Languages to Help You Travel the World

One of the major hurdles to travelling far and wide, for some people, is the language barrier. Of course, it can be daunting to travel to a new place and not be able to communicate effectively. To that end, you may be wondering what languages you should learn to help you communicate with the world. Read on as we discuss five languages to help you travel the world.

Languages to Help You Travel the World – Most Widely Spoken Language

First up we have English, the world’s most widely spoken language and Lingua Franca. You may be surprised to know that non-native English speakers outnumber native speakers three to one! It is spoken by about 20%, or over 1 billion of the Earth’s inhabitants. It is also one of two official languages in space! At the International Space Station, that is. This means that you may also be surprised by just how many countries you can travel through if you only know English.

World map percentage english speakers by country

Tourism has meant that English is widely spoken on all continents. You can guarantee that airports and hotel chains in all countries have workers that speak English. It also holds official status in the European Union as well as over 80 countries and territories around the world. Even creoles in some areas like Papua New Guinea and Sierra Leone often have enough lexical and grammatical similarities to English that they can be partially understood.

Most Widely Spoken Native Language

From the most widely spoken language, we’ll move on to the most widely spoken native language in the world. It gets that title because its 480 million native speakers are spread across four continents, thanks to the early conquistadors. Have you guessed what it is yet?

Detailed SVG map of the Hispanophone world

It’s the romance language of Spanish. The great thing about Spanish is that it is mutually intelligible with Italian and to a lesser extent, Portuguese (the sixth most spoken native language). So being able to speak Spanish could potentially allow communication with over 900 million people (including nearly 300 million Portuguese speakers and 70 million Italian speakers) across all six inhabited continents. It will definitely help you through Latin America as well!

Dialect Variances

One issue with Spanish being spread so widely around the world is that there are many different accents and regional variances. Similar to English. These differences generally don’t affect understanding though. People in Spain may find it slightly amusing when an obvious non-native speaker has a Latin American Spanish accent. The good news is that as an English speaker, you may find it relatively easy to learn Spanish. Spanish and English belong to different branches of the Indo-European language family tree, making them cousins of sorts. Here are some phrases to get you started. Useful Spanish Phrases PDF

K in Motion Travel Blog. Languages to Help You Travel the World. Spanish

Where is it Useful?

It is the majority language in over 20 Latin American countries as well as a couple of countries in Africa. I have also found it useful in Portuguese speaking countries like Guinea-Bissau in Africa. With some Spanish knowledge, you could conceivably communicate with around 900 million people in 35 countries, including Portuguese and Italian speaking countries. Aside from that, it’s actually a fun language to speak.

Languages to Help You Travel The World – Parlez vous Francais?

French is spoken natively on two continents and widely spoken as a second language on a third continent. The dialects and accents vary greatly across the three continents. French speakers from France say that they often have difficulty understanding French speakers from Canada and Africa. I’ve also heard French Canadians talk about how weird they found the African variety of French.

French Language Around the World Encyclopædia Britannica

No matter the region, the basics of the language are the same and all regional dialects are mutually intelligible. French is also a romance language, like Spanish, so it should, in theory, be relatively easy for English speakers to learn. Here are some phrases to get you started. Useful French Phrases PDF

K in Motion Travel Blog. Languages to Help You Travel the World. French

Where is it Useful?

Besides France and parts of Switzerland and Belgium, French is spoken natively in the Quebec province of Canada and bilingually in the New Brunswick and Nova Scotia provinces. It’s also spoken in the French Polynesia and New Caledonia territories in the South Pacific. Learning it would allow you to communicate with around 400 million people across 30 countries.

If you plan to travel through Western and Central Africa, then French will be very, very useful. Almost all the countries in that region have French as an official language. In fact, there are so many different languages in some African countries that locals even use French to communicate with each other! Imagine being from the same country but having to use a third language to communicate with your significant other!

Languages to Help You Travel The World – русский

When you think of world languages, Russian might not be the first that comes to mind as a multi-country language. Unless of course you’re over the age of 30 or were paying attention in your history classes and remember the old Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) or Soviet Union. The disbanding of the Union led to the establishment of 15 new states. All Russian speaking. Russian is also the second official language in space!

Although Cyrillic, the written alphabet for Russian, can look quite daunting, it’s not too difficult to pick up. After less than a week in Kazakhstan, I was able to recognise and sound out some common words and even understand some basic Russian questions. Here are some handy Russian phrases for you. Useful Russian Phrases PDF

K in Motion Travel Blog. Languages to Help You Travel the World. Russian

Where is it Useful?

Russian is fluently spoken in all of the 15 republics that emerged after the disbanding of the Soviet Union. That includes five Central Asian countries, three Caucasus countries, three Baltic countries, three Eastern European countries and one Central European country. There are also many Russian speakers in previously occupied countries, like Poland, Romania, Finland and Mongolia. That means you could reach nearly 300 million people in 20 countries by speaking Russian.

Most Spoken Native Language

Our last ‘language’ is Chinese. The idea of a Chinese language is actually a bit of a misnomer. Chinese, in itself, is not a language, but rather a collection of dialects, or arguably, languages. The most spoken of the ‘dialects’, because it is the enforced national language of China, is Mandarin or 普通话 (Common Speech). It has around 900 million native speakers. A similar version of the Mandarin dialect is also spoken in Taiwan, where it is referred to as national language or 國語, and Singapore where it is referred to as Chinese Language or 华语.

