains people to become English language teachers and places them in positions in Peru and abroad. This article was originally published as part of her blog series “Expat Ellie” for the Living in Peru website.


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