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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.