Lengua Española: The Latin American Lingua Franca

An American, a Brit, a Frenchman, and a Mexican walk into a bar hostel: what language do they speak? In a recent past life, I would have said English without a thought or hesitation, even if there weren’t two native speakers in the mix. But in this case and many others during my time in Mexico, the best common group language turned out to be Spanish.

In my existence until now as a white Westerner traveling in the White Western World, I’ve always taken it for a truism that English is the ‘universal language’. In hostels in Germany and Bosnia, at Couchsurfing meetups in the Netherlands and Poland, I don’t recall ever once really wondering if someone spoke my language or making a conscious decision to speak English.

But living in a hostel in Mexico City is a daily challenge to this assumption. Every day I must constantly ask myself, “what language am I supposed to speak right now?” And the answer isn’t always clear.

lingua franca world map

A creative wall map inside a travel agency in Mexico City. Some of the country names are given in English, others in Spanish, others misspelled completely (Kazajstan?) and others, like Londres (London), will be glad to hear they have been promoted from city to country status.

English as Lingua Franca

In countries like Kenya or India, former colonies of the British Empire which are home to 68 and 1,721 native languages respectively, English is the default vehicle of communication between different linguistic and ethnic groups. Other countries like Namibia, never a British colony, have elected English as a ‘neutral’ official language to avoid colonial overtones (German and Afrikaans being the more widely-understood languages that are hangovers from former colonial rulers), to avoid empowering any one particular group over others. A Swiss investor meeting his Chinese counterparts in a swanky board room in Frankfurt will almost certainly greet them with a “hello” rather than ni-hao or a salutation in any of Switzerland’s four national languages.

For as long as anyone still living can remember, English has been the world’s primary lingua franca, the language used to construct communicative bridges across cultural and linguistic rifts. It’s the language of international commerce, academics, diplomacy, and of course, travel. It has more total speakers and more teachers and learners than any other language in world history.

English as lingua franca

A map of the English-speaking world, with darker green indicating a higher percentage of the population proficient in English, lighter green a lower percentage. Norway is oddly left uncolored, even though it ought to be as dark green as neighboring Sweden and Denmark.
(Image from Wikimedia Commons)

This is why travelers throughout most of the world leave home with nothing but a backpack and a solid command of English and do just fine. Pop into a backpackers’ hostel or congregation of expats in Central Europe, East Africa, Southeast Asia, or elsewhere and you’re nearly guaranteed to find a group of people huddled together sipping beers and babbling in different English accents.

In general, throughout the world, whenever two people who don’t share a native language want to have a conversation, you could safely bet that it’s gonna be in English. In general.

But this isn’t really the case in Latin America. Since moving into a hostel in the largest Spanish-speaking city in the world, I’ve suddenly and constantly been confronted with the language question: namely, “¿which one?”

The Anglo Complex

When I lived in the Netherlands, it wasn’t often that I spoke Dutch with non-native speakers. But in those few cases when it did happen, I remember feeling pointedly, uncomfortably aware of the sensation.

I often spent time with a couple of long-term expats there — an Iranian and a Bosnian — who were simply more comfortable speaking Dutch than English. With these guys Dutch was simply the logical way to go. Another hyperpolyglottal Austrian whom I mostly saw in Dutch-speaking company gradually developed the habit of just speaking Dutch to me by default when we were alone. And this has always been weird to me.

When I stayed with a Couchsurfing host in a house of five expats in Barcelona — French, German, American, Dominican, and Iranian — I had a similar feeling. One day I entered the living room and was astounded to find the German and the Frenchie engrossed in a conversation in Spanish. When I asked them about it, they didn’t seem to understand my confusion. We were in Spain, and both were either more comfortable with or more used to speaking Spanish than English. It was a non-issue.

world lingua francas

World lingua francas, with the notable lack of English in Northern Europe, English and German in Central Europe, and Russian (among older generations) in Eastern Europe and some of the Balkans.
(image from reddit)

Since living in Hostel Home in Mexico City, I’ve finally understood why I’m made so weirdly uncomfortable by people using Dutch or Spanish as a means of intercultural communication: all of these people spoke English.

I’ve always subconsciously carried this implicit assumption that English is just the default international, intercultural, interlingual language. That’s just the way it has been since it was handed down from the language gods at the dawn of time, and so shall it ever be.

This often works as a generalization and on a global scale, but not in all places or cases. In areas where other regional lingua francas dominate — Eastern Europe (Russian), Central Africa (French), or of course, Latin America (Spanish) — the regional language and King English become two of many elements in a complex sociolinguistic algorithm that determines what language will be spoken.

So what language do we speak right now (and why)?

