What Languages Should You Know if You Want to Travel the World Freely

The idea is that you be able to communicate with as many people in as many different places as possible knowing as few languages as possible. If in some country you can dispense with knowing the language and there is not much to see in that country (compared with the rest of the world), then the language is not needed.

This is just for fun and I didn’t do any research. My list of languages you should know to travel:

  • English – this is becoming the standard so you can’t travel without it. Even if it wasn’t supposed to be the lingua franca, you would still have the US, Australia, Canada and a couple of other countries which are huge where the language is spoken so knowing English is still very high on the list
  • Portuguese/Spanish – these are put together because it probably is enough to just know one of them (preferably Portuguese since generally it is easier for Portuguese speakers to understand Spanish than the other way around). There is a whole South America to see so you can’t miss out.
  • Russian – a lot of people in Russia do not speak other languages and Russia is the biggest country in the world. Also it is surrounded by a bunch of other countries people in which can speak Russian and if you don’t speak it, you are missing out on the whole continent.
  • Mandarin – hey, it is the most widely spoken language in the world and I am under the impression that a lot of people in China do not speak other (especially non-Chinese) languages.
  • Arabic – the problem is that there are too many dialects. Perhaps Standard Arabic would cut it. Maybe not.
  • French – I was not sure as to include it but hey, there is Africa. A lot of people still speak French there. There is also Quebec and France (although I wouldn’t have included French in this list if it were only those two).

I think this is it. Of course, from this point on, the more you know, the better. I just have the impression that this list would maximize your travelling experience.

How many languages from this list do you know? And what would your version of this list be?

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18 comments

  1. Hi, interesting list and I would say I pretty much agree with it. I know English, French and Catalan.
    I just made a list of the top ten native languages with samples of their audio so you can hear what they sound like:
    http://mlnlanguages.blogspot.com/
    It is different to your list of course as the most spoken languages are not always the most useful ones in the wider world.
    Jim

  2. I speak English and Chinese, and can at least manage in Spanish.

    I might get rid of French — with Arabic and English, you've already covered a lot of Africa (though certainly not all). The problem with Chinese is that, though China is really freaking big and full of stuff to see, it's only one country. Your knowledge of Mandarin, if you're looking at it from purely a traveling perspective, isn't that useful outside of China, as compared to Spanish or English.

  3. Given the sheer number of Spanish-speaking countries, I would advise to learn Spanish, versus Portuguese.

  4. I think English, Russian, Arabic, Spanish… probably in that order. French is growing irrelevant these days, as English will get you by in most French-speaking countries.

    As previously stated, Mandarin is only spoken in China. There may be a *LOT* of chinese, but they’re only in one place, so it’s not what I’d call a necessary “world-traveler’s language”.

  5. If you know spanish and french, you can get by in the other three romance languages. Also, France is still the language of the intelligentsia. An old holdover to be sure, but I find that everywhere I go I am happy I know it.

    In the Arab world French is useful as well, and that coupled with fusha (Q’ranic Arabic) will let you get by. Everyone knows the Q’ran’s Arabic so they’ll understand you, you’ll just sound a bit fancy. It’s fairly easy to pick up the local Amaya from there. If you were to pick one dialect, I would suggest Egyptian since the prominence of Egyptian cinema means other Arabs all understand Egyptian.

  6. That’s a useful comment, Delia. I’ve always wondered about how Arabic works. I have done a short course in Egyptian Arabic but I never got to use any and have probably forgotten most.

    I, too, enjoy speaking French but I find its usage just because it’s chic a bit snobbish at times. It is a cool language so I have nothing against speaking it for the fun of it, though. :)

  7. I think there is a good argument to keep French in there, though at the bottom of the list. I believe French is still the diplomatic language of the world, which means that although it may not be the primary language of many countries it is still very useful as a way to communicate in some places.

  8. I agree with your list, though I'd actually say that French is more important than Mandarin and if I had to chuck one or the other, it'd be Mandarin, because Mandarin is really only used INSIDE China only, whereas French is much, much more widespread.

    Cheers,
    Andrew

  9. Hm, Mandarin being spoken only in China is a severe misconception, I should think. Because of Chinese immigrants in the past, you will find a substantial number of people speaking Mandarin here in Malaysia, Singapore, Taiwan and the South-east Asian region. There are bound to be Chinese people everwhere (even in England or U.S.A or Canada where English is normally thought of as enough) …

  10. i would recomend also hindi as it is common to find or even urdu

  11. French is spoken in :

    Afrique : Bénin, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Cameroun, Cap-Vert, Comores, Côte d’Ivoire, Djibouti, Égypte, Gabon, Guinée équatoriale, Guinée-Bissau, Madagascar, Mali, Maroc, Mauritanie, Niger, République centrafricaine, République démocratique du Congo, République du Congo, Rwanda, Sénégal, Seychelles, Tchad, Togo, Tunisie
    Amérique : Canada, Haïti
    Asie: Cambodge, Laos, Liban, Viêt Nam
    Europe : Albanie, Andorre, Arménie, Belgique, Bulgarie, France, Grèce, Hongrie, Lituanie, Luxembourg, Macédoine, Moldavie, Monaco, Pologne, République tchèque, Roumanie, Slovaquie, Slovénie, Suisse
    Océanie : Vanuatu, nouvelle Calédonie,Polynésie Française.

    It is spoken buy 500 Millions peoples in the world and is involved in 25% of the international business, French is the second most influent and important language to know after English.

  12. I would have to disagree with Standard Arabic because many educated arabs would speak to you in english or french maybe Egyptian Arabic my be a better choice. I would love to see MSA as a worldwide lingua franca. 1500 years of history and a beautiful script whats not to like;-)

    If any Arab speakers are out there let me know if you encountered the same problem.

  13. I’d also recommend hindi/urdu. I’m not exactly sure if it’s right, but it probably is. Considering I live in an area that has a lot people that are from India/Pakistan, so I don’t have much say though.

  14. Just look at a map. Portuguese, as a primary language, is much more widespread than many languages mentioned here i.e., French. And spoken Portuguese is spoken more worldwide than Spanish. Portuguese is spoken a every continent. Portuguese is official in (Europe – Portugal, Azores, Madeira), (South America – Brazil), (Africa -Angola, Mozambique, Guinea Bissau, Cape Verde, Sao Tome & Principe, Equatorial Guinea), (Asia -Macau, China, East Timor), and Portuguese is still spoken in the former colonies of Indian territories of Goa, Daman, Diu. The total number of primary Portuguese speakers is approx. 225 million.

  15. French should definitely be in there. I speak fluent French, German, and English. I also think the Hindi should be in there. And maybe German because it is also a useful language and is similar to lots of other languages.

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