Wednesday, 11 February 2004

Most useful languages for world travel

A reader writes:

I enjoy your blog, especially your focus on privacy issues and your coverage of The Amazing Race.

What do you consider to be the most useful languages for a world traveller to know?

Certainly the most useful language to know, if you want to travel to a wide variety of countries around the world, is English. There are few large cities or heavily-touristed places anywhere in the world where you can’t find some people who speak at least a little basic tourist English. English is, hands down, the world’s most widely studied and used second language and “link” language between native speakers of other languages. (Most usage of English in the world is between native speakers of other languages, and the “norm” of world English is not the English of native speakers. The same is probably also true of French.)

There are places where no one speaks any language except the local one(s), but it’s possible to communicate basic travel needs (“food”, “toilet”, “place to sleep”, “transport to the place I’m pointing to on this map”) with no mutual language at all. A well-designed set of pictographs helps — the best are the laminated Kwikpoint cards, and I’d rate them an absolute “must”, if they are allowed, for contestants on The Amazing Race. You’ll get more out of a visit if you know a language understood by at least some of the locals, but not knowing any locally-understood language shouldn’t stand in the way of going wherever you really want to go.

That said, the most useful languages other than English for world travellers are those that are:

  1. Used by at least a significant subset of people (i.e. functionally understood, even if not fluently or as a first or native language)
  2. Throughout a large area
  3. Where English isn’t widely used (which is especially likely to be the case where some language other than English is the dominant second language, so that only a small number of trilingual or polyglot people know English)

Depending on the region of the world in which you are most interested (and leaving aside the varying difficulty of learning different languages), that would include the following:

  • Spanish (useful throughout Latin America — even in Brazil spoken Spanish is widely understood, and knowledge of written Spanish is adequate for understanding much written Portuguese)
  • Mandarin (useful throughout East Asia, and to a lesser degree in many other places)
  • Russian (English is not widely spoken in the former USSR; some people speak Russian in surprisingly many other places, although fewer than in the Soviet era)
  • Arabic (used as a second language by the literate classes throughout the Islamic world, even where Arabic isn’t the primary language)

Other less widely useful but still significant possibilities (either less widely spoken, or spoken in places where English is more common) would include:

  • French (mainly useful in north, west, and central Africa, but losing ground to English)
  • Hindi or Urdu (useful in a large region of South Asia, but in most of that region it’s relatively easy to get around in English)
  • Swahili (ditto in eastern and east-central Africa)
  • German (the lingua franca and most common second language of much of central Europe, having largely displaced Russian in that role over the last decade; also useful in Turkey, the Balkans, and some other places where people may speak English or German, but not necessarily both)

Most of these, it should be noted, are at least as useful to travellers because of their role as regionally dominant second languages, rather than solely for travel to places where they are the most common mother tongue.

I invite readers to add their additional suggestions in the comments.

Link | Posted by Edward on Wednesday, 11 February 2004, 20:53 ( 8:53 PM)

Thank you for this article. It is exactly what I was looking for.

I had no idea that German acts today as the lingua franca in Europe, I thought it was primarily English.


Posted by: Chevredansante, 19 July 2006, 12:39 (12:39 PM)

Note that I that I started by saying that English is the single most useful language for world travel, and that I referred to the role of German in *central* Europe. In Europe as a whole, English is more widely spoken than German.

Posted by: Edward Hasbrouck, 19 July 2006, 14:51 ( 2:51 PM)

I have to disagree with your list of most useful languages. French is spoken on 5 of the 7 continents and is used widely in business and foreign affairs. This language is extremely useful throughout the world. It seems that everyone has jumped on the bandwagon to discount the usefulness of French as our relations with France have become stressed. What a big mistake!

Posted by: susie, 18 April 2007, 08:11 ( 8:11 AM)

French language is in free fall.

It is spoken in 5 of the 7 continents BY SMALL MINORITIES. For instance, in almost all countries where French is spoken, it's relatively easy to get around in English.

Posted by: Pas du tout, 26 July 2007, 04:05 ( 4:05 AM)

Though English is one of the most widely spoken languages, I disagree with the suggestion that as long as one knows English they'll be okay. It gives the message that to go to another country they don't have to try and learn a new language. This, I'm afraid, is what makes Americans look so bad overseas.