Dutch people (and maybe Northern Europeans in general) have an uncanny affinity for code-switching with almost no provocation.

Three Dutch people are sitting around a table sipping cups of coffee, complaining about the weather in their native language, when Frankie Foreigner pops in. By the beginning of the next sentence or the start of the next speaker’s turn, English has already taken over. Not so much as a turn of an overly-gelled blonde head signals acknowledgement of the new arrival or the switch. It just happens.

In Latin America, it doesn’t quite seem to work that way. At that same coffee table in Mexico City, Frankie’s arrival most likely won’t have much impact on the conversation. If it does, it might be one of the three chicos greeting him in warm, over-confident, semi-intelligible Spanglish, or all three of them just speaking Spanish to the poor lost gringo.

There are all kinds of social and cultural and linguistic factors at work in the algorithm determining the lingua franca in any given place or social interaction, and they’re different in different cultures.

Sometimes it’s a bit of chauvinism: I’ve met French and Italians, for example, who have insisted that most of the world already speaks their language, and those who don’t should start doing so immediately.

Sometimes it’s age: most grey-haired folks in Croatia are more likely to speak German than English, due to the massive numbers of emigrant laborers of that generation who worked in Germany and Austria.

Sometimes it’s education or social class, or region or ethnicity. It’s often economic orientation: in the north of Mexico, especially in Monterrey, you’re much more likely to encounter English, due to Monterrey’s American economic orientation and the greater permeation of American pop culture.

lingua franca family dinner

A natural language continuum formed at this dinner table in the hostel. At the end closest to the camera are a Brazilian, two Americans, a Canadian, a Frenchman, and an Argentinian. The Brazilian speaks great Spanish but little English, and the American and Canadian on either side of her are pretty comfortable and communicative in Spanish, thus forming the hispanophone end of the table. The Argentinian, Frenchman, American, and Italian in the middle are all different degrees of bilingual, and moving further away from the camera there is an Australian, two more Americans, and two South Africans at the other end, forming the English pole. But still, conversations throughout dinner hopped back and forth depending on who spoke to whom about what and a dozen or more other factors.

In Mexico, and especially Mexico City, it’s complex. The DF is a proper world city with 22 million people from throughout the Americas, Europe, Asia, and the rest of the world, with many multinational businesses in residence. It’s the capital of a country whose biggest trade partner and biggest shared border is the US, and where the largest American expat population in the world (almost half a million) resides.

But before being a world capital, it’s a Latin American capital. Immigrants from everywhere from Guatemala to Argentina dominate the city’s international demographic, venturing to Mexico City with economic aspirations. Since the economic crisis in Spain, Mexico has become a top destination for Spanish emigrants hunting for jobs as well.

This all results in an incredibly varied and multivalent linguistic, cultural, educational, professional, and class milieu in which no language is necessarily the de facto champ. Sometimes it’s English, more often it’s Spanish. In Zona Rosa’s Koreatown it’s usually Korean. Throughout periferal parts of the Federal District it might be Nahuatl or Mixtec or one of the other languages of the indigenous peoples who make up 18% of the greater Mexico City area population.

This means that in a backpackers’ hostel — an implicitly, intensely international environment within an already international city — the language question is always present. And for those of us (un)fortunate enough to be able to communicate with everyone, our tongues must always be on their toes.

Navigating the language question

lingua franca info bilinguë

To aid (or further confuse) guests in answering the language question, the first sight upon entering the door is a bilingual information board. Welcome/bienvenidos.

Every time I open the door to a new face, I shout something like a cheery “hola, buenas tardes!” down the staircase, which can be met with one of many different reactions.

Sometimes it’s an equally cheerful Spanish greeting. Sometimes it’s an incredibly gringo “hooola, how’s it going?”, or an embarrasedly rapidly mumbled “holacomoestas” that earlier says “I’m super ashamed I don’t actually speak Spanish” than “hello, how are you?”. Sometimes it’s an arrogant Mexican or Argentine or other native Spanish speaker who hears my accent and answers in loud and proud (and often bad) English. My favorite is the Terrified American: standing at the foot of the staircase and staring up with big eyes and apologetically hyperventilating the words “no hablo español“.

Some days the living room is filled with English, the library with Spanish, and the dining room with Portuguese or German or Danish or Afrikaans or Chinese. Sometimes a room full of multilingual internationals hops back and forth between English and Spanish as participants in the conversation come and go, accommodating whatever seems to be the easiest group language.

lingua franca cards against humanity

One of our favorite hostel pastimes: Cards Against Humanity. But it’s an intensely language-sensitive game, its humor only understandable to those with very advanced English skills. Activity of focus is another factor in the lingua franca algorithm: sometimes a game of CAH can turn an otherwise Spanish-speaking group into a table of giggling Anglophones.

