8 Most Useful Languages For Traveling The World

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.

English

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

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.

Russian

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

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

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

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.

Chinese

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.

Portuguese

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.

In summary

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!

Author: Yearlyglot
I'll lead you through a 12 month journey from knowing absolutely nothing about a language to having professional fluency.

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  • From what I've read, it sounds like each Arabic dialect is very different from all the others, so much that if you're speaking one dialect, someone speaking a different one will barely, if at all, be able to understand you.. I've been thinking about this for a while, and I'm probably going to study the dialect used in either Egypt or Lebanon, in addition to Modern Standard Arabic.

  • btw... I just found your blog.. I read your "about me." I'm glad there are other people who feel the same as me. :) I think I've always just been naturally unconventional.. It's frustrating when my family thinks what I'm doing is crazy, or not going to work, but I'm just following my heart, and what feels right to me. Hopefully we'll both get to travel the world. :)

  • There are always argument about whether this dialect is different from that dialect, in any language. I find that it's all a reflection of a person's attitude. If you have a negative attitude, you can say that the English spoken in England is nothing like the English spoken in American, and that one often has a hard time being understood by the other -- and you would, of course, be right... in a sense. But if you have a positive attitude, you could say most of the language is the same and the grammar is identical, so even though British people pronounce things differently, and add the letter u unnecessarily to words, it's still not much of a stretch to learn one and understand the other.I think Egyptian Arabic is probably a good choice because Egypt is large, populous, and tourist-friendly. And I expect that the differences between Egyptian and other dialects of Arabic will be easily overcome, particularly after having overcome the hardest part -- learning Arabic! :)

  • I'm already doing it, my friend. There is no "get to" when it's the thing you want most in life. Nothing is going to stop me! :)

  • Hi again!
    I am afraid that arabic dialects are so far apart that speakers will sometimes be unable to understand each other. The differences are especially large between northern african and middle east arabic. You should probably try to learn egyptian arabic as it is widely understood, or why not modern standard arabic, the literary language over the entire region.

  • Just a small correction, if you allow. You write "And thanks to the Ottoman Empire, the influences of Turkish can be handy in parts of central Asia beyond just Turkey." In fact it was the other way around, Turkish was first spoken in Central Asia, and then migrated to the peninsula that the we today call Turkey during the middle ages when it was slowly conquered by Turkish speaking groups. Had this not occured, Greek would probably still be spoken there.

  • Ahhh.... now the picture is starting to become clearer. You're a history buff.I really don't see what you're correcting. I made no assertions as to the origins of the Ottoman Empire. I only said that the Turkish language is useful beyond Turkey. How it got that way is of little interest to me.But in fact, whether the Ottoman Empire started in Turkey or in China, the net result is the same -- they conquered most of the know world at the time, stretching from the middle east to central asia. And the effect is that knowing Turkish means being able to communicate in those places.

  • Modern Standard Arabic is not spoken. I could waste my time on Esperanto, too, but I don't, because I want to know languages that are actually spoken, by actual people, in actual places that I want to actually visit. I think Egyptian makes the most sense for right now.

  • Hi again!
    I am sorry if I come off as a besserwisser through my remarks, that was not my intention. You are right that history matters to me, (that's why I wanted to correct you). But that's just me.Keep up the good work, Randy!

  • Randy, you are mixing things. You might be thinking of the Mongolian empire, although I am not sure it was a carrier of Turkish languages. The Ottomans held Turkey and adjoining provinces for about 600 years, until the first world war. One period it included much of North Africa, but it never stretched out to Central Asia.

