Chile is an interesting country, covering a huge area of land and having a very diverse culture and climate, known for it’s wine industry in particular. Tourism is not quite as big as other countries, but has grown steadily in recent years, with Chile receiving 6.5 million visitors in 2017. But just how widely spoken is English there, and can tourists from the USA, UK and elsewhere get by easily just speaking English?
English is not widely spoken in Chile overall, with only around 10 percent of the population reported as being able to converse in English to some extent. They are a little more prevalent in the center of Santiago and some of the wealthier suburbs and coastal resorts, but the prevalence of English speakers falls off dramatically once you leave the main tourist and business areas. Not many people speak good English in Chile, but your best chance is to ask younger people under 35, who may speak some basic phrases.
Therefore, it is possible to get by in Chile just using English and some tourist miming and gesturing, but it is nowhere near as easy as some other countries in Europe where English is much more prevalent. If you stay in the main tourist areas, you can sooner or later find someone who speaks English to help you out; however nowhere close to everyone will speak it and you may have to ask a few people before you get someone who can converse in English.
Here are some of the areas in Chile where native or bilingual English speakers are likely to be more common:
- Central and touristy parts of Santiago.
- Business zones of Santiago, where there are lots of multinational companies.
- More middle and upper class areas of Santiago, like Providencia, Las Condes, Vitacura, Lo Barnechea, La Reina.
- Wealthier coastal resorts like Viña del Mar.
- Puerto Natales
- Torres del Paine Park
- San Pedro de Atacama
In hotels and larger restaurants and department stores in these areas, you can find at least one person who speaks English. Tour guides will also likely speak English; much of the tourism into Chile comes from neighboring South American countries but they receive enough visitors from America and elsewhere to be able to accommodate them in the main tourist zones and attractions.
However, moving outside these central zones, you will find the prevalence of English dropping off dramatically. Older people especially will tend not to speak it; your best chance is to find a younger person. You will also need some basic Spanish phrases to get by; see further below for more on this.
Teaching of English in Chile
Latin American countries on the whole do not have a great reputation for teaching good quality English to their pupils. Looking into this, we found that the situation in Chile is much the same as it is in other countries in the region like Mexico and Brazil.
The teaching of English in the public schools is patchy at best – it is not mandatory and even when it is taught, it is only usually in a dry non practical form for a few hours a week. There is not much focus on verbal competency.
As a a result, not many Chileans come out of the public school system speaking good English. They may know a few basic words but won’t be confident speaking it. High quality English teaching is reseved for the wealthier families who can afford to send their children to private schools and English lessons. Hence why good English speakers tend to be more prevalent in the middle and upper class suburbs of Santiago.
Here we find the same issue as we do in the other Latin American countries, where social and economic inequality is determining to a large extent who will be proficient in English. The richer people have access to better tutoring; the poorer people are stuck with the often not too great public school teaching which leaves them with little spoken confidence in English.
This is in contrast to Scandinavian countries, which give all students, regardless of background, a thorough and solid teaching in English in all the state schools, with it being taught as a core subject as well and not just a side subject for a few hours a week.
They are also exposed to far more English language culture there in the form of undubbed films and TV shows. Hence the very high proficiency rates of 80-90% in the Nordic countries versus the typically low rates of around 5-10% English speakers in the Latin American countries.
Some Basic Spanish Phrases
Given the low prevalence of English in Chile overall, though it is a little more common in the main tourist and business areas, it is a very good idea to learn some basic Spanish phrases to cover you there, especially for longer trips. Even if you do find an English speaker, locals will always appreciate you using a few Spanish phrases.
Note however, that the Spanish spoken in Chile is somewhat different from the Spanish spoken in Europe. Chilean Spanish does have some different words and phrases that are used, and also some different local dialects and accents. We have copied in our table of basic Spanish phrases below, altering them where appropriate for some of the local phrases more likely to be used in Chile.
|English||Chliean Spanish||Pronounced as|
|See you later||Nos vemos||Nos vemos|
|Good morning||Buenos dias||Bwenos dee-ass|
|Good afternoon||Buenos tardes||Bwenos tar-dez|
|Good night||Buenos noches||Bwenos notch-ez|
|See you tomorrow||Hasta mañana||Asta man-yana|
|What is your name?||Cuál es tu nombre?||Kwall es too nombrey?|
|My name is.....||Mi nombre es||Me nombrey es........|
|How are you?||¿Cómo estai?||Co-mo esteye?|
|Nice to meet you||Encantado de conocerle||Encan-tardo deh cono-therley
|Yes||Si poh||See poh|
|No||No poh||No poh|
|Please||Por favor||Poor favoor|
|You're welcome||De nada||deh naa da|
|Sorry||Lo siento||Loh see en-toh|
|Please repeat||Por favor repitelo||Poor favoor rrepitello (rolled r)|
|Sorry? (didn't hear something)||Perdon?||Per-dohn?|
|Excuse me, do you speak English?||Perdon, yo sólo hablo Inglés?||Per-dohn, yo solo hab-low in-glaze?|
|Menu of the day||Menu del dia||Menu del dee-a|
|How much is it?||Cuánto es?||Kwanto es?|
|Where is the bathroom?||¿dónde está el baño?||Don-day estah el banyo|
|Party (Chilean phrase)||Carrete||Carr-e-tey|
|I don't understand||No lo comprendo||Noh loh comprendo|
Here are a couple of things to note when speaking in Spanish in Chile:
- Chileans tend to say “po” at the end of sentences.
- Chileans tend to speak very fast and so can be difficult to understand for someone who is not used to the dialect – Use “Por favor repitelo” to ask them to repeat.
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This does not so much affect short term tourist visits – you can get by with some of the main phrases – but people stopping in Chile longer term should be aware that learning Chilean Spanish is not quite so easy as the dialects in other Spanish speaking countries.
And some practical essentials:
- Essential stats on Chile:
- Population: 18.4 million
- Time zone (Santiago): EST +2 hours; GMT -3 hours (see here for other time zones in Chile).
- Currency: Chilean peso (CLP) ($1 = 890 CLP; £1=1053 CLP at time of writing)
- International calling code: +56 (see here for getting a working local SIM card/number when abroad)
- Drives on the right
- Luggage allowances – see here for an excellent guide on luggage allowances (checked and cabin) for all major airlines worldwide.
- Banking – If you don’t want to get stung with high ATM fees, check out our article on the Wise Borderless Card, which allows you to open up balances in many different currencies (including Chilean Peso) and spend for free on your card.