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Ecuador - Speaking the Language


A number of languages are spoken in Ecuador, and a brief look at the country’s history will show you why. You should have some awareness of this so you can be culturally sensitive to the people around you as well as understand how and why their use of language varies.

The first people to live in Ecuador arrived as far back as 10,000 BC. These were small communities who survived by hunting and gathering from the local environment and eventually developed into three distinct civilisations based on agricultural activity. They are known as the Canari, the Quitu and the Caras people. Trade routes with Peru, Brazil, Mexico and the Amazonian tribes emerged, and large cities along the coast were established by 500 BC.

The three civilisations came together to fend off invasion from the Inca ruler Tupac-Yupanqui in 1460 AD but were later defeated by his son Huayna Capac. At this time, all tribes were expected to use the Inca language, Quechua.

When Huayna Capac died in 1526 AD, the empire was divided between his two sons. Shortly after this, Spaniard Francisco Pizarro landed on Ecuador’s coast and heard the rumours of inland cities containing incredible wealth. He returned in 1532 with 180 armed men, just as Huayna Capac’s two sons completed a drawn-out civil war for full possession of the empire. The victor, Atahualpa, had not had time to make his territory secure before Pizzaro ambushed him. Despite a huge ransom that was paid over to Pizarro, Atahualpa was executed, and the Inca resistance was broken.

Ecuador was ruled by Spanish people for almost 300 years. Although these Spaniards ruled from first from Peru and then from Colombia, their cultural dominance succeeded. The Spanish language, Roman Catholic religion and colonial architecture all became incorporated into the mainstream society of Ecuador. People of colour were brought in to work as slaves on Ecuador's plantations in the early 16th century.

Simon Bolivar defeated the Spanish army at the Battle of Pichincha in 1822, and thus began Ecuador’s independence. Bolivar’s dream of uniting all of South America was short lived, and internal disputes leading to violence, assassinations and military dictatorships blighted much of Ecuador’s history up until 1979. Since then, a stable democracy with free elections has been successfully maintained.

Ecuador Has An Ethnically Diverse Population

The total population of Ecuador in 2018 was estimated to be 16.86 million. More than 70 percent of the population are Mestizo people, who are descendants of Spanish colonists and indigenous people. White people of European descent are in a minority of 12 percent.

Roughly seven percent of Ecuador’s citizens are people who were indigenous to America, with a similar percentage represented by the Afro-Ecuadorian community.

Until the 1950s, ethnic groups centred around specific areas of the country. This meant that the Afro-Ecuadorian people would seldom be found outside the area in which Imbabura, Carchi and Esmeraldas are located. People who were indigenous to America formed the rural Sierra communities, while Mestizo people would live in the countryside and small rural towns. The white population clustered in large cities.

However, pressures on land resources and the dream of a better life have increasingly encouraged people to move to new areas where they hope that better opportunities can be found.

Languages Spoken In Ecuador Today

The official language of Ecuador is Spanish. This is the first language of most people living in Ecuador, especially those in the cities.

However, you must be aware that the version of Spanish which is spoken in Ecuador is not only different to that used in Spain, but also varies in the different regions of Ecuador itself. The accent differs across regions, and there are a lot of slang terms and slight grammatical differences. Consider the use of English by native speakers from Scotland, Newcastle, Liverpool and London; these people all each speak the same language, but have different accents, regional words and grammatical quirks. It is the same in Ecuador.

This means that if you speak classic Spanish, you have enough knowledge to connect and communicate with those around you. However, you might sometimes be confused by someone’s term of expression or different way of pronouncing a word.

There are 13 Native American languages spoken across Ecuador by more than two million people. Quichua (sometimes referred to a Kichwa) is the most common, and has nine variants. Shuar is the next most common.

English is the most common of the foreign languages spoken by people who have moved to Ecuador more recently. Ecuador is an attractive, exotic destination for English speaking tourists, including young backpackers. Well-educated professionals in the country, including those working for large corporations and universities, may well have studied abroad and lived in the USA. As English is commonly taught in schools, many young people should have a grasp of the basics.

German is the second most commonly spoken foreign language in the nation, followed by Chinese and Arabic.

Learning Spanish in Ecuador

“Some days it’s difficult to have to think in Spanish all day” commented US expat Elliott Segelbaum from his early retirement in Cuenca, Ecuador. Many expats arrive in Ecuador with only a hazy knowledge of Spanish, which can make settling in more difficult. It may be tough, but learning the local language will always bring a range of benefits.

If you are living in a busy city, there is likely to be a local language school. Classes for groups and individual tuition can be offered at times that fit around your work commitments.

You can seek personal recommendations on the ExpatFocus Forum and Facebook Page to find out what others thought of local language centres.

If you need to learn the language basics online, you have plenty of options, many of which are free. Have a look at Duolingo and Memrise as well as Youtube videos.

Language In The Media

One of the primary sources of news in Ecuador is the radio, which has many stations across the country. They are primarily in the local forms of Spanish, but some broadcast in Native American languages.

Television is popular for entertainment. Sports, especially soccer, receive a lot of air time in Ecuador. If you purchase a DirecTV package, there will be plenty of English language content to choose from.

Not surprisingly, newspapers are printed in Spanish. However, there are some English language online options available as well. For example, Ecuador Times can be accessed in both English and Spanish. In addition to politics, entertainment and sports news, the home page runs a ‘breaking news’ banner. Cuenca High Life is a website for expats living in the area which reports on local news.

Teaching English In Ecuador

English is taught across Ecuador. As a result, there is a demand for English teachers in public schools, private language schools and some universities. However, there are a lot of expats seeking this work in areas with larger expat communities.

If you want to teach in a state school or a university you will need good qualifications, usually including a master’s degree, and a teaching certificate. In the private sector the bar will be lower, but you will need to be competent in your job to remain there.

Salaries are modest, so you certainly won’t be heading to Ecuador to build up a nest egg for the future. However, living costs are also low, so you should be able to earn enough for a decent lifestyle while you are there. Ecuador has a minimum wage, although you will need full time hours to get by at that rate. Fortunately, your employer should cover your insurance costs.

You will need a visa to stay in the country, and you need a job to apply for one of these. Many expats struggle to get a response to emails and letters from employers they have approached. If you are able to support yourself for a few weeks, it is worth the investment of time and money to stay in Ecuador while you seek work. Meeting a prospective employer face to face and persuading them you are the person for the job is always going to be more successful than sending an emailed resume.

More information about working in Ecuador can be found in the ‘Finding Employment’ section of the country guide.


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