We list the most English-speaking countries in Central America from the easiest and most obvious on down. If you’re finding Spanish difficult, this article might be for you.
A few of our articles about doing business or investing in Central America have touched upon English proficiency in the region.
Contributor Craig Dempsey from Biz Latin Hub has spoken about both El Salvador and Honduras as places investors should look at, in part because the amount of English-speakers in these countries is so much higher than elsewhere in Latin America.
So it got us thinking. What are the most English-speaking countries in Central America? In a region dominated by Spanish, where will native English speakers have the easiest time before picking up the local lingo?
We went to the guys who rank this kind of thing every year, the EF English Proficiency Index. This is the go-to guide to figure out who speaks the most English around the world, outside of official English-speaking countries.
Let’s take a look.
It’s always important to keep in mind: English proficiency index in Latin America and the Caribbean https://t.co/TOE1h8zs4s
— Biz Latin Hub (@BizLatinHub) September 15, 2022
The obvious place to start is Belize, of course. Belize is the only official English-speaking country in Central America due to its status as a former British colony rather than a Spanish one. For this reason, Belize is not mentioned in the EF English Proficiency Index. Many people in Belize see their country more as a Caribbean nation, alongside the likes of Jamaica and Barbados, than Central American.
As an English-speaking country in Central America, with easy access to the United States, Belize is an attractive country to set up a call center in, and the BPO (Business Process Outsourcing) industry is strong here. Belize is also one of the most bilingual countries in the world, with many people speaking Spanish as a second (or first) language.
If you include Belizean Kriol, and you certainly should, Belize is actually trilingual rather than bilingual.
- Belize EF English Proficiency Rating: N/A (as a native English speaking country, it’s not on the list)
2. Costa Rica
Now that we’ve gotten Belize out of the way, it’s time to consult the aforementioned EF English Proficiency Index. We’ll be using this going forward for the rest of Central America.
And, according to them, of all the English-speaking countries in Central America, Costa Rica comes second to Belize – or first, if you discount Belize. In fact, in Latin America, only Argentina beats Costa Rica, according to the index.
With a long emphasis on education and a major dependence on tourism from the United States, you’ll find Costa Rica full of English speakers and wannabe English speakers eager to learn. This is why companies like Amazon operate in Costa Rica.
You’ll also find a strong tradition of TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) in Costa Rica, with many foreign teachers coming to work. The pandemic putting pay to in-person classes doesn’t deter Costa Ricans either – many of them simply use an online English tutoring service instead.
Another factor in Costa Rica’s English-speaking favor is its Caribbean side. Throughout Central America, from Belize on down, Caribbean communities speak English. You’ll often hear people seamlessly mixing English, Spanish, and Creole into one unique idiomatic blend.
- Costa Rica EF English Proficiency Rating for 2022: 37th in the world (down one spot from 36th in 2021) / 2nd in Latin America / 1st in Central America (excluding Belize)
This one might surprise you, but Honduras has the second-most English proficiency in Spanish-speaking Central America (third if you include Belize).
But looking under the hood, you shouldn’t be too surprised. With its long Caribbean coast and Bay Islands of Roatán, Utila, and Guanaja, English is as important as Spanish in Honduras. Many people have relatives living in the United States and English often filters back that way.
- Honduras EF English Proficiency Rating for 2022: 48th in the world (up from 47th in 2021) / 7th in Latin America / 2nd in Central America (excluding Belize)
Roatan, Honduras is a rare English-speaking island in Central America.
— Nomad Capitalist (@nomadcapitalist) March 30, 2022
4. El Salvador
El Salvador is the next country on the EF English Proficiency Index after Costa Rica and Honduras. It’s another country with a massive diaspora living outside of its borders.
According to the last official census in 2016, over 2.3 million Salvadorans live in the United States. That works out at about 25% of all Salvadorans, one in four. Naturally, this rubs onto the population at large, and you’ll often find yourself in some hidden corner of El Salvador being surprised by a Californian accent.
