Open mouth, speak English, insert foot

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.



34 thoughts on “Open mouth, speak English, insert foot

  1. Good topic Abby. My personal theory on why gringos speak so loudly (at least in part) is related to the personal bubble and comfort zone. Chileans tend to move in much closer when they speak, which can feel quite uncomfortable to someone from countries like the US and Germany, for example. Gringos, who tend to keep about a 3-foot (1 meter) distance when possible, have to project their voices to be heard–especially in a city as noisy as Santiago.
    Has anyone else thought about this?

    • I think that is a great theory. I remember when I was studying here people would tell me that gringos speak loudly and I never really believed them until my mom visited and on the micro she asked really loudly “How do you pronounce the street you live on? Fresseeahh or Frezzzeeahh??” and the whole bus stared at us. Now I notice it all the time. And it could very well have to do with the personal bubble. It also could have something to do with the fact that Chileans don’t like to call attention to themselves.

  2. Completely agree! Half the reason why I didnt go out with most of the other gringos in my group when i studied abroad is because they were alwayssss talking so loud everywhere and calling attention to themselves. I had one friend though that always assumed people spoke english which was actually pretty funny to observe.

    • Haha that is pretty funny, assuming that everyone here speaks English. Another thing that bothers me is when it’s obvious that someone doesn’t understand English and tourists will just repeat what they say louder.

  3. Let me say that if you notice how loud some gringos can be, and the other day i read you say “Gooool CTM!!”, your Chilenization process is almost complete. Congratulations! The next step is to meet a gringo/a and ask “why did you come to Chile?” Hahahahaha

    • Hahahaha Marmo, it’s true. Soy toda una chilena. I ask gringos why they come to Santiago all the time even though I know it bothers the hell out of most people. Mu-hahahaha!

      • Haha.. Some gringo asked me what I’m doing in Chile at California Cantina the other day.. I was with Aless. I was like, “We live here”.. He was like “Yeah, but for what”.. I’m like “Oh, I mean as apposed to studying here, I live and work here indefinitely, what do you do?” He says “studying abroad” and I thought “What I was trying to express was that I’m not one of you”

      • For some reason, we Chileans think other countries around are more exotic and that ours have nothing special. Maybe it´s our isolation, that makes us everything around us as normal, even things that happen only here in Chile. So when anyone from other country comes here, we scratch our heads and think, “and what did this guy see in here to make him come?”.
        Then, when yourselves as gringas start to wonder the same thing, it´s time to consider yourselves as Chileans also xD
        Here in Temuco you can identify a gringo from a block distance, you just have to listen, if you can hear them clearly from a block away, they´re surely gringos, and you can be almost sure they come from the States. Other kinds of gringos are rarely noisy.
        As Abby say, sometimes people can´t help but listen to what they say, and chuckle when they say something thinking we can´t understand them.

      • In my experience, I’ve met Chileans that, like you said, don’t realize that things can be different outside Chile. But on the other hand, in my line of work, I’ve met some Chileans who think that everything is special in Chile and want to teach it to the gringos, and the gringos scratch their heads and think, “But in the US we make bread too? Why is pan amasado so special?” I think it also has to do with the diveristy in the US, that people come from so many different backgrounds, whereas Chile is a very homogenous society (comparatively, I know that is changing with the influx of immigration). There are probably many people from the US who have never made bread from scratch and always eat pan de molde, but there are also many who grew up watching their grandmother’s bake bread and seeing a demonstration on pan amasado isn’t exciting at all.

        I think what bothers me is not so much that gringos are loud (I mean any loud obnoxious person bothers me), but the arrogance that some gringos assume no one understands them and so they can talk loudly about any topic at all, or even make rude comments about the people around them.

    • I don’t remember. It could be that everyone is just louder so you don’t realize it. But I will try to observe when I go home in August.

  4. Good advice.. definetely convenient not to speak loud in english, the people will understand you more than you think, better be quiet. And i guess this is a good advice when you are in USA too, loud people is annoying.

    • Yes, in general loud people are annoying. When (ocassionally) Chileans are loud in a public setting (like on the metro), EVERYONE stares at them, like “What are you thinking being so loud??”

  5. I hate traveling in groups of gringas.. I had to do it the other day.. 4 gringas from freaking Quinta Normal at 11pm with 1 gringa that COULD NOT talk lightly.. I kept saying “shhhh!”I like to do things alone.
    Also, in Viña P and I were talking about poop walking down the sidewalk when the person in front of us turned around and was like, “where are you from?” haha.
    And P says inappropriate things out loud in English just because he knows it will embarrass me, but he only when he is pretty sure know one knows English.
    Haha.. You are so WHITE!
    Stupid Gringas

    • I tend to agree with you. I’m not a huge fan of walking in big groups of gringas. If it’s just two of us, that’s fine. But I find groups of gringas just draw too much attention in terms of piropos and people staring. Dislike.