Longer-term friendships must also come up with a serviceable answer to the language question. When I lived in the Netherlands, there was always a conscious decision at some point early in a personal relationship to speak either English or Dutch with someone. But in Mexico City, it’s normally decided before we ever meet.

Since I arrived in Mexico I’ve usually spoken Spanish with Mexicans and other native speakers, for practice and often also for their lack of English. But there are plenty of Mexicans with whom I still speak English. And there are also a surprising number of non-native Spanish speakers with whom Spanish is the language of choice.

With my four colleagues at the hostel, I speak Spanish with the Argentinian and the Brazilian, English with the Australian, and English and sometimes Dutch (voor de lolz) with the South African. Of our two Mexican bosses, I used to speak entirely English with one and only Spanish with the other, but now it’s usually pocho (Spanglish) with both.

And then there’s the weird and uncomfortable experience of being socially compelled to speak Spanish to other native English speakers.

Full circle

In Mexico City, under the influence of the reigning lingua franca, I sometimes end up speaking Spanish with native English speakers. Sometimes even regularly.

My first day in the hostel, the second person I met was an American who worked here, Luke. He trained me up on how to do night shifts and then we walked outside to chat some more while he had a cigarette break. Already outside smoking was Cristina, our Brazilian colleague who speaks great Spanish but only a bit of English. So once it was the three of us, I found myself abruptly having switched from speaking English with an American to speaking Spanish with two non-native speakers of Spanish, one of whom shared my mother tongue.

This happens all the time now. I sometimes learn that I’ve had a whole conversation with someone in Spanish before realizing that they’re Irish or Canadian or American. And then, in at least one case, I semi-regularly find myself speaking Spanish one-on-one with an American.

Normally if I’m hanging out with Jake, my name twin and countryman and former hostel coworker who still Kramers into the place nearly every day, it tends to be in a group of Spanish speakers. We sit around the table in the common room and bullshit with guests, or have a beer with our Argentinian colleague Pablo. In any given moment if he and I are together, Spanish is likely to be the dominant language. Which means sometimes, for social ease or habit or code-switching laziness, we just speak Spanish between us.

I’ve seen Dutch people do this. Two Hollanders are sitting at a table of mixed company. They’re the only present speakers or understanders of their language. The conversation takes a different tack and they continue talking about the last topic just between the two of them, quietly at the end of the table. In English. Or the other non-Dutch-speaking folks get up to order a beer, go to the bathroom, have a smoke. The Netherlanders just keep talking. In English.

It feels off, consciously skirting around a shared first language to address someone from your own lingua materna in a less-perfect lingua franca instead. I feel like there’s a cupboard full of perfectly good cups right next to me but I’ve poured my drink into a bowl and am unhandily drinking from that instead. It’s fine, it works, but it feels ridiculous, and I can’t not be aware of it.

But I’m gradually getting desensitized to drinking out of bowls, and sometimes it’s just habit to pick one up even when there are cups around.

One time Jake and I had a whole conversation in Spanish about rearranging our dorm room and constructing some shelves over the beds. This was partly because the discussion began between the two of us and Pablo, but when he left, we missed the jump. It wasn’t a long chat; it lasted a couple of minutes I think.

lingua franca group

From a recent camping trip with the guys from the hostel. From left to right you see Australian, American, American, Argentinian. The middle two are the bilingual Jakes, and removing either one from the end makes for an easy answer to the language question. All four of us together requires constant communicative creativity, patience, and a bit of language learning as we go.

Maybe it’s because we’re more used to talking about camas and habitaciones than ‘beds’ and ‘rooms’ in our job and daily life, and with those words just follow a bunch of other Spanish ones. It could be out of some subconscious sense of social seemliness: what if Pablo or someone else comes back and wants to join in? It might just be because continuing in an imperfect foreign language can sometimes be easier than jumping back and forth and constantly losing your linguistic momentum.

Whatever the reason, it happens more and more often, and I’m getting used to it.

Panamericanized Perspectives

When I lived in Leiden, I ran with a super international crowd. But there were still of course quite a few Dutch folks around, and other pairs or groups with shared languages. I used to wonder so often what it was like for my Dutch friends, a German and an Austrian, a Brazilian and a Portuguese to look each other in the eye, artificially leaping over their shared mother tongue and constructing a bridge of English between one’s mind and the other’s ear. All this for the sake of decorum, inclusivity, practicality, or maybe habit, or maybe showing off, or something else.