Posted by: Justine, 29 July 2007, 13:54 ( 1:54 PM)

French is not important at all . If you are planning to travel to France or Quebec, learn English and this will be more than enough.

Posted by: Jacques, 18 December 2007, 06:24 ( 6:24 AM)

Except that if you go to Quebec without at least trying to speak french a little bit by saying "Bonjour", people will hate you outside of Montreal (the main city). Quebecers are trying to protect their french language so they don't take too well people assuming that English is all they need.

Posted by: Bob, 27 January 2008, 12:54 (12:54 PM)

Hmmm, I've never thought that learning any Mandarin would be worth my while (since I'm not in the manufacturing business and would never have any business relations in China). I guess I wrongly assumed that French would be more useful in many parts of East Asia - assuming I couldn't find an English speaker. I am quite wrong about that now? Is Mandarin really that widely spoken in East Asia - or is it spoken only in certain countries and in certain settings (business, tourism, etc.)? Thanks for your help.

By the way, please don't be ashamed that English is the most useful language around the world. It's simply a matter of our place in history that English is so dominant. We Americans didn't make it that way - much of it's use is because of the former British Empire. And certainly that doesn't imply that no other language should be learned. It's just extremely useful to be able to speak English.

Posted by: Elizabeth, 8 May 2008, 13:49 ( 1:49 PM)

There are regions where French is more useful than English, or equally useful. Some people speak English as well as local languages, others in the same country speak French as well as local languages. When nobody speaks English, I'll always try French before I give up and resort to sign language, and it has worked in some unexpected places. And I agree that one can get by in Quebec or France on English -- although it's always better to start with at least, "Bonjour", or, better, "Excusez-moi. Puis-je parler en anglais, s'il vous plaît?" The areas where French is more useful are places in Africa where there is less English.

However, I have almost never found French useful in East Asia except in Indochina and occasionally in the Russian Far East. And even in Indochina more people speak Mandarin today than French.

There are "overseas Chinese" widely distributed throughout East Asia. And even in some countries where ethnic Chinese are a small percentage of the population, their economic role as traders and merchants means that not only is there a good chance that you can find a Chinese family even in a small or remote town, but that they are likely to be the local shopkeeper and/or guesthouse owner -- among the most useful people in town to be able to communicate with as a traveller. No, most people outside China don't speak Mandarin, but I've been told by Mandarin speakers, especially those literate in Chinese (to communicate with those Chinese who speak Cantonese or other dialects), that they could get around almost everywhere in Asia in Mandarin.

Posted by: Edward Hasbrouck, 16 March 2010, 20:23 ( 8:23 PM)

I completely agree with your list as it is not only sensible but according to facts.

I think every language is a marvelous piece of human knowledge but to be practical, there is no doubt French has been losing its ground, and other languages like German, Chinese or Hindi are more difficult to learn than English, so they won't become a "lingua franca".

But I would like to say something about traveling to another country: there is nothing like learning polite expressions to show respect to the locals in their language. It will definitely change your experience as the locals will appreciate the effort, giving you the insights of the places you visit.

Thank you Mr Hasbrouck for your excellent work. Every newsletter I get from you is like finding a treasure in my inbox.

Posted by: Juan Manuel Reina, 17 March 2010, 03:50 ( 3:50 AM)

The question: "How long will it take" is one asked by most would-be learners of a new language. In your book, you rightly point out that the commitment to truly master a new tongue is probably too large to sensibly be made by a casual tourist; however, if you find yourself enamored of a particular part of the world, I'd strongly suggest investing some time and effort in at least becomming familiar with the language(s) spoken there, no matter how "useful" it/they might be in purely statistical terms.

Precisely BECAUSE it is such a challenge, truly sticking it out with a language until you can hold at least basic conversations in it instead of just in English communicates more than do the words themselves: it says: "I care about you -- not just as an individual, but your whole people as well." Particularly among those who know their language ISN'T widely spoken, this translates into instant good will -- something a foreign traveler desperately needs.