  6. Talking loud works fine when everyone else also talks loud. Especially in public. Here its a mix of novelty when someone is screaming about their intestinal problems in English on the metro..and that no one else is talking. The other thing gringos do that can cause a stir with Chileans is leave a room but leave the light on. I’m guilty of that one.

    • I’ve noticed this too! My host dad used to yell at me for leaving the lights on. Now I’m the one that goes around shutting off lights when I got home to visit my parents. I think I’ve learned because now I pay the electricity bill…

    • You could be right…although our gringo guests always seem to suffer from this as well…but maybe its just a case of you choose the company you keep?

  7. Being a teacher, and always having to project my voice, has definitely changed my natural loudness. I have been reminded a couple of times to tone it down…so people in the US definitely notice the loudness as well. I never remember having to “tone it down” before.
    I also think that a lot of people (maybe just people in the US..i don’t know) have trouble adjusting from one situation from another. For example if it was loud in the room due to a large number of people, or traffic etc, once that noise is gone, it takes a while to adjust down to an appropriate level. Same can be thought about with TV…you turn the TV up because something is loud (maybe the washer, dryer, etc) but then once the excess noise is over, you don’t always remember to turn the TV back down.
    Interesting topic to think about Ab—and not only the loud gringas in Chile…but just noise level in general and how we respond/adjust/etc. I think some people are just more sensitive to it….and maybe being in Chile where more people are sensitive because in general people talk quieter has made you more aware. I am for sure not very aware. Peter’s family always comments about one family member being really loud all of the time, but to tell you the truth…I don’t notice it until they point it out.

    • Good point, Cha. I think that maybe people from the US just have a louder “base” than Chileans. And as some people have pointed out, it could have to do with the personal bubble issue, that because Chileans are all up in your biz-nass all the time, you don’t have to speak loudly to be heard. But I also really think it has to do with the fact that Chileans do not like to draw unnecessary attention to themselves. I think that Chile has definitley made me WAY more aware.

      Thanks for commenting 🙂 I think I’ve probably told you to tone it down before, haha, but it’s a good thing you decided to be a teacher and can project your voice because there’s nothing I hate more than a teacher that doesn’t know how to enunciate/project and is hard to hear or undertsand. I had lots of those in college. Love you Cha!!!

  8. That sounds like teen girls here. I don’t know whether it’s a British thing but young girls, when they’re together, have a tendancy to talk VERY loud … particularly on trains or buses so that the whole carriage can here them. It’s one of those, “I’m talking to my friend but my gossip/life/opinion is SO incredible that people need to overhear it!” I know it happens because I was one of them once upon a time. Now it’s just annoying to hear. I guess subtlety just comes with age over here. 😛

  9. Sounds like they teach English in Chile in the same poor manner I remember my high school Spanish class in the US.

    A very good point you make about not assuming people won’t understand your English in a foreign country.

    • Thanks for stopping by! Yes, it’s pretty abysmal for the most part. Although you’re right, my high school Spanish classes weren’t exactly stellar!

  10. I have to be careful about this, too, although living in the US, the language I use that I assume nobody will understand is Spanish. I know better, but I still make that assumption. I’ll try to keep it quiet. 🙂

  11. Very sound advice in this post! And as the other Katie above me pointed out, you can’t assume that people in the U.S. won’t understand Spanish. The last time I went back to visit family in Philadelphia, two Mexican men were commenting on my…assets right in front of me. I made sure they knew they weren’t the only Spanish speakers in the room. 😉

    • Hahaha that happened to me once in a Salvadoran restaurant in East Boston. I was with my parents and these guys started talking about me. My dad insisted I tell him what they were saying and when I did he went and gave them a piece of his mind…

  12. Great post Abby. I live with two Americans roommates and the first thing that I noticed from them is that they talk really loudly.
    Also, here in the USA you find white people that you would never imagine they’d know Spanish speaking it pretty well, although with the ‘z’ from Spain, lol

    • That surprises me that there are a lot of Americans with the z from Spain…I would think more people would learn Latin American Spanish whereas in Europe they learn more Spanish from Spain…

      When I go home I’m going to be ultra aware to see if I think Americans are loud in their natural habitat. 🙂

  13. I heart this post, Abby!! I relate to all of the above and was totally smiling and nodding as I kept reading. Oh to be Gringa and loud! 🙂

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