Travel and language were made for each other.
If you needed any more reasons to learn a foreign language, travel is definitely a good one. Travelers preparing for a round-the-world gap year or a long weekend away in a neighboring country often pack a phrasebook or even take a few classes in the foreign language with which they’ll need to navigate their foreign travel.
Those spending a year teaching overseas or working as expats may even consider learning the local language to be a fundamental requirement of a respectful visitor.
Chances are, if you’re traveling soon, you could at least benefit from learning a few friendly phrases or more in your destination’s language. In fact, travelers have more reason than just about anyone else to learn a new language.
Why Travelers Make the Best Language Learners
The world is unthinkably vast, and so are its cultures and languages.
It’s estimated that there are over seven thousand languages spoken on Earth today. While you certainly don’t need to learn every one of them, any traveler ought to view a new language as a key to a treasure chest full of authentic cultural experiences and new friends all over the world.
Anyone planning on spending more than a few days in a foreign region should devote some time to learning at least a dozen or so polite phrases in the local language.
It’s not just your best shot at meeting locals and finding out what any given place is really like, but it’s also a way of being a respectful traveler. Despite the fact that many people around the world speak English, most will be quite insulted if they feel visitors in their country expect them to speak and understand English. Even just learning simple travel phrases like “I’m sorry, I don’t speak your language, do you speak English?” will distance you from off-putting images of rude, entitled tourists.
Most importantly, learning about a region’s local languages should be a key factor in any traveler’s language learning decisions. Learning Mandarin Chinese is great, but maybe not the most practical choice for your summer abroad in Hong Kong or Guangzhou. Swahili will offer you a super authentic safari experience, but don’t expect to speak it during your South African backpacking trip.
This definitive guide breaks the world up into culturally and linguistically similar regions that correspond well with the usual itineraries of backpackers, expats and holiday-goers. We’ll give a quick mention of how much you can plan to rely on English in each region, offer a few of the most useful languages for travelers and end with a few quick suggestions of other travel-friendly languages for narrower regions or more culturally ambitious trips.
The Ultimate Guide to Useful Languages for Travelers
The Languages of Eurasia: Talking the Talk on Your Eurotrip
First-time travelers and even seasoned veterans are usually surprised to hear that Europe is, by a wide margin, the least linguistically diverse continent on our planet (not counting relatively quiet Antarctica). With a mere 286 languages spoken by its inhabitants, Europe makes up a puny 4% of world languages.
While traveling from the Atlantic Ocean to the Ural Mountains, from the northernmost points of Scandinavia to the shores of the Mediterranean Sea, from the former Soviet states of the Caucasus Mountains and into Central Asia, a handful of geographically extensive languages will get you around conveniently and enjoyably.
English: The European Traveler’s Best Friend
Thanks to high levels of education and a decidedly global outlook, you’ll find that English is handier here than in just about any other non-native-speaking corner of the world.
While you shouldn’t expect English to get you into deep philosophical debates with strangers in Italian coffee shops or Russian bars, you can count on finding enough English speakers to at least give you basic assistance and a little company in nearly every large city and university town throughout the continent.
In general, the farther north and west you go, the larger the city and the smaller the global reach of the local language, the more English you’ll find. But don’t forget that English is only native to the United Kingdom in this region, and that by relying exclusively on widely-understood English travel vocabulary, you’re missing out on the deeper cultural layers of each country you visit.
German: Your All-access Pass to Central Europe and Beyond
Germany is close to the geographic, political and financial center of Europe, so it makes sense that this powerful country’s equally powerful language penetrates far and wide. Your native-speaking countries are limited to Switzerland, parts of Belgium and Luxembourg, Austria and mother Germany herself, but the German language will come in handy far beyond these borders.
Young people throughout the Netherlands, the UK and Central Europe are learning German more and more as its namesake country increasingly offers jobs and opportunities to young Europeans, but the youths aren’t the only ones who know a bit of Deutsch. Huge guest worker populations from Eastern Europe and the Balkans spent several decades working in Austria and Germany, leaving many members of the middle generation of these countries fairly proficient German speakers.
