One of the most common questions I get asked is how many languages I speak.
As of 2018, my answer is: 2 natively (English, Bulgarian), 1 conversationally – bordering on fluently – (Spanish), 2 moderately (Japanese, Russian – both of which I’m presently learning), and bits and pieces of several others (Sawasdee Kap!).
If you’re interested in learning languages while traveling, the question has undoubtedly crossed your mind:
Which language should I learn first?
In this article, I’ll cover the 7 most useful languages to learn when it comes to traveling. I’ve evaluated them based on my personal experience of usefulness from the perspective of improving the quality and enjoyment of your travel experience.
The list of 7 is broken down into two sections: the top 5 “actual” languages with the most travel value (in order), followed by 2 “relative” travel languages, which will help you decide which language will be the most useful to learn for you personally.
The Top 5 Languages
If you don’t speak English well, it’s by far the most important language for you to learn. Even a rudimentary knowledge of it will open more doors for you, both in terms of social and functional benefits, than any other.
But wait, even if you already speak English (even natively), don’t skip over this. In fact, it’s especially important for native English speakers to learn to speak English – in the form of pidgin English.
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First of all, let’s not take for granted that you’re reading this in English – after all, with translation built right into Google Chrome, anybody in any language could be reading this in a broken version of their native tongue, with probably a good amount of the humor stripped out (we’re super popular in Antarctica).
But let’s say you are a native English speaker (if you’re not, we’ll get to that in a moment). You still have some English to learn.
That is, pidgin English (colloquially: broken English, or Engrish – yes, you can benefit from studying Engrish).
Many a time have I seen a tourist trying to make a local understand something by repeating themselves multiple times, louder and more frustrated each time, while using the same words that continue to go over the (generally…) well-intentioned local.
You’ve seen them too – or you’ve been them – and those interactions all end the same way:
The entitled tourist storms off in a fury, thinking “How dare they!? I come to their country, and they don’t even speak my language?!”, while the local either shrugs it off and continues their day (if they’re one of the “generally” helpful ones), or feels genuinely disappointed they couldn’t help (or sell their product/services).
Yet these kinds of things never happen to me, nor to the people who bring their English down to the level of the locals.
When it comes to how to do this, speaking English to locals as a traveler is a subject in and of itself (keep an eye out!).
As for the non-native speakers of English (and those who are reading this via Google translate), English has become the international standard; if you don’t yet know its importance, just watch how much more easily other travelers negotiate through the trials and tribulations of travel (including actual negotiation), and you’ll soon realize how helpful it can be.
Whether you’re learning how to speak English better, or worse, in terms of practicality, it is the #1 language you can learn to improve your travel experience.
If you’re scratching your head, then you haven’t yet had a glimpse into the vast networks of Russian-speakers traveling the globe.
I’ve been lucky enough to have seen the light, and it’s glorious.
Even if Russian-speaking countries are not on your itinerary, there are many, many people who speak Russian traveling the world (indeed, to escape the cold), and especially in warmer climates. (I’m personally allergic to the cold, but the hats are cool)
I’ve met more people while traveling who speak Russian than any other language – except English. I want to note here than I’m purposefully saying “people who speak Russian” rather than “Russians”, because I am talking about this from a linguistic perspective, and there are many other countries besides Russia that speak the language, though of course it is the largest and best-known (the same can be said as it relates to the hats). That means that there are also plenty of countries you can travel to, where you’ll be well-served by virtue of knowing the language.
Learning Russian will also open you up to a large portion of world travelers. Not only does this mean you can (pretty easily) find a social network in any place you go, and of course meet a lot more new people during the course of your travels (plus have a more intimate connection – as occurs naturally when you have more languages in common), but the people themselves are generally very well networked.
Due to the plentiful opportunities for socializing, the added networking value therein, and of course the sheer number of countries and people who speak it world-wide, Russian takes the #2 spot of most useful languages to learn.
Do you habla?
When I first went to South America, I landed with barely a word is Spanish. I could pretty reliably say “Hola, café con leche y tacos con guacamole, por favor. Gracias.”, and that was about it.
As you can imagine, one can only get so far drinking coffee and eating tacos (even with guacamole). At that time, Airbnb wasn’t big where I was staying, so I had to learn on my feet, which was a tough way to approach condo-hunting in a country that pretty much only spoke Spanish.
But, I preserved (out of necessity), and now speak Spanish fairly fluently. That being said, outside of South & Central America, I rarely find occasion to use it.
So, why is it #3 on the list of the most useful languages for traveling?
Despite there being fewer travelers that I’ve found who speak Spanish compared to the other languages on this list (yes, even #4 and #5), there are many more countries that speak it than the languages further down the list, and many of those countries are both geographically proximate to one another, and in and of themselves popular travel destinations.
With that one language, one can easily navigate and flourish in the majority of Central & South America, as well as growing portions of North America.
