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Best Travel Langauges

Best Travel Langauges

Best Languages to Know for Travelerbesttravellanguages2

I have often been asked about the best travel languages to learn. It is common for people to think that English is the best travel language, or that it is all you need. In my experience, English helps, but it is better to know other languages, especially if you plan on traveling extensively. There is a process that I recommend travelers put in their ‘travel toolbox’, it is called regionalism of languages.  In my mind, I have taken the world, zoomed out, and circled different regions in the world where specific ‘travel languages’ will be of great benefit to you as a traveler. This is a list of the best languages to know when you travel. They are not in a particular order.

Portuguese

Quick stats: Portuguese started only on the Iberian Peninsula, but quickly spread throughout the world via colonization. Today it stands as one of the most spoken languages, and its expanse it quite diverse ranging to nearly ever continent.

Speakers: 215 million

Countries: Portugal, Mozambique, Brazil, São Tomé and Príncipe, Cape Verde, Angola, Guinea-Bissau, Macau, East Timor

Continents: Europe, South America, Africa, Asia & Pacific, even parts of North America

My reasoning: I strongly believe in the future of Portuguese as an important language to know. It also doesn’t hurt that the language is spoken in almost every region of the world.  Brazil is a BRIC country and Angola is an example of another country of economic importance, so the language’s importance will expand as a global business language, and it can help all travelers.

 

French

Quick stats: French is another Romance language that spread with colonization. The language is a first/second language to many Africans and is the native tongue of many. French is a European Union language and France is one of the permanent security council members.

Speakers: Between 75-220 million

Countries: France, Belgium, Luxembourg, Switzerland, Monaco, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Haiti, Senegal, (some dependent enclaves also have French as the official language), commonly spoken  across Africa and in more countries as well.

Continents / regions: North America, South America, Caribbean, Asia & Pacific, Africa, and Europe

My reasoning: Although French is no longer, la lingua Franca, it is still one of the most widely spoken languages in the world. Covering a large majority of Africa, not to mention being spoken in the Americas, French is a common second language to know when traveling. It can help an individual to communicate in many places where local languages are unknown.

 

Russian

Quick stats: Russia is the largest country in geographical terms. It is immensely large, but sparsely populated. The majority of its population lies in the western cities. Russia covers territory from Asia to Europe to the Middle East.

Speakers: ~150 million

Countries: Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, widely spoken in former Soviet Republics

Continents: Europe and Asia

My reasoning: Russia is a BRIC economy so it will continue to improve as a business language in the world meaning that more will study it. I believe that knowing Russian is not the only important aspect for travelers. Knowing Russian will help in Eastern Europe, Central Asia, and even the Caucus region. Knowledge of the Cyrillic Alphabet and basic counting of the Russian language can be extremely helpful in eastern Europe where many of the languages have Slavic routes making them similar but not the same.  In addition, countries such as Tajikistan use the Cyrillic alphabet.

 

Spanish

Quick Thoughts: Another colonial product, the Spanish language is spoken by a large number of people, and is one of the most readily usable languages in the world. Due to its legacy, it is spoken in 20 countries, and traces of its words can be found from North Africa to the Philippines.

Speakers: Over 400 million

Countries (Official): Spain, Equatorial Guinea, Mexico, Guatemala, Cuba, USA (Puerto Rico and other Hispanic communities), Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Honduras, Costa Rica, Panama, Nicaragua, Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Argentina, Bolivia, Paraguay, Uruguay, Chile, Peru (~20 in total), Morocco (unofficially in some areas with high levels of tourists)

Continents/ Regions: North America, South America, Caribbean, Europe, Africa

My reasoning: Spanish is an expansive language. It is fast becoming the second language of America and is widely spoken from South America to Europe. It is somewhat linguistically linked to Portuguese and French so knowing Spanish can help to get around.

 

“If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.”
– Nelson Mandela

 

English

Quick stats: Often considered to be the business language of world, English is commonly spoken in business and communal circles.

Speakers: ~360 (native) -700 (second-language) million

Countries: England, United States of America, Canada, Bahamas, Australia, New Zealand, several Caribbean and African nations. Also spoken in the Indian sub-continent and in many enclaves around the world.

Continents: North America, Australia, Europe, Africa

My reasoning: English is currently the world language. It is by far the most common second language and most people study it in their universities.  Knowing English can be very beneficial for travelers, but it is not the only language worth knowing.

 

Arabic

Quick stats: Arabic is the language that spread rapidly with the Moors and Arab conquests. It reach ranges from its origin in the Middle East to North Africa.

Speakers: ~300 million

Countries: Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Oman, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Iraq, Jordan, Syria, Qatar, Kuwait, and regionally spoken in East Africa and Islamic countries.

Continents: Africa and Asia

My reasoning: Arabic is an example of a language that is deeply ingrained with culture and religion. For a traveler looking to gain an in-depth perspective to the Arab world, knowing Arabic will be extremely helpful if not necessary. So many aspects of Arab culture are tied to the language as it is the actual language of the Quaran.  Arabic phrases are not only used in countries where Arabic is the official language, but also in Islamic countries in general.