A few well-used phrases will be sure to to make your Central European tour sehr gut.
Russian: The Traveler’s Tool for Traversing Eurasia
The official language of Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan will see you from the Baltic Sea all the way to the Bering Strait. While the Soviet Union has never existed in many young travelers’ lifetimes, one of its convenient legacies is the widespread use of the Russian language it left behind.
Aside from the countries in which it’s an official state language, there’s a long list of other Eastern European and West Asian countries that formally recognize Russian as a minority language, including Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Moldova, Georgia, Romania and Norway.
While not official, its important role as a significant minority language or inter-ethnic language will assure Russian-speaking travelers that they’ll have easy communication in part or most of Armenia, Azerbaijan, Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, Mongolia and Uzbekistan.
Other Useful Languages for Traveling in Europe and Eurasia
French isn’t only a good choice for France, but it’s also still popularly learned by educated people of all generations throughout Europe.
Spanish is another handy world language for travelers in Europe. Outside Spain, its commonalities with Portuguese and Italian will help you get through its southern European neighbors as well.
Additionally, the Serbo-Croatian dialects of the Balkans are all mutually intelligible, and will give you a priceless opportunity to ditch the resorts and explore natural beauty that can’t be beat in the rest of Europe.
The East Asian Languages That Open Doors for Travelers
Europe was once the whole world’s go-to destination for vacations and backpacking trips, but these days travelers are looking farther and farther east. China, Japan, the Koreas, Taiwan and autonomous Hong Kong and Macau together contain over one-fifth of the world’s people and a bottomless trove of travel treasures.
This region’s colonial history and a couple centuries of mutual resentment between peoples and governments has made sure that no one country’s official language has evolved into a regional language.
For a trip through the whole region, English will afford the most geographic reach, as it’s learned nearly everywhere by the highly educated and those who work in the tourism industry. But beyond English, try a few local languages on for size.
Mandarin: One Country, a Billion People and a Lifetime of Travel Opportunities
As not only the language with the most speakers in the world but also the official state language of the largest country in this region, Mandarin is the obvious big name on this list.
Most visitors to China arrange to take organized tours, often led by Mandarin-speaking officials. While English tours are certainly available, speaking a bit of Chinese will almost certainly ingratiate you to your guide and any locals you get a chance to meet. And for the even more adventurous, a sturdy level of Mandarin will help you navigate the enormous country more independently (although many people in its Western provinces don’t speak the state language).
Mandarin is also the official language of Taiwan, a radical travel alternative to Mainland China. Although the island nation doesn’t technically exist according to most of the world, a little Mandarin will help you enjoy its tropical weather, high level of development, and relatively cheap cost of travel and living.
Cantonese: Taking Travelers to Southern China and Beyond
Sometimes forgotten in the shadow of big brother Mandarin, Cantonese is another enormous world language spoken in China and beyond its borders. As the most prestigious variety of the Yue language, Cantonese (along with other languages with which it’s mutually intelligible) is used by 60 million speakers spread across southern China, Hong Kong and Macau.
Cantonese has a bit more geographic reach than Mandarin, as the vast majority of Chinese expat communities in East and Southeast Asia—and in most of the world beyond—are Cantonese speakers. From the Yokohama Chinatown on Tokyo’s south side to the capitals of Southeast Asia, in almost any big Asian city, you’ll find at least a small community of Cantonese speakers.
Other Handy Languages for Travelers in East Asia
Japanese is another enormous world language, with its 125 million speakers, but its limitation to travelers is that it doesn’t go very far outside Japan.
Korean is similarly large and confined, but the gradual growth of the North Korean tourism industry may offer enough incentive for the most adventurous of travelers to invest in the language.
Traveling Through the Backpacker’s Paradise: Handy Languages for Southeast Asia and Oceania
Even more than the tourism giants in the northeast part of the continent, Southeast Asia is the number one backpacking hotspot these days. Cheap accommodation, spectacular food and the growing presence of backpackers is creating a touristic snowball in this region. Many travelers continue from Southeast Asia proper into Indonesia, the Pacific islands, Australia and New Zealand.
