Uruguay is an interesting country nestled between Brazil and Argentina towards the bottom of South America. It is not a leading world tourist destination, but still does receive some English speaking tourists. An increasing number of people are also retiring there. But how widely spoken is English there? Can tourists expect to get by there with just English or will some Spanish be needed?
English is not widely spoken in Uruguay overall, with 10% proficiency at the most among the population. It is slightly more prevalent in the major cities like Montevideo, Colonia and Punte del Este, but still not guaranteed to be spoken. You will need some basic Spanish phrases to get by, though some younger people in the main tourist areas may be able to understand and speak a little English.
Exact stats on the proportion of the Uruguayan population who can speak English are quite hard to find, but from tourist accounts it is quite low, probably somewhere between 5-10% of the population, as it tends to be in most of the other Latin American countries.
Uruguay is nestled between Brazil and Argentina in the south east of South America.
The center of the capital Montevideo is probably the best place to find English speakers, especially in the larger hotels and restaurants. Here they will receive enough English speaking tourists to have someone on hand who can converse in English. You will also find some English speaking tour guides.
Elsewhere expect English speakers to be quite rare, even in the more built up areas. You may have to stop a few people before you get an English speaker. It really will help to have some Spanish to get by, even for shorter visits.
Uruguay is also becoming a popular retirement spots for some Americans especially, with a mild climate and relatively low cost of living in some areas. For anyone staying there longer term though, you will need some Spanish for getting by in everyday life. English is not prevalent enough there for you to expect to get by with banking, shopping, repairs, renting etc without knowing some Spanish.
For expats and retirees looking to move to Uruguay longer term, check out the Guruguay blog, which is a superb resource to help people out looking to relocate there, including applying for residency, purchasing property, taxes and inheritance and immersing yourself in Uruguayan culture.
Here are some accounts we found looking through the forums which appear to accurately summarize the general tourist experience of moving through Uruguay as an English speaker. Some of the accounts are actually quite old; if anything, the prevalence of English among younger people especially many be slightly higher now as another generation has come through the school system now learning English as a compulsory foreign language. See below for more on this.
Here is an account of visiting the capital Montevideo from Tripadvisor
“I found in Montevideo that it depends on where you go as to how much English is spoken. For example, a lot of staff in the hotels know how to speak English (especially the bigger hotels), and again, in restaurants, if the restaurant is geared toward tourism, you will find the staff speak English quite well.
My parents were able to get through Santiago for a night, and then bits in Uruguay on their own without any Spanish. It is amazing what you can do when you have to, and if you approach it with an open mind, you can have a bit of fun with it.”
And here is another account from a visitor on the prevalence of English
“While planning my trip, I was assured by every website I visited that my lack of Spanish would not be a problem in Uruguay. Unsurprisingly, the internet lied. Sure, plenty of people speak English, but those people don’t necessarily work in hospitality. It’s always important to attempt the local language, but learning a little Spanish is a necessity in Uruguay.”
The general consenses is that English prevalence is hit and miss in most of Uruguay, though it is common enough to get by in major central places. Having some Spanish however makes the whole process a lot easier.
Languages in Uruguay
There are a couple of widely spoken languages in Uruguay – unfortunately English is not one of them! Spanish is the official language, with almost all the population speaking it. Around 15% of the population speaks Uruguayan Portuguese, mostly in the north of the country towards the Brazilian border. Portuñol, a combination of Spanish and Portuguese, is also spoken in some parts of the country.
The particular dialect of Spanish spoken in Uruguay is known as Rioplatense, which is not a million miles away from the dialect used in Argentina. The personal pronoun for “you” is often switched to “voseo” or “vos”, instead of the informal “tu” often used in conventional European Spanish. There are also a few other differences in colloquial words used; see the table further below for more on this.
The Uruguayan dialect of Spanish also has some strong Italian inflections, as it does with Argentine Spanish, since both countries received a lot of Italian as well as Spanish immigrants in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Some Italian words have made it into the everyday language.
Unfortunately, English is way down the list in prevalence, and has not until recently been considered such a priority in the culture as it is elsewhere in the world. The larger cities like Montevideo do receive some English speaking tourists each year, but nowhere near the millions that flock into some European countries for example, so there is a little emphasis on English for tourism, but nowhere near as much as elsewhere in the world.
Similarly, English teaching in schools has only been compulsory since 2008, with little emphasis on it before then, so it will take a long time for this policy to have effect in terms of younger generations coming through with English skills.
There has also been the problem of a shortage of qualified English teachers, to the point where some schools were even having to draft in remote teachers online from Argentina to fill the skills gap. See this interesting article for more on this.
Learning Some Basic Spanish Phrases
Having some Spanish phrases to help you get by is important in all the Latin American countries really, but especially so in Uruguay, which by many accounts has even lower rates of English speakers than neighboring South American countries. Even in the main cities and tourist spots English is more prevalent but not guaranteed.
Here are some basic Spanish phrases you might need to get by. The dialect used in Uruguay is similar to that used in Argentina.
|See you later||Vos vemos||Vos 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 andás?||Co-mo andas?|
|Nice to meet you||Encantado de conocerle||Encan-tardo deh cono-therley
|Please||Por favor||Poor favoor|
|You're welcome||De nada||deh naa da|
|Sorry||Lo siento||Loh see en-toh|
|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|
|I don't understand||No lo comprendo||Noh loh comprendo|
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Travel Essentials For Visiting Uruguay
- Essential stats on Uruguay:
- Population: 3.4 million
- Time zone: EST +2 hours; GMT -3 hours.
- Currency: Uruguayan peso (UYU) ($1 = 40 UYU; £1= 47 UYU at time of writing)
- International calling code: +598 (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 Uruguayan peso) and spend for free on your card, plus withdraw out a certain amount from ATMs for free.