 

Farsi/Persian

Quick stats: Persian is a group of languages that are very closely related.  Most consider Farsi, the official language of Iran, to be the most pure form, however Persian is basically the same language from Afghanistan to Tajikistan and some surrounding areas. Languages such as Pashto or Dari, are almost identical to Farsi with a few variations.

Speakers: ~60-110 million

Countries: Iran, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan

Continents: Middle East

My reasoning: The reach of Persian on a global scale is not that far, however, knowing Farsi, can help regionally in Central Asia. It is also a Critical Language according to most governments, therefore studying the language can help you with future prospects. Farsi is spoken mostly in the Middle East and Central Asia, but it is also spoken in the Persian diaspora around the world, including Los Angeles, USA.

 

Turkish

Quick stats: Turkish is a language that migrated from Central Asia and developed in the region of modern day Turkey. Turkish kept a strong regional presence due to the power of the Ottoman Empire.

Speakers: ~100 million

Countries: Turkey, Kazakstan, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan

Continents/Regions: Middle East, Europe, Asia

My reasoning: Turkish has a growing significance in Europe as many Turkish people live across the region. Turkish is important and helpful to know in Turkey, but also ranges through several other countries where Turkish minorities are present. Turkish is part of the Turkic-languages that can be found in the Middle East and Central Asia. Knowing basic Turkish phrases can help in these regions as things like counting are similar and can be helpful to a traveler in everything from booking to negotiations.

 

Mandarin Chinese or Cantonese (I’ll explain…)

Quick stats: Mandarin and Cantonese are the two major languages of mainland China. Mandarin is considered to be the primary business language, where as Cantonese is spoken more in the south, Hong Kong, and Macau.

Speakers: Nearly 1 Billion for Mandarin, roughly 100 million for Cantonese

Countries: China, Macau, Singapore, and places where Chinese people have migrated around the world

Continents: Asia, North America, Europe

My Reasoning: I didn’t select either because I think that in the right context, both languages could be equally important. Based off of shear population, Mandarin trumps all. There is no language in the world with as many native speakers. However, Mandarin is spoken primarily in mainland China. To my best understanding, the Chinese people who have migrated around the world creating “China towns” or communities in different countries, are typically of southern and Cantonese speaking decent. I first learned about this about a year ago when a friend of mine from Hong Kong filled me in on the ‘low-down’. She even referred me to a book, called The Fortune Cookie Chronicles. Mandarin has the potential to be a great business language for you to know. Cantonese can be used in more places, which could help you as a you travel.

 

Granted, this is a completely generalized overview of the world’s major languages. There are plenty of other great languages worth knowing. In fact, I sincerely hope the 6,000 world languages are preserved and the speakers decide to pass on their knowledge to future generations. As a traveler, you should seek to preserve local languages by speaking them. Obviously, knowing all of these languages tomorrow would be an impossible feat, but you can start with a simple phrase.

I came up with this list because I have found that travelers could benefit from a technique that I call language grouping. This is not a new technique to linguistics as people study the origin and connection of languages to one another.

My recommendations: Decide where you are going, and what could possible help you the most.

How to make it happen: I have written a few articles about languages, but most likely the best thing for you now is to just go for it. Choose a language and start learning it. Get started here with my language learning links.

 

That is my thoughts on the best travel languages, what do you think? Please feel free to let me know below!

 

Thanks for reading, glad you could stop by!

 

*Some figure stats taken from Wikipedia.org.


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18 comments

  1. I love to read your blog and learn new cultural facts 🙂

  2. Lina Taty via Facebook

    I love the Nelson Mandela quote and the fact about English: “it is not the only language worth knowing” 😉

  3. Hindi or Urdu too!
    That’ll allow you to speak with most people around India, Bangladesh, Pakistan… and that is A LOT of people!! 🙂
    Zara @ Backpack ME recently posted…A visual tour around Mamallapuram, South IndiaMy Profile

    • That is a nice addition to this list. I think that Hindi or Urdu would definitely help. Heck, any language helps when traveling. I left those out because of the amount of people that speak English in that region because of the British influences. Urdu shares lots with Farsi although they are not mutually intelligible. For example the numbers of Urdu are very similar to Farsi, and they use nearly the same alphabet.

      • Yes, the Urdu alphabet (it’s technically an abjad) is an adaptation of the Persian alphabet. Persian was the court language in India under the Mughals and its cultural influence was quite strong. Hindi and English are the languages of education in India, so I assume you left Hindi off the list because you’re assuming the reader knows English. As far as sheer numbers go, far more people speak Hindi than any of the other languages you listed, except Mandarin.
        Kieran Maynard recently posted…Lu Xun on Loneliness – translated from the “Nahan” prefaceMy Profile

      • Great idea for a post! I’d add Indonesian, as those guys have enough languages to learn without having to add English to their list. It would really add a new dimension to a trip around Indonesia, which is obviously massive and has absolutely tons of speakers. Completely agree with your decision to keep Urdu and Hindi off (if you’re going to include those, you’d probably have to include every other language in the world).