Because of the area’s popularity with travelers and the influence of Australia, English is becoming common in tourist hot spots, but it doesn’t look like it’ll penetrate farther than the biggest cities and tourist-crowded beaches any time soon (other than in Australia and New Zealand of course, where it’s the native language). Until it does, think about studying up on one of these languages for your Southeast Asia trip.
Thai: The Language That’s Begging Travelers to Become Expats
Thailand is currently one of the most popular destinations for Westerners (and people from all over the globe) who work remotely from their laptops, the trendily named “digital nomads” who roam around and freelance or manage businesses online. If you’re looking to go location independent or just want to spend a few months in one of the cheapest expat-friendly countries in existence, then some Thai lessons would help you get a deeper and more authentic experience of the country.
Beyond Thailand’s borders, some Thai speakers will also understand Laotian, spoken in its even cheaper but less developed neighboring country, making a Laotian vacation an excellent option for Thai-speaking expats based in popular cities like Chiang Mai or Bangkok.
Indo-Malay: The World Language to Carry You through the Rest of Oceania
The fuzzy boundary between the Indonesian and Malaysian languages coincides with the fuzzy geographic boundary between what’s conventionally known as Southeast Asia and Oceania. Largely because of those fuzzy boundaries, learning the language referred to in Malaysia as “Malay” and in Indonesia as “Indonesian” will put you in touch with about a quarter of a billion locals scattered across these thousands of islands.
Also helpful is the fact that it’s incredibly easy to learn: Indo-Malay’s lack of verb tenses and simple grammar means a couple weeks of intensive courses at the beginning of your trip should leave you reasonably prepared for everyday basic communication, and if you stick to it your skills will only improve as you make your way from island to island!
Other Helpful Languages for Travelers in Southeast Asia and Oceania
Tagalog is the official language of the Philippines, and Spanish speakers will find it easy and even familiar. Throughout mainland Southeast Asia, older, educated citizens of the former French colonies of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos are likely to speak some of the colonial language.
South Asia: Languages for Traveling the Indian Subcontinent
Every country of modern South Asia once formed part of the British Empire, which is why you’ll find that English will be exceptionally useful in this region, although it’ll be a very different English than the varieties Brits and Americans are used to.
Modern day India, with its one billion inhabitants, is now the second-largest English-speaking country in the world, with the official state language being used for inter-ethnic communication between different groups in the linguistically super-diverse country.
While the inherited colonial language will certainly serve you well here, dedicated travelers should consider learning a bit of the other important local languages.
Hindustani: The Superlanguage of India and Pakistan
India is already a hot backpacking and luxury travel destination, and Pakistan is steadily climbing its way up as it improves its security and infrastructure. Between these two giant countries, four hundred million native and second language speakers use Hindi or Urdu, two standard dialects of the giant language linguists call Hindustani.
Throughout North India and most of Pakistan, Hindi or Urdu will be spoken by nearly everyone you meet, and for many people this will be their native language, not the English that they learned in school—English takes the back seat as a third or fourth language for most. A few well-placed phrases in Hindi or Urdu are your best shot at charming your way into the hospitality and natural beauty of India and Pakistan.
Bengali: For Travelers on the Cutting Edge
Sandwiched between giant names like India and China and the tourist attractions of Southeast Asia, 200 million speakers in Bangladesh and India’s Bengal province are buzzing with the world’s seventh largest language. Bangladesh and its neighboring Indian province are densely populated parts of the Bay of Bengal, with some of the most beautiful and undiscovered wildlife in the world.
Bangladesh hasn’t really reached the mainstream travel itineraries as of yet, but its tourism industry is growing. If you want to get there before it gets cool, brush up on your Bengali and book a flight!
Other Languages to Think About for Your South Asian Travels
If you’re more focused on the southern parts of India, a language like Telugu would be especially handy, as it’s spoken and understood throughout several of the southern states.
If you want to trek into the remote regions of Tibet in the north of the subcontinent, Tibetan will give you priceless access to cultural opportunities most travelers only dream of.