  • I'm not sure what a "besserwisser" is, though if my rusty old memory of German serves correctly, I've got a pretty good idea. :)By all means, I appreciate and heartily welcome any constuctive comments here that add to the information in any way. And since history isn't my thing, I'm sure a number of other people could provide that information better than I can.The only negative reaction I have is to the tone. You posted a series of "corrections" on a number of my posts, all within minutes of each other, and all nit-picking tiny details that are mostly irrelevant to the topic at hand.Most likely you mean no offense, but I'm sure you can see how it could be taken in a less-than-friendly manner. :)And as one final note... there is a certain unspoken tendency among bloggers to give a little more respect to commenters who link to their own blogs. That is to say that if, for instance, your comments linked back to some blog of your own -- especially one about history -- it would have been instantly clear who you are and from what position you are commenting, as well as the mutual respect of recognizing someone else who is also spending the time and doing the hard work to freely share his passions and knowledge online for the rest of the world to benefit. Conversely, though, when a person comments "anonymously", there is a natural tendency to question intent.With all that said, I do appreciate you taking the time to read and to comment on my blog, and I appreciate any input you have, or any additional information that you can add. After all, this site is here for my readers, and if they should end up getting more information from the comments than from the posts... that's still a success! :)

  • The bottom line is that I guess it just doesn't really matter to me. Which empire or which force of history delivered which language to which country is a detail that does very little to facilitate my goal of learning to communicate with people around the world.Regardless of the history involved, I know that the differences between the Turkish language at the far western edge, and Uyghur at the far eastern edge, are so small that the two can understand each other without translation. How it got that way, I'm happy to let the history experts tell that story. The only detail that is relevant to me (a linguist) is that learning Turkish allows me to communicate with all of those people.

  • Randy, it is clear from what you write that you understand the meaning of besserwisser. Looking back at my comments, I see that they can be taken in such a manner. So you have my apologies!I am sorry that have no such blog to offer. I read much about history and languages, but publish nothing in that sphere. What I can offer is only tips for some brilliant books on the history of language that might interest you. They have helped me a lot to learn and understand foreign languages.

  • Well now that we both understand each other and we're on the same page, let me just say clearly that I welcome your comments and input.

  • Pretty good but I'd replace Turkish with German--frankly, I think you'll find German used far more prolifically in countries outside of Germany than you will find Turkish used in countries outside of Turkey.

  • You're absolutely right - German is used more prolifically than Turkish. However it's used in countries that are already reachable, in large part, by other languages. But there aren't many options for other languages if you want to travel in Turkey, or Kazakhstan, or even large parts of China, where Turkic language can get you far but German language won't get you anything.On a list of most influential or most useful languages, I would absolutely put German high on the list. But that's not the point of this exercise. :)

  • Knowing how to read Chinese may help you out in Japan, but English is more likely to be useful, especially in Tokyo. Things have changed there a lot in the last 15 years or so. When I lived there, it was a lot more important to know Japanese to get around. Now, the main Yamanote rail line in Tokyo broadcasts all of their announcements in English. Many major street signs will be in English as well as Japanese.

  • I just have something to say about the Chinese part. I personally believe that Chinese should be the name of the language family to establish the fact that no one speaks Chinese.I do have to disagree with you on this dialect thing. What I've seen linguists do is if they don't know enough about a group of languages is they tend to just throw everything together say it's one language and call everything in between dialects. "Chinese" has Mandarin, Cantonese, Fujianese, Hakka, and the list goes on and on. Considered to be dialects? Yes. Are they? Nope. Completely different and not mutually intelligible at all. In fact the other day I met two speakers of the Hakka language. One from Malaysia, and one from Bangka, Indonesia. They couldn't understand each other. The one from Bangka can't understand people from Jakarta speak Hakka either.What aggrevates me is when linguists call the Austronesian languages of Indonesia dialects (nothing to do with you at all, just feel like ranting). Because they aren't at all. Sundanese is further from Javanese than it is from Indonesian/Malay (even though they're neighbors.) In fact, the difference between Indonesian and Malay is what I would consider to be Brazillian and European Portuguese.Man I should make my own blog haha.

  • Thanks! You're correct. "Dialect" was a poor word choice on my part, and I've updated the text to reflect that.In general, I find the argument between "dialect" and "language" to be as superficial and meaningless as the argument between "genus" and "species". True evolution (whether in language or in biology) happens on something more like a gradient, and less like a scale... and certainly less compartmentalized than the words would seem to imply.

