The most useful languages for travel (and how to learn them!)

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Learning a new language for travel is a great way to feel a deeper connection to the places you visit and the people you meet. Many of us dream of being able to converse freely and fluently with people wherever we go. But with more than 6,500 languages spoken in the world today, it isn’t practical to learn them all.  So which languages are most useful for travel, and how should you go about learning them? 

In this guide, we detail the top 7 languages to learn for travel and provide tips and resources to make language learning easier.

books of languages for travel
What to learn new languages for travel? Choose one that interests you and one that will be useful abroad. Image by Oli Lynch from Pixabay

Our experience learning languages for travel

When we were first bitten by the international travel bug, we knew our travels would take us to many countries that were not natively English-speaking. So, our language-learning journey began!

We went to a book store and picked up a book about Switzerland, the first country we eventually visited in Europe. The cover of the book looked so cool. There were mountains… and skiers… and snow. All the things that we enjoy! The book also mentioned all the languages that are spoken in Switzerland: German, English, Italian, Spanish, French… and then something called Swiss-German. Children in Switzerland, and in much of the world, are taught a second language beginning in grade school, if not younger. Yet foreign language is still not something that is actively and earnestly taught in the US public school system until at least high school.

That is when we decided to learn another language… maybe two… or three. And we made it our goal to ensure our daughter learns a second language, as well. 

The 7 best languages for travel to learn

If you want to learn a second language for travel, you first need to determine which language would be most beneficial and useful during your travels. Here are the top languages that have the most travel value and why.

English

The fact that you are reading this in English tells me you are likely already a native English speaker or at the very least fluent in the language. So, you probably don’t need to learn English. However, I included it on the list because in terms of the top languages for travel, English is undoubtedly number one. 

There are 67 different countries in the world where English is the official language, as well as numerous non-sovereign entities. Residents from countries like the United States, United Kingdom, and Canada speak English as their native language. Surprisingly, English is even the official language of the Central American country of Belize and of many of the countries on the continent of Africa.

horseshoe bend in the USA
There are a lot of great places in the USA that you can visit without learning a language other than English.

Additionally, many countries teach English as a second language beginning in kindergarten. So nearly 20 percent of the world’s population, or 1.35 billion people can speak some English.  

However, don’t think you can get by everywhere just by knowing English. Because that leaves more than 75 percent of the world who do not speak or understand English at all. 

Spanish

Aside from English, Spanish is one of the most important languages to learn for travel. It is the official language in at least 20 countries – and a large section of two continents.  If you want to travel to Spain, Mexico, or to most countries in Central America and South America, Spanish will be beneficial.

Spanish is also the second most-spoken language in the United States. An estimated 13% of US residents speak Spanish as a first language. 

Mexico City
If traveling in Mexico or nearly any country in Latin America, Spanish would be a beneficial language for your travels.

As a romance language, learning Spanish also makes it easier to learn other romance languages like French, Italian and Portuguese. 

Arabic

For English speakers, Arabic is a challenging language to learn, at least compared to Spanish. Arabic has its own alphabet, grammatical complexities, and pronunciation. Additionally, there are a lot of different dialects of Arabic that can make learning it difficult. 

But, since Arabic is the official language of 26 countries, including areas where international tourism is growing rapidly, like Dubai, UAE and Morocco, it is one of the best languages to learn for travel. If you have a desire to visit the Middle East or any of the countries in Northern Africa, you should at the very least learn some Arabic.

Mosque in Casablanca, Morocco
If you plan to travel around North Africa or the Middle East, Arabic is a great language to learn. Photo by Mehmet A. from Pixabay

Mandarin Chinese

Mandarin Chinese makes our list of the best languages for travel, simply because it is the most spoken language in the world. Although only 5 countries have Chinese and one of its dialects, like Mandarin, as the official language, many of those countries are extremely populated. So, if you have a desire to see the Great Wall of China, any of the fascinating sites in Beijing or elsewhere in China, Mandarin Chinese is a useful language. 

Great Wall of China with kids
Want to visit the Great Wall of China? You may run into a huge language barrier if you don’t know at least a little Mandarin.

In fact, Mandarin is a good language for travel and for business, and will always be as long as companies around the world continue to outsource production to China.

French

Like Spanish and Arabic, French is widely spoken around the world. There are 29 countries where French is the official language. So, if you dream of Paris to see one of the most famous bridges in Europe or you want to wander around the Louvre and gaze at famous European statues and paintings, French is a great language to learn. 

Eiffel Tower at night
To wander around the City of Love and see the Eiffel Tower aglow at night, you’ll want to brush up on your French.

French is also spoken in parts of Canada, like Quebec and even in some of the Caribbean islands, like St. Martin.

