In the course of my current book tour, promoting the new edition of Moon Handbooks Argentina, one of the most frequently asked questions is whether Argentines speak English. This is also a common question regarding Chile, my other principal destination, and the answer is not a simple yes or no.
Verbal communication is a recurring theme in international travel everywhere, and one of the best analyses I’ve ever heard came from a speaker whose name, unfortunately, I cannot recall. At a conference in Melbourne, Australia, sponsored by a guidebook publisher whose name I will avoid mentioning, he said that it was the wrong question, encouraged by a misguided mind-set - the notion that foreigners should speak your language, rather than that you should speak theirs.
His goal, though, was not to castigate listeners for their lack of foreign language skills, but rather to encourage them to interact with, and learn from, non-English speakers. His starting point was his conviction that native English speakers undervalue their own communications skills despite their fluency in a language with one of world’s richest vocabularies, which has absorbed many of its words from other languages - mostly but far from exclusively European in origin.
In that sense, he argued, if you know even a single word of, say, Chinese - you speak Chinese. It’s true you may not speak very much, but you have a base to build on. While his argument may be hyperbole, it has the positive advantage of stressing the fact, even if the glass isn’t quite half full, there’s at least a drop in it and, if you make an effort, it’ll fill over time.
When I first traveled to Chile, in 1979, foreign visitors were few, largely because of the notorious Augusto Pinochet dictatorship; Argentina’s military regime, the so-called Proceso, was arguably even worse. At the time, my Spanish was rudimentary but, because there were so few English speakers, I found myself immersed in a Spanish-speaking environment that improved my skills by leaps and bounds. Though the mental exertion often left me exhausted at day’s end, it was also rewarding and helped me gain insights into what was happening there (and in Argentine Patagonia, which I visited on the same trip).
Three decades later, though, the situation has changed. No longer international pariahs, Argentina and Chile have vigorous travel and tourism sectors, and English is widely spoken in national, provincial and municipal tourism offices, among private tour operators, and in accommodations ranging from hostels to five-star hotels. Especially in top restaurants, waiters have learned to speak English (which, undoubtedly, increases their tips).
Argentina, of course, has long had a significant Anglo-Argentine population, and the English-language daily Buenos Aires Herald has published continuously since 1876. Many other Argentines, especially in Buenos Aires, also speak good English, but as I noted in an earlier post, many English words and phrases have also been absorbed into local speech.
While Chile may be less bilingual than Argentina, the ambitious “English Open Doors” program is an attempt to ensure that every schoolchild has an opportunity to learn the language of international commerce. Even if it falls short, for a lack of qualified instructors and other reasons, things can only improve.
All that said, that doesn’t mean visitors to Argentina and Chile need to seek out English speakers for everything. As my Melbourne lecturer might say, English speakers already have a great deal of cognate vocabulary and Americans in particular are beneficiaries of many words - such as amigo, gracias and pronto - that English has effectively adopted from the original Spanish. Still, don’t expect to find English-speaking auto mechanics, bus drivers, butchers, or other blue-collar occupations.
An Events Reminder
Tonight I will be discussing Argentina in a digital slide lecture at the Travel Bug Bookstore in Vancouver BC at 7 p.m.. Tomorrow night, I'l be back in Seattle, Washington, at Wide World Books, also at 7 p.m.