‘Lento’ vs ‘despacio’

In short – ‘Lento’ and ‘despacio’ are synonyms of ‘slow’ and ‘slowly’ in Spanish. ‘Lento’ is an adjective, while ‘despacio’ is an adverb, but there ARE situations in which the two can be used interchangeably.

Confused as to whether to plump for ‘lento’ or ‘despacio’?

Well, stick around and you’ll find out exactly how to use both words like a true native speaker!

Let’s dive right into it!

Lento‘ vs ‘despacio

There is actually a very important difference between these two words!

‘Lento’ is an adjective (a word used to modify nouns), like the English word ‘slow’, whereas ‘despacio’ is an adverb (a word used to modify verbs, adjectives, and other adverbs), like ‘slowly’ in English.

La escena de acción iba en cámara lenta.

The action scene was in slow motion.

Esta* tortuga es muy lenta.

This turtle is really slow.

Llegamos tarde porque el tránsito avanzaba muy despacio.

We’re late because the traffic was moving very slowly.

*Erika’s top tip – note that ‘esta’ doesn’t need an accent in this context because it’s what we call a “demonstrative adjective”.

Make sure to check out our article on when ‘estatakes an accent, as this can be a bit of a proverbial stumbling block for learners of Spanish.

Easy peasy, right?

Well, not so fast!

The adverbial form of ‘lento’ is ‘lentamente’, but Spanish speakers frequently use ‘lento’ as an adverb too … and that’s where it gets tricky, because you’ll likely encounter many instances in which people use all three words (i.e., ‘lento’, ‘lentamente’ and ‘despacio’) interchangeably!

For example –

La tortuga camina lento.

La tortuga camina lentamente.

La tortuga camina despacio.

The turtle walks slowly.

And are there any differences between the two when used as adverbs?

Well, ‘lento’ is often used to mean ‘at a slow pace’ and tends to have a negative connotation, in the sense that doing something “slowly” isn´t a good thing!

For example –

¡Manejas muy lento! A este ritmo, nunca vamos a llegar.

You drive too slowly! At this rate, we’ll never get there.

¡Échale ganas! Estás trabajando demasiado lento.

Put your back into it! You’re working too slowly.

And, well, ‘despacio’ is often used more “positively”.

You know that popular song, ‘Despacito’? It talks about – well, flirting, but also – taking your time, dancing slowly, enjoying the moment.

It’s a good example of ‘despacio’ having positive associations.

This is by no means an official rule, but it sure helps to provide context about their everyday use.

Also, one of the definitions of ‘despacio’ in the Royal Academy of the Spanish Language is ‘to do something carefully’.

As such, ‘despacio’ is often used when we’d prefer that the person in question slow down and do something more carefully.

¡Despacio! Vas a provocar un accidente si manejas así.

Slow down! You’ll cause an accident if you drive like that.

Expressions with ‘lento’ / ‘despacio

Lento y despacio

If you’re taking a class – on any subject – with a Spanish-speaker teacher, and they ask you to do something ‘lento y despacio’, whatever you do, don´t panic!

It might sound redundant, but they’re just using ‘lento’ to mean ‘slow’ and ‘despacio’ as ‘carefully’.

Una madre a su hijo

Lleva este vaso de agua, pero camina lento y despacio; no se te vaya a caer.

A mother to her son

Take this glass of water, but walk slowly and carefully, so that you don’t drop it.

Despacio, que llevo prisa

This popular Spanish phrase – attributed to historical leaders, such as Emperor Augustus and Napoleon Bonaparte – translates to ‘more haste; less speed’ in English, and it reminds us that it’s best to do important things cautiously so that we minimize the risks of mishaps or setbacks.

Un mesero novato corre llevando una charola

Capitán de meseros – ¡Despacio, que llevamos prisa! ¡Vas a ocasionar un accidente!

A novice waiter sprints while carrying a tray

Headwaiter – More haste, less speed! You’ll cause an accident!

Lento pero seguro

A very similar and also popular phrase is ‘lento pero seguro’.

This one actually has an English equivalent: ‘slowly but surely’.

Papá – ¿Cómo vas con la tarea?

Hija – Voy lenta, pero segura.

Dad – How’s the homework coming?

Daughter – I’m doing it slowly but surely.

Más lento que…

There are many jokes or puns in Spanish that either start or end with ‘más lento que’ (‘slower than’ in English) followed by something that’s known for its sluggishness.

Tu tía era más lenta para manejar que un caracol con asma.

Your aunt was a slower driver than a snail with asthma.

Obviously snails don’t actually have asthma, but this is a popular complement to ‘más lento que’ in Spanish.

Be sure to check out our rib-achingly funny article on Mexican jokes if you fancy a good chuckle!

Final thoughts

Hopefully I’ve cleared up any lingering doubts you may have had about ‘despacio’ and ‘lento’.

Just remember that ‘lento’ is (normally!) an adjective and ‘despacio’ an adverb and you’ll be good to go!

Oh, and don´t be surprised if you catch ‘lento’ being used as an adverb, it’s pretty darn common!

¡Hasta pronto!

Rupert's lived in Mexico for nearly a decade and has been working as a Spanish teacher for even longer (over 10 years now, wow!). He specializes in simple (yet effective) explanations and is a veritable grammar-whizz.

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