Portuguese

Portuguese is a romance language, like French and Spanish. While Portugal is the home country for the language, it is not the largest country that uses the language. Portuguese is also the official language of Brazil, the largest country in South America. 

Funicular in Lisbon Portugal
Portugal may be a small country, but its language is spoken in 10 other countries around the world. Image by crosm from Pixabay

Portuguese is spoken in 10 countries around the world, and if you want to visit Lisbon or any of these other popular places in Portugal, learn a few words and phrases in Portuguese to make your trip easier.

Russian

While Russian may not be widely spoken in many countries, learning it can help you get by in one of the largest, most populated countries in the world, and in several of the countries that neighbor Russia.

Moscow cathedral
Even if you have no desire to visit Moscow, Russian is also a great language to know if visiting any of the post-soviet states. Image by Michael Siebert from Pixabay

There are currently only 4 countries where Russian is the official language: Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan. But it is the seventh-most spoken language in the world, with more than 258 million native speakers. Even if you have no desire to ever travel to Russia, the language is still spoken by many people in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, particularly in the countries that were once under Russian rule.

Two bonus languages to learn for travel

Although the seven languages above are the most beneficial languages for travel, it may make sense for you to learn others that aren’t on this list.

The language you will use the most

A great language for you to learn would be the one that you would use the most, even if it is not one of the more widely spoken languages above. 

If you have grandparents from Japan, for example, it might make more sense for you to learn Japanese to communicate and connect with your relatives and your heritage. In fact, in this example it would also be helpful to learn about the culture and the unique Japanese habits and customs so you can preserve and honor your heritage, as well.

The language that interests you

Another great language to learn would be the one that interests you the most. For instance, if you are of Polish descent and are interested in learning Polish, do it! Even if no one in your family still speaks Polish and you have no plans to travel to Poland, if the language interests you, you will be more likely to stick with it. 

Why you should learn a language for travel

Travel is a great way to learn. In fact, many of our favorite family travel quotes revolve around the idea that travel is the best form of education. Through travel, you can learn so much about the world and its history, and about other cultures and religions. But to truly connect with a place and its people, it is important to learn at least a little of the native language for travel.

Learning a language opens up new possibilities

If you live in the United States and never plan to travel outside its borders, then you may not need to learn a language other than English. But the USA only accounts for 4.25% of the entire world population and only 6.1% of the land on this planet. That means that more than 95% of people in this world, and 94% of the beautiful lands to explore are in other countries. While there are a lot of great places to visit in the United States, there is so much you will never discover if you don’t leave the country.

So, if you want to see more than just 6.1% of the world, then learning a language for travel would be beneficial. And the further you go off the tourist path in a city or country, the more likely it is you will have to interact with people who do not speak English.

Speaking a country’s native language earns respect from locals

Even if you only know a few key phrases in a language, it will ultimately earn you a lot of respect from the locals you interact with while you are traveling. 

A few years ago, when we took a family trip to Costa Rica, we tried to make a reservation at a restaurant at the resort where we were staying, RIU Guanacaste. Unfortunately, the restaurant was booked. However, when we started to speak to the manager in Spanish, the native language of Costa Rica, he made an exception and reserved a table for us. Our Spanish was far from perfect. In fact, it was likely pretty terrible. But by simply attempting to speak it, we earned the managers respect or favor, and ultimately we were able to secure a reservation.

Language helps you connect with locals in other countries

Interacting with locals takes on an entirely new dynamic when communication is more fluid because you took the time to learn a language for travel. When we are even somewhat comfortable speaking the language in a new country, we are able to break off the tourist path, see more of the country, and interact more with the people that make that country unique. 

There is something about sitting down in a pub and having a beer in areas that only the locals go that will make you feel more connected to a city. More importantly, you can establish cross-cultural friendships and do so while giving your brain a nice boost.

Guide at a Hanging Bridges Costa Rica tour
Conversing in Spanish in Costa Rica

How to learn a new language for travel

Learning a language can admittedly be hard, especially for adults. But it can also be one of the coolest and most rewarding things you ever do. 

In our household, we personally spend at least 20 minutes each day practicing another language. It helps us feel more connected to other cultures even when you aren’t traveling, and ultimately helps us be more prepared for future trips.

Of course, immersion is always the best way to learn a new language. But most of us don’t have the opportunity to move abroad for months at a time. So, for those who are learning from home, here are some of the most popular resources to learn another language for travel.

Duolingo

Duolingo is a free app that you can install on your phone so you can take language learning with you wherever you go. Did you miss the part where I mentioned it is FREE? In reality, you will not become fluent in a language using Duolingo alone. However, it is a convenient app that can help you learn 19 distinct languages. It has a fun, engaging gamification platform, and is easy to use, even on the go. We personally use Duolingo daily in our household.  

