I've often dreamed about being able to go anywhere and talk to anyone, hoping that one day I would eventually become something between polyglot and omniglot, traveling freely throughout the world on my own terms. Not long ago, I came across this post at I Kinda Like Languages, and it got me thinking about what my list would look like.
Rather than basing my studies on complete speculation, I prefer to have some data to support my expectations. I recently found this cool interactive map of the world's languages, but after playing with it for a few moments I found it disheartening. It only lists official language per country, and if you used it as your only source, you'd be justified in assuming you need to learn several dozen languages! That might take your whole life, and it wouldn't really have a huge payoff.
Fortunately, we can trust the good people of the world to keep Wikipedia up to date with lots of relevant and useful information. So I started with a few assumptions and set about collecting data. I've found that most of my assumptions were right, and that a few were not. Most surprisingly, I found that one could reasonably travel throughout most of the civilized world with knowledge of just eight languages.
As an official language, English almost completely covers two continents, but that's just the start. I'm sure this needs no explanation, but just to state the obvious, English is the most relevant international language. This is no doubt a product of two things: the British Empire, and 20th century American capitalism. Whatever the cause, though, the net result is the same: the most studied second-language everywhere in the world is English. If you travel and you can't find someone who speaks even just a little bit of Engligh, you're just not trying.
Spanish covers approximately half of two continents — including almost every part of The Americas that is not English-speaking. The exception here is Portuguese in Brazil, but it's very similar to Spanish, so learning it isn't so complicated.
The Soviet Union hasn't been gone that long, so Russian is not only necessary in Russia, the largest country in the world, but it's still significantly used throughout the entire former-Soviet Bloc. Knowledge of Russian opens up most of Eastern Europe and the entire northern half of Asia.
Arabic covers almost all of the Middle East, and most of northern Africa, to say nothing of all the Arabic people who have migrated into Europe and elsewhere. It should be understood that there are several different dialects of Arabic, but while that might be important for a dignitary, I don't believe that would pose a significant challenge to the purposes of a world-traveling polyglot.
French rounds out the trio of North American languages, is significantly understood in Europe, and widely used throughout western Africa. Also, prior to the rise of English, French was the de facto world traveler's language, and behind English it is still widely studied as a second-language around the world.
Turkish is most important in Turkey, but has a surprisingly widespread influence. In addition to an understandably large representation southeast Europe, it also has a huge presence in Germany. There is a smaller, but notable presence of Turkish in North America, Australia, and Russia, and several Central Asian countries which speak Turkic languages.
Discussion of Chinese as a language is misleading, as there are several languages spoken in China, and given the number of Chinese people, even a small percentage is significant on a world scale. Mandarin (whose name in Chinese is "the common language") is the official language in China, enjoys the most prolific use, and would be the obvious first choice. The presence of Chinese language around the world is quite wide spread, but in all cases rather low outside of China, and it is for that reason that Chinese ranks rather low on this list.
UPDATE: Read my recent review of Rocket Chinese.
And finally, like China, Portuguese opens up access to large, heavily populated parts of the world, and should be included, but Portuguese has even more limited representation outside of it's native use, and for that reason falls at the very bottom of the list.
North America is almost completely covered by just three languages: English, Spanish, and French. (And the necessity for French is debatable.) A fluent speaker of those three languages can comfortably communicate with anyone he or she encounters in North America. Chinese and Turkish, while definitely not neccessary, have the potential to come in handy.
South America is mostly covered by just two languages — Spanish and Portuguese — and if you add English and French to the mix, you're completely covered for almost any situation. Chinese might have a very limited use as well.
Australia is dominated by English, and there is no reason to think you'd need anything else, though Chinese and Turkish appear to offer some potential.
Asia if you speak Russian and Mandarin, you've probably got most of Asia covered. English is sure to be handy tourist centers. And thanks to the Ottoman Empire, the influences of Turkish can be handy in parts of central Asia beyond just Turkey. We start to see a lot more diversity in Asia, but it is reasonable to assume that an understanding of English, Russian, and Mandarin should be enough to get by in countries like Japan, Thailand, Singapore, or India, where their language is different, but not widespread enough to make this list.
In the Middle East, knowledge of Arabic and Turkish seems to cover quite a bit. Mostly Arabic. It would be good to know the regional differences for Arabic, of which it appears there are several. But I think reality is that the Middle East is probably not high on the list of travel destinations for anyone who is not in military, news, or aid, and you probably don't want to be there without a guide anyway.
We've done pretty well with Africa, too. With Arabic covering most of northern Africa, and French covering most of western Africa, the weakest link is eastern and southern Africa, where English is still widely spoken. Portuguese seems to come in handy as well.
And finally, Europe is very language-diverse, but English alone can go a long way in Europe, and adding French and Spanish gets you even further. If you really want to round out your enjoyment of Europe, you'll want to add German, which opens up Germany, Austria, and Switzerland, and might make life in the Netherlands easier. Once again, we're not able to cover everything, but the languages we've covered so far should be enough for survival in the rest of Europe.
There will be pockets in Europe, Africa, and Southeast Asia where a person could still have a little trouble, but my guess is that anyone who has learned all eight of these languages will also have picked up the communication skills necessary to get by even when he or she can't find a common language.
And if you think this list might possibly have some effect on my choices of the languages I learn in coming years, you'd be right! The two at the bottom, Portuguese and Chinese, will remain low on my list, and since I already speak English, Spanish, and Russian, one could rightly expect my next three missions to be among Turkish, Arabic, and French. We'll see!
Do you disagree? Do you think a person needs less? More? Is there another widespread language that I completely missed? Leave a comment!
Want to see my favorite language resources and courses?
I listed them here.