The Middle East and North Africa: Languages for Traveling the Arab World
When most people think of the Middle East and the Arab World, Arabic is, pretty reasonably, the first language that comes to mind. The only problem is that there isn’t really a language called “Arabic,” or at least not one that’ll do you much good.
What we call “Arabic” might refer either to the written literary language that children learn in school throughout the Arab world but is rarely used for oral conversation, or to a loose collection of related languages, many of which are mutually unintelligible, across the Middle East and North Africa.
English is fairly useful in Israel and in capitals and wealthy cities in Egypt, Iraq, Turkey and the Gulf Countries. A few other languages, both native and colonial, will get you even farther through North Africa and the Middle East.
Egyptian Arabic: Talk Like an Arab Movie Star
While there really isn’t a spoken Standard Arabic, Egyptian Arabic may be the closest thing to it. This isn’t just because of its relative economic and political power in the Middle East, or the fact that Egypt is the most populous Arab country, but because the Hollywood of the Arab World is in Cairo, the heart of both Arab cinema and the place where most foreign films are dubbed into a distinctly Egyptian Arabic.
While it may not help you to understand far-removed dialects of Arabic, it will ensure that you can at least get your point across in most places.
French: For Travel on the Southern Side of the Mediterranean
Large parts of North Africa and the Middle East were parts of the French Empire before World War II, and the French language remains prominent and even official in many of the former colonies. The vast majority of middle class people in Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Lebanon still speak fluent French.
Very many people you meet in cities will be fluent in French, and you may find that many are happy to chat with a curious traveler, so make sure you learn at least the must-know French phrases for navigating these parts.
Farsi: The Prince of Persian Travel
Americans may still have more trouble getting visas than others, but Iran is a rapidly up-and-coming travel destination. Ask any backpacker who’s been there and they’ll rave about hospitality, openness and well-educated people. Imagine how much more of that you could soak up with some basic Farsi!
The same language, under various different national names, is spoken in Afghanistan and parts of Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. While the first name on that list won’t be a popular vacation destination any time soon, the latter two are becoming more and more common legs of Central Asian tours.
Other Languages for Travelers in the Middle East and North Africa
Gulf Arabic is one of the widest-reaching Arabic dialects, understood throughout the Gulf States and in large swaths of Saudi Arabia.
Turkish will help you not only in Turkey but in regions that speak similar Turkic languages in Iran and Central Asia.
Sub-Saharan Africa: Languages for Traveling Far Off the Beaten Path
Africa is the second largest, second most populous and second most linguistically diverse continent on the planet, but as a travel destination it’s nothing but first rate.
Colonial European empires divided the entire African continent up with the exception of unconquered Ethiopia. That’s why French will take you through most of Western and Central Africa and English will work for a large part of what’s left. You could travel overland from Cape Town to Kenya, crossing through anywhere from five to ten different countries without ever crossing through one where English isn’t an official language.
While many travelers are happy getting through Africa with more familiar European languages, several native African languages are worth investing in for your trip as well.
Swahili: The East African Lingua Franca
While native to only a small population of five million or so, Swahili is spoken and understood by one hundred and fifty million people, stretching from eastern parts of the Congo to the Indian Ocean shores of Tanzania and Kenya.
Most of the most spectacular safari countries are situated in the Swahili language area, so speaking the language might allow you to take a more authentic safari or other tour that’s more geared towards locals.
Shona: For an Authentic Southeast African Experience
Southeastern Africa, while among the poorest regions of the entire earth, is also raved about by visitors as one of the friendliest and most welcoming. From the hippo-filled Okavango Delta of Botswana, throughout Zimbabwe and to the remote northern beaches of Mozambique, Shona is the mother tongue of most locals you’ll meet, and even simple phrases like “thank you” or “your country is beautiful” is sure to endear you to everyone you meet.
Learn a few words of Shona and visit the nature of the Zimbabwean countryside, or surprise yourself with the well-maintained roads and highly developed cities of Botswana.