You don't have to aim to become a native speaker, but the more you learn of the language of any place you will spend more than a few weeks in, the deeper and richer your experience there will be. With a bit of digging, it's increasingly possible to find programs even in less frequently taught languages (like Vietnamese or Inuktitut) these days, either at a nearby university or online. Coming out of your English "shell" this way may be a challenge, but it can be like a mini-trip if you take the right attitude: find a place near you (or even not so near if you have a car and can block out at least a couple hours per week) where the people of the place you are going have set up a business zone -- Chinatown, Little India, etc -- and you'll get a small dose of what traveling in their "Old Country" might be like. Substitute at least a few of your daily/weekly routines done in English for ones taken care of in such an area -- perhaps by merchants with limited English -- and you will be duplicating almost exactly the sorts of interactions you'll have on a daily basis when you get where you're going.

If you like how being around these people makes you feel, forget worrying about the time and effort required to master a new language. Statistics tell only about averages; if you really WANT to learn, an "exotic" tongue will be easier to master than a relatively "easier" one for which your sole motivation in learning is that it has lots of words in common with English, or is "useful" for world travelers. You'd have to develop too large a vocabulary to make such studies useful unless you truly wanted to speak to those who use that language as their daily means of communication. If so, GO FOR IT! If not, stick to (respectful and clearly enunciated) English; that way, you won't wear yourself out.

Posted by: Ben Bangs, 17 March 2010, 09:49 ( 9:49 AM)

Great article, it's a shame I didn't find it before going to Rome this year. I thought Italian would be a good language to learn, but after months of relatively steady study, realised that I would use it only on vacations to Italy.

Posted by: Iain, 29 July 2010, 15:49 ( 3:49 PM)

You people forgot that, except in Taiwan and PRC, Mandarin is also spoken in Singapore AND MALAYSIA! Yes, nearly 30% of Malaysian population are Chinese. So, it's not just PRC/Taiwan, but a lot of southeast asia as well.

Posted by: Croat, 29 October 2010, 00:30 (12:30 AM)

Croat: I mentioned in my original article that Mandarin is "useful throughout East Asia". You are right that its usefulness isn't limited to the PRC and Taiwan, and includes Singapore, Malaysia, and significant (even when not necessarily a large percentage) minorities of the population and especially the business communities in several other countries.

Posted by: Edward Hasbrouck, 29 October 2010, 06:30 ( 6:30 AM)

Great list of languages, PN. My wife and I have been considering applying for TAR 18, and the two of us have a combined 6 dialects/languages under our belt: She knows Mandarin and Shanghainese, I speak Korean and Japanese, and both of us are fluent in English with conversational Spanish ability.

I totally agree with Arabic, and if we were lucky enough to be selected, I'd make sure to learn a few key phrases. "Shukran" and "a salaam a laikum" are the extent of my knowledge right now.

I'm just wondering, have you heard anything about applicants that have been rejected for being too multi-lingual? I wouldn't mind dumbing down our qualifications a little if I knew our linguistic ability was going to hurt our already very slim chances. Thanks

Posted by: Chubbuni13, 22 November 2010, 17:09 ( 5:09 PM)

Great post! There are some nice information here.I agree that English is the most important language, but German and Italian are following just one step behind, as far as Europe is concerned.

Posted by: Tonio Vitaljic, 28 February 2011, 15:04 ( 3:04 PM)

Glad to see that he mentioned German. It's at least as useful as English (if not more so) throughout Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Slovenia, and much of the Balkans. It's also a national language in Namibia where it's widely taught and used. So, German is not necessarily just European, as useful as it is in Europe.

This is besides all of the European countries where German is an official language of course.

Posted by: Tre Kronnor, 1 March 2012, 05:16 ( 5:16 AM)

There's a long discussion of this article at:

Posted by: Edward Hasbrouck, 8 March 2012, 08:14 ( 8:14 AM)

I'd say Chinese is more useful than just being applicable in East Asia. Pretty much every country has a Chinatown, and if somehow you get stranded in a random country, you could probably make your way toward Chinatown, where you could get whatever you need done.

Plus, with Chinese tourists being all over the world, you could just run into a random Asian on the street and have a good probability of being able to communicate.

Posted by: Quinn, 18 December 2013, 21:01 ( 9:01 PM)

Would love to see an update to this. While it seems unlikely the list would change much, it’d be helpful.

Great list. Great comments. Thank you!

Posted by: Michael, 12 January 2022, 21:46 ( 9:46 PM)
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