During my first trip to Latin America ever, I went to some rural ass village area in Chiapas, Mexico to meet up with some indigenous folks living there.
I didn’t speak a lick of whatever indigenous languages were common there and my Spanish was weak.
Still did fine showing up because I had a guide take me.
A month or so later, I went to some city called Xela in Guatemala and lived in a neighborhood where you wouldn’t see any other foreigners as you can read here.
Some time after that, I went to Nicaragua to some rural community outside a city where none of the locals spoke English…
Did just fine because we had a guide take us there as you can read here.
Later on, I visited other random rural areas with limited Spanish.
Like going to the Amazon in Bolivia as you can read about here.
Hell, I even had sex with some chicks back when my Spanish was relatively shit.
Like when I was in Bolivia, I had a semi-functional level of Spanish….
It was workable and I could engage in conversations but it still needed a lot more practice.
Like when I was on a date with this one chick named Lizeth in Bolivia.
On the date we met up at, I didn’t understand half the shit she said literally.
The other half I did though in my defense at the time.
At any rate, this is to start off by saying that my earliest visits to Latin America included places that were not at all your idea of some “Cancun Resort” where obviously there would be a higher abundance of English speakers.
Instead, I was able to make it work either because I had a local guide who spoke English or had just enough Spanish to make it work.
In areas that, as I said, are not the most well-visited areas of Latin America (aside from the Amazon, I suppose).
Driving us to the topic of “do you need Spanish or Portuguese to live in Latin America?”
Well, you need at least English…
The Benefit of English
Because, one time in Roma Norte of Mexico City, I was at a restaurant and saw some Asian guy walk in to sit down at a table.
Didn’t speak English, Spanish or Portuguese as all the waiters sat around him trying to figure out which language he can use to order a meal.
He left without a meal.
For that reason, if you speak English, you’ll probably be OK.
At least compared to any other language that isn’t Spanish or Portuguese.
In many ways, you can argue that English does resemble a more global language than any other language out there really.
And, in Latin America, you have no shortage of locals who are obsessed with learning English in areas even outside the tourist bubble.
So like in the examples above…
You can even go to non-touristy areas and find someone who can speak enough English to work with you.
Especially as many of your encounters down here might not resemble anything too complicated…
Like when I was living in a Mexican city called Pachuca and there was this burger joint I went to always...
On the first day I went there, the cook didn’t know if I spoke Spanish or not and opened up in English.
Granted, his English was shit and he spent a minute searching for words in his head before he realized I spoke Spanish well enough.
But even if I didn’t speak Spanish better nowadays than before, you don’t need much to order a hamburger.
If they ask you if you want “everything on it,” they can just point at the individual ingredients and go “yes? Or no?” and that’s it.
Of course, how much Spanish or Portuguese you need also depends on your investment into life down here….
So outside of where you’ll be going exactly in Latin America…
With some places like a Cancun Resort obviously having more than enough English speakers…
While other areas not having as many but probably someone you can work with…
You also have the matter of how long you’re going to be down here.
Are you going to be a tourist or a long term person who stays years down here?
Or at least a year?
In the former case, I’d argue that local language ability is much less necessary obviously.
Let’s say you do go to that Cancun resort…
Literally everyone will speak enough English for you to work with.
You do not need Spanish.
And even if you do speak enough Spanish, I can see it where you’ll meet a few locals here and there who are hellbent on speaking English with you anyhow.
So while knowing Spanish for your Cancun vacation is nice…
It’s nowhere close to being necessary.
Same if I was going to some country where I didn’t know the language….
Like when I was in Poland years ago!
I didn’t speak a lick of Polish but it didn’t matter.
Nor would I recommend you learn a lot of Polish for Poland or Spanish for Mexico if your trip is short.
Because to truly learn a language, it takes a lot of motivation, usually some deeper reasons behind why you want to learn it and a lot more time than just a week in Cancun.
Granted, I’d learn the basics like simple phrases or words to say but I wouldn’t try learning the whole language.
Having said that…
We also have the long term folks.
Here, we have folks who are going to be in Latin America for at least a year.
That’s not really “long term” but it could maybe be seen as such relative to just a week in Cancun.
But the idea is the same – you are not just doing touristy stuff.
You are probably using the public transportation system I imagine or going grocery shopping…
Laundry at the very least!
Yes, some folks do skip groceries and public transportation even with a year or more here..
But everyone has to do laundry, right?!?
You’re doing normal people things.
A greater possibility of interacting then with more locals who don’t speak a lick of English.
Of course, it again depends on where you are staying “long term.”
In San Miguel de Allende or Cancun, I can see you finding a laundry service that has someone who can speak just enough English.
But if you are living in Potosi, Bolivia…
Well, OK, the laundry person might not have a lick of English.
But they have Google Translate!
And even without Google Tranlsate…
If you don’t speak Spanish and they don’t speak English…
Look, the transaction isn’t that complicated….
They weigh it.
They write down the price in numbers for what you need to hand them.
Also, you’re not likely to live in a place like Potosi!
Most go anyway to places like Mexico City or Buenos Aires where you can easily enough find a local who can do your laundry with English.
On top of all of that, it’s not unheard of for gringos living down here to live in the deepest bubble imaginable…
The one that never pops hidden away in the ocean far away from the locals…
In which literally almost everyone you interact with are other grinogs.
In your little gringo community.
With the occasional local who either has to write down the price on a piece of paper when needed or can give very basic English to handle a transaction.
So the question again – “is it necessary to learn Spanish or Portuguese in Latin America?”
Not at all.
You can live that type of life…
Where you literally never hang out with locals.
Never speak the local language.
Never go outside of the gringo bubble.
Effectively, you are living in a “mini America” where you enjoy the relative low cost of living compared to the quality of life you are getting.
And, to be fair, I can’t judge.
If you enjoy that type of life, good for you!
That’s awesome to hear – keep it up.
I mean it.
Having said that, let’s go beyond the question of asking “is it necessary” and point out the obvious.
Necessary is the Minimum
I’ll keep this short because it doesn’t need to be elaborated.
By not speaking the local language and getting out of the bubble a little bit more…
You are missing out on so much.
When I went to Chiapas to that little village area, I did speak enough Spanish to hold very basic conversations with the locals.
I remember sitting down with some young guy about my age asking him about his life.
“What is life like here from your perspective?”
“What do you most like it about here and not like?”
“What are your future plans?”
And I could understand him easy enough as he talked slowly enough for me at the time.
Without any Spanish, I wouldn’t have had that opportunity.
In the same way I would’ve missed out on all the other cool people I met who didn’t speak English.
All the extra parties I wouldn’t have been able to go to.
Going to cool bars that local gringos don’t know about that only the locals do.
All around, there’s so much more you are missing out obviously if you don’t speak the local language.
So while it’s not necessary to speak the local language…
I consider necessary “to be the minimum.”
But don’t aim for the minimum.
Shoot for something better.
Learn Spanish if you are going to be here for more than a week.
Just a week to the Cancun Resort?
Not necessary to stress about it and I wouldn’t.
But more than a week?
A year or more?
Definitely learn the language even though it isn’t necessary.
Enjoy this video here anyway of some foreigner having a good time with the locals in Mexico City having some Spanish.
He was able to enjoy his trip more it seems in part because he could communicate with the locals.
The experiences become much more memorable.
Anyway, that’s all I got to say.
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