For a while the Chilean government has had the goal of making Chile a bilingual country. I think originally the goal was 2010, but that has come and gone and the country is not bilingual (how do you even measure that?) so I think the goal was extended to 2020. That being said, most Chileans don’t speak English. Let me explain. Most Chileans will know basic phrases, like greetings and classroom vocabulary (this is the door, this is the pencil). That is because English is a required class in Chilean schools. However, in most it is taught through translation, with teachers who don’t speak great English. A lot of emphasis is on reading and writing, and not a lot on speaking and listening.
That being said, there are some Chileans (I think around 2%, probably higher in Santiago) that do speak English fluently and probably even more that understand. Add to that mix the English-speaking foreign population in Chile, and there are enough people who speak and/or understand English, and probably mostly concentrated in downtown or the “barrios altos” of Santiago, as that is where you can find the people with the most money, and therefore the best education (better English classes at private high schools), and therefore most of the jobs that would require speaking English. These are also the parts of Santiago that are the safest, and therefore where most exchange students live.
Why do I mention all this?
Because in my experience, don’t assume that people don’t understand you when you’re speaking in English.
Case in point. A couple of years ago, I was on a micro (city bus) with my friend E. We were coming back from Parque Intercomunal in La Reina (a barrio alto) and passing through Las Condes (also a barrio alto). A man got on the bus and sat in front of us. E. whispered to me (not very quietly) “Ewww! Look at that guy’s dandruff!!” I nodded my head in agreement, but said “Shhhh! He could speak English!” and sure enough, he turned around and said, “Hey girls, where are you from?” Cue me DYING from embarrassment. Turns out he was from Philly.
Unfortunately, gringos have a tendency to talk really loudly. I’ve noticed it when my family comes to visit me, I’ve noticed it among my gringa friends, and I’ve especially noticed it among exchange students. This means that not only do gringos tend to yell in English and call attention to themselves for possibe pickpockets, they also sometimes end up sounding like idiots.
For example, today I was riding my bike home and on the other side of the cross walk were three gringa exchange students waiting to cross. I could tell they were speaking English because they were practically yelling. As I got a bit closer I could tell they were talking about a time they traveled somewhere and got diarrhea. Gross.
Another time (also on my bike) I was waiting to cross and on the other side were two gringa exchange students. They were talking loudly about the color of Chilean’s skin. One commented to the other, “Yeah, people are so white here.” At this point, the light turned green and we started to cross towards each other. As I passed the other one said, “Yeah, like her. She’s so white.”
Finally, one more reason to avoid doing this is because when one eventually returns to an English-speaking country, it can take a while to get used to the fact that the vast majority of people understand English, and can result in embarrassment. It happened to me the first time I went home for Christmas after moving here. My sister and I were at a store and a woman came in with a really ugly outfit. I turned to my sister and said (quite loudly) “Check out that woman!” to which my sister hushed me and turned beat red as the woman turned to look at me. Needless to say, I learned my lesson.
So take my advice, try not to speak too loudly in English about your travelers’ diarrhea or make comments about other people, because it just might turn out that they are a nice business man from Philly, or a gringa blogger who is going to call you out on it.