None of the Chinese dialects are mutually intelligible, which is why some argue that they are languages. Most speakers of more than one variety tend to agree that they are languages rather than dialects. Especially in the case of Cantonese, which has huge lexical and grammatical differences to Mandarin. It is even written differently and has its own characters used in conjunction with standard Traditional Chinese characters. You can see some of these differences for yourself below.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Languages to Help You Travel the World. Cantonese K in Motion Travel Blog. Languages to Help You Travel the World. Mandarin
Useful Cantonese Phrases PDF, Useful Mandarin Phrases PDF

Where is it Useful?

To be honest, Mandarin and Cantonese are really only useful if you plan to travel to China, Macau or Taiwan. As an aside, I’d highly recommend visiting Taiwan. It’s an amazing place. Other places with high numbers of Mandarin and Cantonese speakers, like Singapore and Hong Kong, for instance, also have English as an official language. But it can be fun to randomly converse in Cantonese with a Chinese store owner in Tonga. Or have a conversation in Mandarin with an old Chinese couple in Mauritania.

Special Mention – Arabic

Arabic is a beautiful Semitic language with a long history. Unlike most modern languages, it is written right to left, which is pretty cool. While it has slightly more native speakers than Russian and is spoken in more countries, it tends to exist in places where English and French are spoken due to colonisation. For instance, it is the main language in Egypt and Lebanon, but tourism and colonisation have ensured that English is prominent in Egypt and French and English are prominent in Lebanon. There is also a lot of variation in Arabic dialects, making it a difficult language to learn for general travel.

Despite the fact that it is easy to get by with French or English in most Arab speaking countries, I would still recommend learning a few Arabic phrases if you plan to travel to North Africa and West Asia.

Hello مرحبا marhabaan
Thankyou شكرا shukraan
No لا la, or la’a in some dialects
Please رجاء raja’

Which one of these languages would you like to learn? Or if you already speak one or more of them, what has been your experience travelling with them? Let us know by dropping a comment! :o)


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42 Replies to “Languages to Help You Travel the World”

  1. I’ve been trying to learn Spanish for a while now but I’m useless with languages. I can get the basics down but unless I have it written in front of me, I find it impossible to break down what people are saying. But I do like to make an effort when I’m abroad :)

    1. I’m a bit like that with Cantonese and Mandarin. If I dont understand something, I ask them to write it down and realise straight away that it’s something I totally should’ve understood!

      I love speaking Spanish and it’s so much easier to get my head around than Chinese languages!

    1. I’m pretty bad at languages, but I’ve managed to pick up some basics to get me by in a few languages. I think that’s mainly because I had no other choice. If I wanted to eat or buy things, I had to learn the language where I was living.

    1. I only knew a few phrases when I rocked up to Latin America, but I picked up so much on the way because I had no choice but to speak Spanish if I wanted to get transport and eat, haha.

  2. I travel a lot, so this is really useful! As a flip side, have you got any articles on the most useful languages in order to communicate with tourists? China now has a massive amount of tourists going to locations abroad, for instance.

    1. I never really thought of this, but I’d say it would probably be Mandarin. Sometimes on my travels I find myself playing translator between some Mandarin speaking tourists and locals who don’t know how to help them. Yet I find when I meet people from other countries, like South Korea and Russia, they tend to be able to speak at least passable English.

  3. So interesting. I had no idea that non-native English speakers out number the native speakers. I love Spanish, such a beautiful language. I am currently learning it.

    1. Yeah, most people are surprised by that, but it makes sense when English is how the world communicates these days.

      I love Spanish too! I’m not so good at it, but I was able to get through Latin America with it.

  4. This information is really very useful and helpful indeed..Am glad you shared such a valuable information with all of us…Languages plays a vital role especially in our travel too..Great post indeed…🙂

  5. What a wonderful and useful post. Learning at least the basics of the local language before traveling always help and makes it easier for a memorable travel experience.

  6. As a Californian, learning Spanish was a must in school. I would love to learn more French as well being close enough to Canada and wanting to visit the french speaking parts someday.

    1. I went to Montreal a few years ago with Canadian friend, who learnt French in school. It didn’t help. Luckily one of the staff in the restaurant we went to spoke some English and was willing the translate the whole menu for us!

  7. Parlez vous Francais?…
    That’s all I remember from my French class in high school, lol!
    Hope this article puts me in the right mode to learn again. Thanks for sharing this info.

    1. I never learnt French and I know that phrase! I picked up a little bit of French travelling through Africa.

    1. I was able to pick up some cyrillic while travelling through Central Asia which put me in a weird position of being able to read things in Russia, but not say things, haha.

  8. Interesting post. The fact that there are more non-native English speakers should not surprise us. America’s prominence in the world makes it a significant language. While much of the world has learned our (America) language, we have made little effort to learn theirs believing they have learned ours so there’s no need. That’s a detriment for us. Thanks for this post that encourages us to develop some ability to communicate outside our comfort zone.

    1. I thought British colonialism is what spread English around the world and made it a significant language for trade and education. I personally speak British English, even though I’m not British.
      I live in Asia where everyone is bi, tri or multilingual, (I speak five languages myself), so it’s hard for me to imagine a place where people only speak one. I think that’s a bit sad, but it’s never too late to start learning a new language!

      1. You are probably right about the British. I was in Malawi and Zambia over the last few years and both were British colonies and English was spoken in both. We Americans are far too American-centric for our own good, and even though I am aware of it, I can be blinded by it as well.

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