I can remember sitting in Dutch-speaking groups in the Netherlands with an American friend, Micheline, both of us babbling along in the socially-determined language in which we’re both fairly comfortable. But then when it came down to one of us looking at and directly addressing the other, it seemed impossible — we just spoke English. Just for that sentence.

And it wasn’t a problem. Everyone heard and understood what we said. No one felt excluded by our using a language that everyone at the table shared. And no one found it weird, or probably even noticed. But if it had been the opposite case, two Dutch people abruptly breaking an English conversation to exchange private communications between each other in their own language, it would have been different. Awkward. Impractical. Rude.

lingua franca hostel home

The super multilingual Hostel Home team: between us there are six nationalities from four continents and six different languages, but we all find a way to communicate, sometimes with a little mezcal to loosen our tongues.

The same applies to English in Latin America, or at least sometimes. Here I speak a language that not everyone speaks — a prestigious one, at that — and if I just speak whichever language I feel like at any given moment (hint: it’s English), then not everyone can play.

To think globally, sometimes you have to abandon the ‘global’ language. When in Mexico City, do as the chilangos do: sometimes that’s speaking English, but more often it’s Spanish. Sometimes the mystical forces that determine the lingua franca will send you misleading signs, or sometimes no signs at all. But in any case, be sure to think about it, to assume nothing, and be ready to be completely dumbfounded and lost when someone speaks a perfect sentence in English when you had your ear set for Spanish.

11 comments

  1. Barbara Gibbons · June 6, 2015

    Jake, this was a very informative look into your everyday life as a person who is multi-lingual. It almost makes me happy that I am fluent in only one language.

  2. Megsy · June 6, 2015

    i hate the fact that I only speak English. I see so many other travellers that are multi lingual who when I proclaim my awe they say “why how many languages do you know?” My embarrassed respond is always one – just one. I know it can be complicated but it’s such an amazing skill to gave. I’m jealous!

    • Jakob Gibbons · June 6, 2015

      I know what you mean Megsy, I felt the same way a few years ago before I started learning languages. In fact, it was that sort of feeling of awe that inspired me to do it — I wanted to be like those people!

      If you really decide to learn a language I’ve got plenty of info here on Globalect that should help, like the ‘Trilingual in Three Years’ series where I detail how I learned two languages so quickly ;-) Take a look!

      Cheers and safe travels!

  3. Tami · June 6, 2015

    Loved that creative world map!

  4. Casey O'Connell · June 6, 2015

    REALLY like your language perspectives here, and I can say that I’ve encountered many of the same conundrums while traveling, but I have also come to same conclusion, which you worded perfectly: “To think globally, you have to abandon the global language.” Speak as the locals do, or at least try! (And always be prepared for surprises!) :)

    • Jakob Gibbons · June 6, 2015

      Ah yes, being prepared for surprises is an important part too (like crazy slang that shocks and surprises), but easier said than done! But I guess at the end of the day if you’ve made a little effort to speak as the locals do, you’ll generally get enough respect that when the surprises come people are patient with you :-)

  5. chrysoula · June 6, 2015

    Very informative article. I wish I could speak more languages than I do. I always though that English were universal though!

  6. Cristina Luisa · June 6, 2015

    Excellent observations and thorough research, Jakob. It does seem that English is the go-to language, as you’ve referenced, but living in hostels, it always gets messy (and alot of fun). How long have you been living in DF? I’ve only spent a few days there on two different occasions, but I did notice that the chilangos (especially the fresas- no offense to anyone) do use English words intermittently as slang. This goes for many Spanish-speaking countries.

    You point out an important topic of linguistic etiquette as well- speaking your native language (when you are fluent in the one being spoken) to make comments or carry on side conversations. That happened to me constantly when I was traveling with a couple of guys whose language I didn’t speak, and we were on the road together for about a month. Not fun. No one likes to be left out, and I always try to be conscientious of this, no matter what language I’m speaking (or trying to speak!).

    • Jakob Gibbons · June 6, 2015

      Thanks Cristina! I’ve been in the DF for a bit north of three months now and will be here another month or so before jumping back on the road. And definitely yes, Mexicans in general but especially upper-class, more posh types (the ‘fresa’ people) are pretty fond of throwing in an English word here and there, but that seems to be a prestige thing in many parts of the world, right?

      Sorry to hear you’ve been linguistically odd-man-out in prior travels — I have too, I guess we all have. It just happens sometimes, but that’s why I’m trying to be conscious of it while in Latin America and not make anyone feel excluded by speaking English!

  7. Pingback: How a Year of Language and Travel Made Me a Better Global Citizen - Globalect
  8. Pingback: NOLA to Bogotá Update: Bienvenidos a Colombia - Globalect