While living in the Argentine capital of Buenos Aires, I remember going on a few dates with an Argentine chick named Tami. We often spoke in English with each other because her English was so good that you’d believe she was from the Midwest of the US.
She had absolutely no accent and even sounded like someone from some state like Ohio.
After my time was up, I left Argentina for other Latin countries to see.
When I lived in a Colombian city called Barranquilla, I had a Colombian friend named Andres who basically spoke English pretty well.
He had an accent and didn’t remember every single word but he had a strong command of the English language.
Many years later, I found myself in a Mexican city called Pachuca living by Plaza Juarez.
On the street behind me, there was a hamburger joint that had great hamburgers.
When I went there for the very first time, I remember well how the cook tried opening up to me in English asking me a question.
I can’t remember though what the question was but I believe he was asking me where am I from?
But he was having trouble forming the question.
I remember him simply being stuck on some random word that he couldn’t remember in English.
He had a strong accent too with pronunciation skills that were OK.
I answered the question anyway and we stuck to Spanish anytime I was in the restaurant.
His English wasn’t very good but, with effort, he could form sentences and had a tiny bit of vocabulary to work with.
About a year later, I moved back to Mexico City near Pedregal de Santo Domingo.
And I had a neighbor – young Mexican dude – who simply didn’t know a lick of English.
Not even words.
Among all the Latinos I have met though in my 6.5 years in Latin America as of this writing in 2021, most are neither Tami nor the last young Mexican guy.
Most don’t have such a solid grasp of English that they sound like someone from the US.
Nor are most so bad in English that they literally don’t know a single word seemingly.
If I had to guess based on my experience here, most Latinos seem to fall somewhere between hamburger dude of Pachuca and the young Mexican dude of Pedregal de Santo Domingo.
But leaning more towards hamburger dude than young Mexican dude.
With some knowledge of a handful of English words and, with enough effort, can put together some semblance of a sentence (even if not entirely grammatically correct or with the best pronunciation).
Observations: Where Can We Find Andres?
But those whose English resembles more that of Andres are not rare either.
They can be easy to find also but it depends on the context.
For example, Latinos you find in bigger cities like Mexico City or Bogota will have more English speakers per capita than Pachuca or Pasto.
They often have more English speakers because you have more people looking for better jobs in those areas and more of those jobs will prefer someone who can speak English.
Not necessarily because they will be speaking with foreign clients but that could be a reason too.
You also likely have, if I have to guess (and it’s only a guess), better and more accessible classes meant to teach people English.
Not to mention more foreigners to practice with.
Some of the reasons above are also why, as you can guess, English levels will be seemingly higher in touristy heavy spots like Cancun.
Though, if I have to guess, there might be a difference in the level of English in Cancun depending on if you’re on a resort or out in some working class neighborhood away from all things tourism for obvious reasons.
Next, you have a generational difference.
Younger folks tend to speak English better than older folks. More likely to have been offered English classes growing up and all that.
Beyond that, you have differences by nationality.
I’ve found certain nationalities, like Mexicans or Puerto Ricans, to have better English levels on average for obvious reasons (having family in the US, having been to the US, being very close geographically, etc).
Also, I’ve seen richer Latinos usually having better English skills than those with less fortunate backgrounds.
You know – easier access to private education that teaches English better and likely more trips to the US and all that.
Though, in my opinion, that observation has some truth in Mexico but I’ve noticed a lot more Mexicans of poor or middle class backgrounds having solid English also.
If I had to guess based on my experience, the class difference in English skills seems less noticeable in Mexico more broadly when compared to other Latin countries.
Finally, it should be said that several Latin countries – like Colombia or Brazil – have stepped up on trying to teach their citizens English.
Just take a look at the Fulbright program in the US that sends people to Latin America and elsewhere to do research or teach English.
When I applied for the program once, I noticed Colombia and Brazil particularly had quite a bit more investment into teaching English.
And I imagine other efforts have been made there and elsewhere in Latin America to teach English to their people since, at least during my years in Latin America, you certainly see that emphasis to learn English among the local population.
The whole “aprender ingles abre puertas” like you can see in this meme here.
At any rate, those have been all of my personal observations regarding English skills in Latin America.
But let’s step away now from my personal experiences.
We’ve covered that enough for now.
What do the numbers show?
We’ll wrap this article up putting together the numbers that I could find regarding how many Latin Americans speak English.
So let’s get to it.
How Many Latin Americans Speak English?
First, we have this quote from this source here claiming that many Latin Americans don’t understand much English basically.
“En promedio, señala el estudio, los latinoamericanos pueden entender frases simples, pero no mantener una conversación fluida o expresar ideas complejas en inglés.”
The source then goes on to describe the level of English in Mexico, Chile and Peru here.
“En nuestro país, donde solo el 5 por ciento de los mexicanos habla inglés —en contraste del 2 por ciento de Chile y Perú—, el nivel de inglés del 65.4 por ciento de los encuestados se concentra en los niveles A2 y B1 (básicos y el primer nivel intermedio).”
And that same source claims that 5% of Mexicans speak English while 2% of Chileans and Peruvians speak English.
Honestly, that number for Chile is a little bit surprising given how it is relatively more well-developed economically.
I always assumed there was a relationship between economic development and English levels given that, at least in my experience, larger cities with more development have more jobs asking job applicants for some knowledge of English.
At least more jobs asking for that than say those in a small city of 100,000 people somewhere in Peru.