        • Thank you for the comment Roy! Indonesian is definitely a well spoken language that connects one to many millions of people and would make a nice addition. I appreciate you stopping by!

  4. For all over India Hindi is Enough, and English is for rest of all……. You added a great list………

    Thanks
    Md. Nasir recently posted…Complete Note on What is Rooting and Benefits of Rooting Android PhoneMy Profile

  5. Mandarin/Cantonese

    The linguistic situation among overseas Chinese is complicated. In the U.S. before 1965, most immigrants from China came from southern China, where Cantonese and not Mandarin was the lingua franca. However, many of those immigrants spoke Taishanese, a dialect closely related but not necessarily mutually intelligible with Cantonese. So the lingua franca in America was actually Taishanese. After 1965 immigration restrictions were loosened in the U.S. and more Mandarin speakers started to immigrate. In other overseas Chinese communities, Hakka or Hokkien and other dialects are prevalent. The reality is that today Mandarin is the lingua franca among Chinese everywhere. If you speak Mandarin to a Cantonese speaker, there’s a very good chance they will understand. Conversely, if you speak Cantonese to a Mandarin speaker, statistically there’s about a 10% chance or less they will understand you. I’d say for travel, Mandarin is undoubtedly the language to learn.

    Russian vs Turkic Languages in Central Asia

    As far as Russian goes, I’ve read that Russian use is not as prevalent in the Central Asian nations as we might think. For travel in Central Asia, I’d recommend learning Turkish over Russian. I’ve read that the Turkic languages are much more closely related than say, the Arabic dialects/languages, so you have a good chance of being understood speaking Turkish.

    Arabic

    Unlike Turkish and perhaps contrary to popular perception, Arabic “dialects” I’ve heard are widely different and largely mutually unintelligible. While a Moroccan and an Algerian might communicate in their respective dialects, a Moroccan and an Egyptian or a Lebanese would likely have no such luck. So there are two general approaches to learning Arabic. One is to study Modern Standard Arabic, which apparently nobody uses outside of lectures and such, but is widely understood. The other approach is to study Egyptian Arabic, which is a widely understood dialect due to the popularity of Egyptian pop culture and the closest thing to a colloquial Arabic lingua franca.

    “Languages for travel” as a concept

    I think in the end, learning a language for travel is just not enough to motivate someone to follow through to real fluency. It doesn’t take much language ability to be able to get around. The real joy of knowing the language comes from listening to stories of the people you meet, listening to what goes on around you, etc. Also, numbers don’t tell the whole story. Sure, Iran has millions of people, but so does South Korea, and more people from South Korea study abroad than from any other nation in the world, except China and India (hardly comparable to Korea). So why not learn Korean? Let’s face it: English is the best language in the world for travel. Next is probably Spanish, then perhaps Mandarin and Turkish. But in the end it all depends on where you are going.
    Kieran Maynard recently posted…Lu Xun on Loneliness – translated from the “Nahan” prefaceMy Profile

    • Very good points Kieran. With respect to Chinese, you have it exact. I read a book after writing this article and learned how Chinese isn’t so straight forward per se. Russian may not be the best to learn for those situations in Central Asia, but I can promise that the ability to read the Cyrillic alphabet and know some basic phrases will get one a long way in Eastern Europe. I was able to navigate Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia, and Bulgaria a little better because of a basic understanding of the Russian language.

      With respect to your thoughts on languages on travel, I can definitely agree. It mostly depends where your going. English is the best, but it won’t help one to blend in. It just makes one another English speaking tourist. At least, that is what I have seen.
      Andy recently posted…Fall in Prospect Park New York CityMy Profile

  6. If you’re travelling to Australia, learn some Aussie language 😉

    We like to think we speak English, but many foreigners have no idea what we’re saying. It’s not just the accent, it’s the fact that we use different words altogether. If there’s a way to shorten a word, we use it.

    If I told you I was going to throw some snags on the barbie with Richo and Macca on Sunday arvo, what I’d really be saying is “I’m going to put some sausages on the barbecue with Richard and (someone) McDonald on Sunday afternoon.” And “Maccas” is what we call McDonald’s as well.

    • I’d love to learn some Aussie Luke! You bring up a good point about localizing the language that you are speaking. English is only as relevant as the local slang. We do the same in the south of the United States where I come from.

      Your example is great! Thanks for sharing a little Aussie slang with us.

  7. Hey, found your blog through a Google search on this topic, great article! I’m currently studying Spanish and French, and thinking about picking up Portuguese and Cantonese next, and am excited to read more of your blog. Thanks!

  8. Surprised German isn’t on this list – I’ve found it to be more useful than English in Central and Eastern Europe, particularly in Romania and Russia.

  9. How come you forgot Hindi…spoken by 1.2 billion people.

  10. Just read your blog while searching for the language spoken in the world. Thanks for going into details. My favorite part is the difference between Cantonese and Mandarin, it’s valuable. About Cantonese and Mandarin, is it the same as Chinese Full form and Chinese Simplified?

  11. Traveling is always a good thing in life, it fill your souls.

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