If any of those places are on your radar, Spanish is easily an important language for you to learn. The good news, is that Spanish is fairly easy to learn if you already speak a language with strong Latin influence, such as English, or a Latin-based language, like French.
4. & 5. German & French
German and French tie to finish off the list of most useful actual languages to learn while traveling.
Personally, while traveling, I have met many more native speakers of German & French individually, than I have those of Spanish, even though there are more Spanish speakers than German and French speakers combined. I recognize, however, that this is a personal experience, which will vary based on both where and how you travel (and let’s not get into the whole “if more people spoke German” topic).
Besides the subjective, relatively disproportionate ratio of usefulness and practicality while traveling in countries in which these languages aren’t official or predominantly spoken, German and French appear below Spanish in the list of top languages, because their geographic coverage is much more limited than that of the Spanish language, so there is a significantly fewer number of countries in which you’ll be able to use them.
Indeed, it’s primarily due to their use for socializing with the large number of German and French travelers, that they make it to #4 and #5 – but why are they tied?
German and French (which are ordered arbitrarily, let’s say reverse-alphabetically) are tied because even though there are plenty German and French travelers, I haven’t noticed a trend as significantly weighted one way or the other in terms of quantity, as for example the way that English, Russian, or Spanish are comparatively.
The technical exception here is French, which is the official language of approximately as many people worldwide as Spanish. However, a large portion of these countries have travel advisory warnings from the French government itself (as well as other governments), and are involved in ongoing armed conflicts. For these reasons, I don’t consider those places in terms of common highly desirable travel destinations – even though that is a subjective distinction (one man’s active war zone is another man’s paradise, I guess?).
The 2 “Relative” Languages
While the top 5 languages are generalized recommendations based on experience, and will be appropriate in many cases, travel is a highly personal thing, and your purpose for traveling may bring you into the path of people and places that would necessitate or propose far more useful languages to learn.
For that reason, the final 2 languages on the list are “relative” languages. In other words, they’re guidelines to help you pick which language is the best to learn *for you*, given your travel plans, and personal priorities.
6. The native language(s) of where you’re going
It’s pretty common to pick up at least a few words or phrases if you’re going to be spending any time in a place – but have you thought about actually learning the language?
If it’s a place in which you’re planning on spending significant time, then you may want to prioritize learning that language over others.
In the spirit of the “Top 5”, one important consideration in this regard is how useful the language will be to you outside of the country. For example, plenty of people travel to and even setup roots in countries like Indonesia and Thailand, yet despite the size of the population and potential usefulness of the language inside the country, they are of little use after you leave, since there aren’t nearly as many people traveling out of those countries compared to more developed ones – and the ones that do, will often speak English as well.
Yet, if you plan on spending significant time in such a country, the benefit of learning the language needn’t exist outside of its borders. This is especially true if you intend on courting the locals.
7. The language that’s most interesting to you
Ultimately, learning a language is a highly personal decision, based on your interests and priorities, which are apt to change over time.
Rather than dabble, it pays dividends to pick the one that is most interesting to you, and go into it.
If your lover (or lover[s]-to-be) speak a certain language, the choice could be very clear, but if you’re planning to jaunt across Europe, Asia, or Africa for a while, you’ll be exposed to a plethora of different tongues, how do you pick which language to learn?
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While the preceding 6 suggestions are a guideline that I have found to be most useful through my travels, the bottom line is to pick the language that most interests you.
The reason, is because what is going to make the difference of whether you actually learn the language or not, is having a strong enough motivation to follow through, and the ability to apply the language to some practical use as you learn it.
If what interests you is utilitarian value, work your way down the list, based on your unique travel preferences and plans. If you want to learn Klingon or Sindarin, then make that your language of choice – just don’t try using it to check in at the airport.
Language learning is a sometimes-overlooked yet oh-so-important part of travel, that adds richness, enjoyment, and valuable depth to the experience of travel.
To me, one of the best things about traveling is the exposure to all kinds of different cultures. A huge part of that, are their language(s), which simultaneously reflect the foundations, history, and evolution of the cultures and peoples they pervade.
Whether its English, Spanish, or Elvish, you’ll be happy that you have one or more languages to show for your time spent traveling. In addition to the social and utility value of knowing multiple languages, there is mounting research that knowing multiple languages can have professional benefits, even beyond the obvious ability to work with, for, and in multi-lingual environments.
Start Learning a Language
Once you’ve picked the language that you’re most interested in, it’s time to get started. There are plenty of services, products, courses, and programs out there to choose from when it comes to how to learn a language. Some are free, and some are paid. Some free ones are well worth the time investment, whereas some paid ones are not worth the money.
For me, my preferred method of learning a language is to spend some money in order to save a lot of time, is the Pimsleur Method, which I use for every language I study, to literally learn a language without spending extra time.