Also, I’m a little bit surprised that only 5% of Mexicans speak English. It’s not entirely surprising but I was expecting maybe 10%?
Anyway, let’s move on.
How many people speak English in Puerto Rico?
This source here gives us some information:
“El inglés se enseña como segunda lengua, aunque se ha estimado que sólo un 10 a 20 por ciento de los residentes de la isla domine el inglés "muy bien":
el censo de 2000 registró que 21,1 % de los residentes hablaban el inglés "muy bien" y 49,9 % lo domina "bien" (nivel intermedio)
un estudio de la Universidad de Puerto Rico en 2009 concluyó que 6 de los 10 residentes no habla el inglés "en un nivel avanzado".
el Perfil narrativo de población y vivienda, Puerto Rico 2005–2009 del censo acertó que el 95 % de los residentes habla español en casa, y el 85 % no habla el inglés "muy bien"
To give you the rough summary, basically 10 to 20% of Puerto Ricans speak English well enough.
What about countries in Central America?
First, we have Guatemala here with about 5% of the population speaking English.
“Aunque en Guatemala solo el 5 por ciento de la población habla inglés, la empresa de origen sueco Education First, coloca al país en el 4 lugar de latinoamérica en el conocimiento de este idioma.”
In Belize, English is no problem!
And, outside of Central America, what about other countries in South America like Brazil?
According to this study here, about 5% of Brazilians speak English.
“Pero apenas un 5% de los 200 millones de brasileños hablan inglés, según un estudio de 2012 del British Council, una organización británica sin fines de lucro que se dedica a la enseñanza de esta lengua en todo el mundo.”
Now, as we all know, there are many other countries we could look at.
But these were the only countries where I could find what seemed to be to be reporting on actual studies to see how many of the locals actually dominate English instead of just claiming to know a little bit of English to communicate some things.
After all, there’s a difference between being Tami and Pachuca Hamburger guy when it comes to English.
And there’s plenty of other studies that give us information on this topic with their own way of looking into the English levels of countries around the world.
From what I could understand (and I believe I understood their methodology right but I could be wrong), the following study reported on here looked at the levels of English across many countries around the world to evaluate how many of the locals per country could at least communicate something in English and the English levels per country.
It’s a study that came up time and time again as I looked into this topic.
Again, being able to simply communicate some bits in English doesn’t mean you dominate the language – just keep that in mind as you look at the statistics they reported.
And, as a short summary, it seems that they found English levels to be relatively low in Latin America on average when compared to other regions of the world.
But what were the numbers?
Well, we have this source here to summarize the results of this study by “Education First.”
They give us two numbers to work with.
One set focusing on the percent of locals who, from my understanding, can communicate something in English and a number for ranking the country’s English level compared to other countries in the world.
So let’s put the numbers down below from best to least.
- Argentina: 57.58% of the population and world ranking at 27.
- Costa Rica: 55.01% of the population and world ranking at 36.
- Dominican Republic: 54.97% of the population and world ranking at 37.
- Uruguay: 53.41% of the population and world ranking at 40.
- Chile: 52.01% of the population and world ranking at 46.
- Brazil: 50.93% of the population and world ranking at 53.
- Guatemala: 50.63% of the population and world ranking at 55.
- Panama: 49.98% of the population and world ranking at 56.
- Mexico: 49.76% of the population and world ranking at 57.
- Peru: 49.32% of the population and world ranking at 59.
- Colombia: 48.90% of the population and world ranking at 60.
- Bolivia: 48.87% of the population and world ranking at 61.
- Ecuador: 48.52% of the population and world ranking at 65.
- Honduras: 47.80% of the population and world ranking at 69.
- El Salvador: 47.42% of the population and world ranking at 70.
- Nicaragua: 47.26% of the population and world ranking at 72.
- Venezuela: 46.61% of the population and world ranking at 75.
So, to wrap this up, there’s a few things to mention.
First, we are clearly missing a few Latin American countries like Cuba and Paraguay.
I’m not sure if the researchers faced any governmental restrictions on doing their research in Cuba but, according to this source here, both countries were excluded because they couldn’t do a sufficient amount of testing to give them a classification.
But we all know it’d be a waste of time to test Paraguay’s level of English.
After all, we all know that Paraguayans are the smartest people on the planet. Surely their English is the best.
Second, the last source cited said that this list only evaluated 88 countries on the planet. So many were left out of the study. How would that impact the world ranking of Latin countries? I don’t know.
Third, according to that last source cited, Argentina was the only Latin American country ranked as having a “high” level of English while Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, and Uruguay were the only ones ranked as “moderate.”
Fourth, it was surprising to see how low Mexico was. I guess my personal experiences don’t align well here with the data.
Though it’s no surprise that Argentina or Costa Rica did well.
And the Dominican Republic was no surprise either given how many people in the DR have family in the US or have spent time in the US.
I’m sure that helps them out a bit in the ranking.
The same observation could likely be suggested about how well Guatemala did relatively speaking compared to other Latin American countries.
Fifth, I wonder if the study evaluated the English of Venezuelans who live abroad? Particularly those who grew up from middle class backgrounds or higher that left the country. I wonder if that would impact the ranking in anyway.
I guess you could say the same about Mexico with all the Mexicans who live in the US.
Anyway, that’s all I got to say.
If you have any comments, drop them below in the comment section.
And follow my Twitter here.
Thanks for reading.