- El Salvador EF English Proficiency Rating for 2022: 50th in the world (up from 56th in 2021) / 9th in Latin America / 3rd in Central America (excluding Belize)
Next comes Guatemala. It’s no surprise Central America’s largest population speaks among the least English. With a massive indigenous community, many Guatemalans are already bilingual, with languages like K’iche commonly spoken alongside Spanish. And monolingual K’iche speakers often want to prioritize learning Spanish over English. It’s understandable.
Speaking of learning Spanish, Guatemala is popular with foreigners for that, too. It’s a hotbed of full immersion courses, where you go and spend time living with a Guatemalan family with no English to force yourself to learn Spanish. English is down the list in Guatemala.
That said, Guatemala has shot five places up the list since last year, which is a huge positive. You’ll also find plenty of English in the tourist town of Antigua, where many expats live. There’s also the community of Livingston where, like the rest of Caribbean Central America, you’ll hear that exotic mixture of English, Spanish, and Creole.
- Guatemala EF English Proficiency Rating for 2022: 58th in the world (up from 63rd in 2021) / 13th in Latin America / 4th in Central America (excluding Belize)
When talking about English-speaking countries in Central America, it should come as no surprise that Nicaragua ranks among the lowest.
It’s the poorest country in Central America by far, and although there’s a moderate Nicaraguan diaspora living in the United States, compared to the Salvadorans, Hondurans, and Guatemalans, it’s tiny. Only Costa Rica and Panama have smaller immigrant populations living in the U.S. The difference with them, though, is that they’re both much wealthier countries with better education systems offering better chances to learn English.
Nicaragua has no such luck.
You’ll find pockets of English in Nicaragua, though. The tourist towns of Granada and San San Juan del Sur still have large expat populations who live, breathe, eat, and drink in English. Nicaragua’s long (but sparsely populated) Caribbean coastline speaks English in the same way we’ve mentioned elsewhere in this article. Ditto for the Corn Islands.
It should also be noted that English proficiency in Nicaragua has shot up over the past year, the biggest increase by far in the region.
- Nicaragua EF English Proficiency Rating for 2022: 61st in the world (up from 73rd in 2021) / 14th in Latin America / 5th in Central America (excluding Belize)
Panama lies bottom of the list in 2022, down from joint-fourth with El Salvador last year. Remember what we said above about Panama when talking about Nicaragua? Well, scrap that.
It’s not really surprising, I guess. Having traveled to Panama extensively, outside of Panama City and the Bocas del Toro (that Caribbean side thing again), not many people speak English, at least fewer than I’d expect.
But given Panama’s legacy as a country effectively created by the United States in the first place, and with a long standing U.S. presence throughout the 20th century with the Canal, there’s still an English-speaking vibe here.
And then, of course, Panama’s City’s growing reputation as a regional and global finance hub. Lots of English is needed there. What’s happened over the past year is less of Panama becoming less proficient in English, and more about other countries taking over and becoming more proficient.
- Panama EF English Proficiency Rating for 2022: 75th in the world (down from 56th in 2021) / 16th in Latin America / 6th in Central America (excluding Belize)
One thing worth pointing out is this:
Taking Belize out of the equation, when you look at English proficiency in Costa Rica, Honduras, El Salvador, Panama, Guatemala, and Nicaragua, you’ll see one thing standing out.
All these countries are way ahead of others in Latin America. Even Panama, with the lowest proficiency in Central America, comes out better than supposed “big hitters” like Colombia and Mexico.
Only Argentina comes higher than Costa Rica, and Latin America’s powerhouse of Brazil comes in El Salvador and Guatemala. That’s truly surprising.
We hope this guide is useful for anyone looking for English speaking countries in Central America, whether it’s for business or personal reasons. How easy do you find living in Central America without speaking Spanish yet? Let us know. But don’t use this as an excuse to not learn Spanish, though… it’s still important that you do that!
James Dyde is the editor of centralamerica.com. He lives in Escazu, Costa Rica.