  • Nice post. This is really fascinating stuff. It seems to me that French isn't appreciated often enough for its large sphere of influence, and I'm glad you mention it here.

  • Interesting that you didn't mention German, a language that is dominant in Germany (80+ million folks), Austria, and Switzerland, not to mention the former 'eastern' countries where German in still in relatively high use eg Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland, as well as Slovenia and Croatia.

  • This post isn't really about appreciating a language, it's just a matter of efficiently being able to communicate with the most people as a result of learning the fewest languages.

  • This post isn't really about appreciating a language, it's just a matter of efficiently being able to communicate with the most people as a result of learning the fewest languages.Germany is heavily used in many countries, most of which already speak one or more languages that are already on the list. As far as I can tell, the only country where communication suffers a bit from ruling out German is Austria.

  • Although this is interesting, I don't think which language is more "important" really matters that much. Beyond English, which is global, which language you should learn really comes down to personal taste. You say in South America only Spanish and Portuguese are essential. What if you really enjoy, say, Paraguayan culture? Or have Paraguayan friends or relatives? Wouldn't it make sense to learn Guarani, with "only" millions of bilingual speakers in one country? Or, if you had some connection with Arnhem Land in Australia, you could learn Yolngu, with thousands.See, for me, Serbo-Croatian (10s of millions?) and Punjabi (somewhere between 60 and 100 million - many of whom are also bilingual or trilingual in Hindi-Urdu or English) are much more important or me to learn when thinking about my cultural affinities than say, Mandarin, with many times that (my dad is from West Punjab and my mum is from Serbia). I could learn Mandarin, but not solely or even mostly because there are so many speakers. If Cantonese or Hokkien were more interesting to me (which at the moment they are, but you know, things change) due to their media or culture they'd be more "natural" choices than Mandarin. In the same vein, I'd much rather learn the Acadian dialect of French than the Hexagonal because I find Acadian culture interesting (and "Radio Radio" is just that great a musical group a desire to learn Tamil has similarly been created in me by the Yogi B & Natchatras group).At the moment I speak native English, good Spanish, and intermediate Serbo-Croatian (the latter of which I've been using since I could speak). None of them I learned or continue to learn because of their widespread use or number of speakers. They just have a special connection to *me* (well, Spanish was in school, but then I motivated myself with Spanish-language music and Hispanic friends). I think a personal connection with any given language is a much more useful and much more important motivation for language learning.

  • Hey Randy!
    Good. But Swahili is useful language precisely in the remaining part of Africa: the southeast.
    So, with Arabic, French and Swahili the Africa is over. ;D
    And it's quite easy, quite logical to learn, I think.
    See you!

  • I hate french u.u so I guess I'll follow your list changing french for german (I love how german sounds and I like Deutschland a lot) ... I hope never to repent about not learning it ...
    Spanish is a great language to learn, because spanish is closely similar in all the countries who speak it (not like french or arabic or german that in different points of the world are totally unintelligible due to local dialects)
    Salute !

  • It was a yiddish author who said that a language is a dialect with an army and a navy.

  • Hey, great list!
    Helpful to those who want to travel and learn another language.
    But how do you make this into a hobby into a fully time job/skill?

  • I suppose that's a matter of what you mean by job/skill. Some people become full-time translators. Others become language teachers. But in a more general sense, one could become an international representative in a multinational corporation. The possibilities are only limited by your own imagination.

  • Meant as how do I use this to earn money while traveling? Really would like travel to learn another language and then do it as a full fledged career (interpreter, translator, linguist, etc)..

  • If you want to earn money, learn the language and then get a job.I'm not a career counselor, I'm a language blogger. This is the best I can do. :)

  • Tu es un idiot jesús!

  • 没错朋友! 语言学在中国里是宣传!Sadly, few people know that the largest minority language in China is Uyghur, a Turkic language like Ozbek and Turkish that has nothing to do with Mandarin and they are forced to write it with Arabic script rendering most people illiterate, which is is the whole point.

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