Are Spanish Speaking Countries less English Friendly?


Just over a week ago, my wife and I went to Santiago, Chile for a quick two night vacation run. She needed the miles and there was award space, so I figured I’d tag along. I’ll be posting the trip report in a few days or so, but I thought I’d share a perspective from my time there, correlated with my experience in Panama, and perhaps to a lesser extent, Spain.


I’ve traveled now to 36 countries. Of them, including more languages than I could count on two hands, including–but not limited to–Mandarin, Cantonese, Japanese, Thai, Korean, English, German, Indian, Arabic, French, Spanish, Portuguese, and probably others, like Australian (kidding!). For most languages, I can speak enough to be polite, you know, things like “hello” “thank-you” sometimes more. French, I can speak more, but during my one weekend in Paris, I found that Parisians would prefer to speak English than let me stammer through in French–which I appreciated. Spanish, is probably my strongest language, which is much like saying that running is my best sport–and using mileage running as the justification!

Are Spanish Speaking Countries Less English Friendly?

I’m not sure if I’m noticing this because of my supposed strength in Spanish, and as a result expect more from myself, or if fewer Spanish speakers that I encounter in various Spanish speaking countries speak English. I’m not sure if that’s even the half of it. Suffice it to say, in my limited experiences in Spanish speaking countries, I’ve found that folks aren’t necessarily as willing or able to converse in English.

My most recent experience–before Chile–was getting into a cab for a weekend trip to Panama. The cab driver spoke little to no English, and having just gotten off of a 4-5 hour flight from Washington, DC, neither my wife, nor I were particularly ready to converse in Spanish. I think we ended up communicating well primarily due to teamwork. My wife and I could piece together enough Spanish to first convey our destination (our hotel). During the ride, we were able to piece together sentences to learn more about the driver’s background and different things in Panama we should see. Why did we try so hard? Because that’s part of the fun of travel, learning about the folks you encounter and what they recommend that you see in their country.

Before that, we had traveled to Spain, Argentina and Uruguay, and we were more able to converse, but ultimately left us with the feeling that we needed to rely more on our language skills than perhaps someplace like Thailand, Singapore, or Indonesia.

Wrapping Up

This may just be my personal experience–in fact, it probably is–but, I have definitely gotten the feeling like I need to be more proficient in Spanish than most other languages. Put differently, visiting Chile, my wife and I were lucky to run into a collection of bilingual Spanish/English speakers in our travels, because without them, we very well may not have been able to get by as much. Would we still have been able to eat, drink, and get around? Yes, but the few times we tried, it seemed a whole lot harder than other countries.

Have you noticed some countries to be more difficult to get around without knowing the local / national language?

9 thoughts on “Are Spanish Speaking Countries less English Friendly?

  1. Northern rural Quebec stands out in my memory as a place where I’ve had trouble finding someone who spoke English and my knowledge of French is weak.
    I haven’t had any issues in Spanish speaking countries, either because I speak well Spanish well enough to be understood or the local population spoke passable English.
    In most of Latin America, I’ve found people are thrilled and patient if someone has taken the effort to learn Spanish….so again one these YMMV, location dependent issues?

    • @Mar – Definitely agree that it can be a YMMV. I haven’t been to Quebec in ages, but I could see lack of English being the case in many rural areas, I would think.

  2. The friendliest, most helpful people we have ever encountered were in Chile. I was told that only 5% of the population speaks English (by one of the few English speakers we found). But the Chileans would literally go out of their way to try to help us!

  3. I’ll vote for YMMV. I think English is more prevalent in Central America for historical reasons–Belize was formerly a British colony and still speaks English, and of course Panama has the canal and its historical relationship with the U.S. And many aren’t aware of this, but the Atlantic coast of Nicaragua is English-speaking (or rather, Miskito Coast Creole). I’ve encountered a decent amount of English speakers in Nicaragua, though that may be a function of the circles in which I run. Though I recall one time upon entering a village in the middle of nowhere there, some kid ran alongside our truck eagerly shouting the three words of English he knew. (Somehow, he knew I was a gringo…)

  4. I guess I don’t really expect people to be able to speak my language in their own country. If they can, I just consider it a bonus. My criteria are: friendly and honest.

    The only Spanish speaking country I’ve spent much time in is Mexico, where you can find plenty who don’t meet those criteria, but even more who do.

    In Italy, my daughter’s IL’s have very little, if any, command of English. But like you and your wife in the cab in Panama, we communicate. Slowly, with a lot of pantomime, and my terrible Italian, but we communicate, as do Husband and I with hotel employees and restaurant staff.

    In Italy, even my language skills, about the level of a toddler, are appreciated. So many English speakers don’t even bother to learn the rudiments.

  5. Having traveled to 37 countries, and lived in Peru for 6 months, Colombia for a month, and Ecuador for over 2 years, and doing extensive Latin American travels I can tell you that you CANNOT unlock the prices, the gems, nor the ease of travel in Latin America WITHOUT speaking Spanish. It’s a bummer for sure, but it’s just the way it is. Sure, you can go to Cuzco, Peru; San Gil, Colombia; Merida, Venezuela; or Baños, Ecuador and do a plethora of adventure activities not speaking Spanish but you’re going to pay more and be treated very much like what you are, a tourist. For some reason, a logical one at that, when you speak Spanish to Spanish speaking guides/citizens/locals, they will like “get you in.” Everyone mentioned that they will go out of their way to help you, and this is 100% true. If you’ve studied cultural differences, you’ll know that this is even to a fault sometimes where-in they don’t want to deny you help, so they’ll even give you incorrect directions or bad help, just b/c they want to help so bad! haha. It’s amazing. I love Latin America, and more specifically South America. South America is by far the most wild and diverse of the Latino countries in my opinion. It’s wonderful! You’d do yourself a big favor by doing 4-12 weeks of immersive spanish countries in more English friendly countries like Costa Rica or Guatemala (plus flights to Central America are cheaper/faster) before venturing off the beaten path in South America.

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