Portuguese: For the Hardiest of Travelers
Portuguese is spoken in a geographically scattered collection of African countries: Mozambique, Angola, Guinea-Bissau and the island nation of São Tome and Principe.
Angola is notoriously stingy with its tourist visas, making it nearly impossible for most Western travelers to even get in, and thus leaving it an internationally undiscovered gem. Mozambique and Guinea-Bissau won’t be as difficult to get into, but you’ll find their infrastructure reflects the fact that all three are among the least developed countries in the world.
Other Practical Languages for Travelers in Sub-Saharan Africa
Hausa in West Africa is a large Bantu Language with many millions of speakers and lots of mutually-intelligible dialects.
Amharic is spoken by nearly 22 million people in Ethiopia, arguably the African continent’s most culturally distinct country due to its unique history.
The Americas: Languages for Traveling the Western Hemisphere
More so than maybe any other part of the world, the colonial history of the Americas has left it for the most part neatly divided between a handful of large European world languages.
Two main languages can get you uninterrupted from the northernmost reaches of the Yukon to the southern tips of Tierra del Fuego, and two more will put you in contact with the overwhelming majority of the population of North and South America.
English: The Language of American Pop Cultural Imperialism
Throughout the last century English has grown in international importance, but the source of that wasn’t its namesake, England. Most of global English has been propelled by Hollywood movies and Wall Street banks spreading their language, culture and money throughout the world. As a result of that, not just in the Americas, but throughout most parts of the world frequented by tourists, people understand at least a few basic English travel phrases.
Compared to other parts of the world, English is less varied throughout North America, and most speakers should understand just about everything they hear from the most remote parts of Canada to either coast of the US.
In more developed countries and those with strong ties to the US and Canada, like Mexico, Argentina, Chile and Uruguay, you stand a better chance of finding English speakers than in other parts of Latin America.
Spanish: The Language of Latin America
Spanish is the unifying force from the Rio Grande to Patagonia and beyond. Additionally, most Spanish-speaking travelers will find Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, California and South Florida all relatively easy to navigate without English, and all large North American cities have sizable Hispanic populations.
Don’t get discouraged if you learn the language and can’t understand it in some regions. Parts of the Caribbean and the Southern Cone of South America are notoriously difficult for non-natives and even some native Spanish speakers to understand. But do be forewarned that remote areas of the Americas, especially in southern Mexico and Andean countries, may lack Spanish speakers entirely and instead have large populations of people who speak an indigenous language as their first (and possibly only) language.
Some pre-trip classes or just a few important Spanish phrases will be majorly helpful in these parts of the world.
Other Useful Languages for Exploring the Americas
Portuguese is the next best language for this region. While it’s limited to one country in South America, it happens to be the fifth-largest country in the world, full of some of the most appealing tourist destinations in the world.
French will serve well in Quebec, French Guiana and the Caribbean Islands, and might open up some interesting chats in southern Louisiana, where Cajun French still runs strong.
Dutch is the national language of Suriname and six Caribbean Islands.
Quechua is one of the biggest indigenous languages of the Andes, and will get you far in more remote areas in the region.
Learn a Language, Travel the World
You may have noticed that a lot of the benefits of the languages mentioned here have to do with connecting with locals. While it’s true that hordes of backpackers struggle through Southeast Asia every year on English alone, those who spent a month studying Vietnamese before starting their tour of the country will tell you how even the most basic communicative skills open up entire countries of new possibilities.
To prepare yourself for any trip abroad, prepare yourself ahead of time by reading travel guides and phrasebooks—you’ll arrive knowing about the destinations, local language, culture, etiquette and customs. Lonely Planet has travel guides and phrasebooks for virtually every region and language under the sun, so it’s a great place to start learning.
Anything you can do to prepare yourself before traveling makes a difference.
We know there are a ton of benefits for learning a language, but no one benefits from it as much as a world traveler. If you’re planning a big trip in the near future, it’s time to start brushing up on your language skills today!
Jakob is a full-time traveler, obsessive language learner and dedicated language teacher. He writes about language, travel and the many places they meet on the road at his blog Globalect.
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