It’s much easier to survive on the Camino Francés (the main Camino de Santiago route across Spain) if you don’t speak Spanish than it is to walk the Chemin du Puy without speaking French. However, as when travelling in any country, speaking the local language enriches the experience, and makes the trip easier.
If nothing else, it’s worth memorizing “hola” (hi—pronounced oh-la) and “buen camino” (good road—pronounced bwen camino, a common pilgrim greeting) for basic Camino manners.
Talking to Locals
Local people, including shopkeepers and bar owners (bars in Spain are basically a cross between a café and a pub) don’t usually speak English.
In some stores, the shopkeepers serve you. If you don’t know the word for what you want, you should be able to point. In bars and restaurants, it would help if you had someone to translate, since the pilgrims’ menus are only sometimes translated into English and other common Camino languages.
If you get lost, the more you can understand Spanish the easier it is to get back on track. “Pardón, ¿dondé está el camino?” is another helpful phrase. Excuse me. Where is the Camino? If you can’t remember that, I would imagine saying “Camino?” and looking confused (while, of course, looking very pilgrimly with your travel clothes and backpack) will convince people to point you in the right direction.
But while it’s perfectly possible to survive without Spanish, I had a few great discussions with locals I met on the road, sometimes while asking for directions, that I’d never have been able to have without speaking some Spanish.
At Pilgrim Refuges
Some of the hospitaleros and hospitaleras are local Spaniards, but even if they don’t speak English, they’re used to dealing with people who can’t speak Spanish.
In my experience, a lot of the volunteer hospitaleros and hospitaleras spoke at least some English.
Talking to Pilgrims
English is often the common language between pilgrims from different countries on the Camino. I met two Belgians—one from the Flemish part, and one from the French part—who had to communicate in English. And even if someone doesn’t speak English, they can often find someone else to translate.
So if you’re an English-speaker, you might not be able to talk to everyone, but it’s relatively easy to find someone who can talk to you.
Of course, the Camino Francés is very international, so the more languages you speak, the better. I once had a conversation in (fairly bad) Spanish with an Italian woman, because while neither of us was fluent, it was the only language we had in common.
Spanish Spanish and Latin American Spanish
I learned to speak Spanish in Mexico, and my university Spanish professor was from Colombia. I found it harder to understand Spanish in Spain, with its lispy s’s, but after a while I got more or less used to it.
Grammar and vocabulary also differ a bit from one Spanish-speaking country to another. (Learn more here.)
Other Languages Spoken Along the Camino
Spanish-speakers often refer to the language we call Spanish as castellano, or Castilian. That’s because it’s not the only language spoken in Spain.
The first few days of the Camino out of Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port are in Basque country, where the Basque language is spoken. Santiago is in the region of Galicia, where the inhabitants speak Galician, or Galego, which is related to Portuguese. That’s why in both these regions you’ll often see two different names for the same place: one is in Castilian Spanish, and the other is in the local language.
People in these regions also speak Castilian Spanish, so if you do speak Spanish, it’s still easy to communicate.
There are a lot of ways to learn some basic Spanish before your trip. Check your local community college listings for classes, or your library or the Internet for courses.
I really like the Pimsleur program for second-language learning. I’ve found it really engrains basic conversational grammar in my head. It has thirty-minute programs that I used to listen to every night while doing dishes, back when I was learning German. Usually I listened to each lesson twice, or sometimes even three times, before moving onto the next. The down side is it’s quite expensive (unless you luck out on eBay), but packages with the first eight lessons are often available at public libraries.