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Can You Live in Mexico Without Learning Spanish?

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Can you live in Mexico without learning Spanish? We hear that question often from aspiring expats in the U.S., Canada and elsewhere who have their sights set on moving to Mexico.

The answer is both yes and no. Let’s take a closer look.

In our annual Expats In Mexico Survey that we conduct in January of each year, just 9 percent of those who responded said they were fluent in Spanish. Another 21 percent claimed conversational capability. But just over half – 54 percent – said they knew enough to be understood and 16 percent said they do not speak Spanish at all.

In a BBC article I read a few months ago, writer Maddy Savage looked at the value of learning the local language and concluded that for corporate expats and Millennials who anchor the burgeoning digital nomad tribe around the world, it might not be worth the trouble. The article said that more and more multinationals and start-ups have adopted English as their global work language, which reduces the need to become fluent in the local language.

In many industrialized countries, English is taught as the second language. Learning English as a second language in Mexico was accelerated in 2009 when the Secretariat of Public Education launched the Programa Nacional de Inglés en Educación Básica (PNIEB) to increase the English proficiency of public school students by offering English classes from pre-primary to the end of secondary school. To reach Its goal, the Mexican government must recruit and train over 80,000 additional English teachers. The British Council has estimated that 2 billion people, or about one quarter of the world’s population, will be speaking English by 2020.

The BBC article quoted David Livermore, author of the book, “Leading with Cultural Intelligence: The New Secret to Success,” who said: “You can exist quite easily in many locations globally without speaking any of the local language. I wouldn’t suggest a full fluency in the language is needed for a five-year or less assignment.”

But, since about 80 percent of expats in Mexico are not corporate workers, can reliance on English work for most expats? Again, yes and no.

Yes, if you live in a large expat community with an economy based on tourism where English is spoken widely, or a major expat retirement community, such as the Lake Chapala area, where the expat community is closely knit. I suspect that many of those who answered our survey “enough to be understood or not at all” live in these communities.

No, if you value integrating your life into the local community, learning the culture of the country and deepening your understanding of the Mexican people, which should be the goal of any expat living in Mexico.

I just interviewed a lovely couple, Nicky and Michael, from the area around Leeds in Yorkshire in the United Kingdom who will be moving to Mérida in January. They are taking weekly Spanish lessons supplemented by regular use of Duolingo to achieve their goal of integrating fully into their new home.

Learning a language, particularly for older expats, is not easy. But even learning a little Spanish can make your life in Mexico so much richer and fulfilling.