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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.