Duolingo practicing the Spanish language for travel
Practicing our Spanish skills on Duolingo.

Rosetta Stone

Rosetta Stone is another great language-learning resource that we personally use. Rosetta Stone teaches you language the way you learned your first one, beginning with easy nouns and phrases. However, like Duolingo, Rosetta Stone is great for building vocabulary but not as great for everyday, practical use and language comprehension. 

Still, at the current price for a lifetime subscription for all languages, Rosetta Stone is well worth the investment. In fact, it even makes a great gift for moms who love to travel.

Babbel

Like Rosetta Stone, Babbel is a paid-app or language learning program. It was designed with real world use in mind. Babble does a better job than Rosetta Stone at explaining translations, but offers fewer languages. Rosetta Stone offers 25 languages, whereas Babble currently only offers 14. For those wanting to dive deeper into language learning, Babbel Live is extremely beneficial as the courses are live online classes taught by speakers and teachers of the language. However, Babbel Live is only offered in Spanish, French, Italian, and German.

Language-learning Podcasts

Who doesn’t love a good podcast these days? If you commute for work or are trying to pass the time on a road trip, a language learning podcast like Coffee Break Languages (currently offered in Spanish, French, German, Italian, Chinese, Swedish, and English) are great! These free podcasts teach the basics of a language for travel or practical purposes. For example, one podcast may be solely dedicated to ordering in a restaurant.

Children’s movies

“How did you learn English?” is one of my favorite questions to ask someone who learned English as a second language. Many times the answer is from watching movies! So, as you become more studious in language learning, watch some of your favorite children’s movies in the language you are trying to learn and turn the closed captioning on. 

Disney movies are great for this. Not only are many Disney movies inspired by places you can actually visit, but children’s movies tend to use simple vocabulary which is easier to understand as you are trying to learn a new language.  

Tips for practicing a new language when traveling

Speaking a new language to those who speak it natively can be intimidating. But here are a few tips to help you practice your new skills with confidence.

Conquer your fear of mistakes

Don’t be afraid to say things incorrectly. Even if your grammar or pronunciation is off, chances are people will still understand the gist of what you are saying. And the more you practice speaking a language to others the more comfortable you will get.

Learn the basics and know them well

You don’t need to learn the language from front to back. But learning some of the more popular phrases and sayings in multiple languages is beneficial. 

So what should you learn? Here are a few phrases that we try to learn in the native language of any country we visit: 

  • Hello
  • Good-Bye
  • Excuse Me/Pardon Me
  • Please 
  • Thank you
  • How are you? 
  • I am good/fine/great/wonderful
  • How much does this cost?
  • I would like to eat/drink
  • Do you know
  • Table for (2, 3, 4, or however many people are in your family)

In most cases, this will cover the bulk of necessary interaction you will have when traveling, if you’re trying to get by with the bare minimum. But learning these simple sayings can really make you stand out.

Have a question or comment about the best languages to learn for travel? We’d love to hear from you! Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

Like it? Pin this list of languages for travel to save for later!

This article on languages for travel was originally published in March 2016 and was updated in July 2021 for accuracy and current information.

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8 comments on “The most useful languages for travel (and how to learn them!)”

Well said. I stayed with a family in Austria for a few days when I was 14. The other same-aged kids already knew English on top of their German, and they were all deciding which language to learn next – French or otherwise. I was so jealous.

Germany is BEAUTIFUL! You will love it. I was an exchange student in the Allgäu region for a full year and it was the best experience of my life, bar none. There is so much to do and see, so hopefully you booked at least a week there, as you’ll need every second. I went there language blind…not a lick of Deutsch….but by the 6-month mark I was dreaming in German…that’s when you know you’ve got it down good. I know you have limited time there, but just know everyone loves tto be able to talk to Americans in English, but are super helpful in helping you to speak German when you try as well. I def recommend you try the Späetzle noodles–one of my favs! Also their cheeses and breads…and of course, their beer selections :). If you need any pointers, etc, definitely feel free to contact me. Happy travels!

I will NEVER forget an American lady, probably in her late thirties, that instead of trying to understand the language being spoken simply started to shout in English at the young Guatemalan shop-keeper. Then had the audacity to yell at him, “why can’t you stupid people learn English?”. I didn’t know spanish but had my handy dandy guidebook with phrases and was treated like a friend wherever I went. The locals had a lot of laughs at my inability to roll an R or make that LL sound, but they really appreciated me at least trying. We seriously need to have our school focus on languages and make it a requirement for graduation..

I completely agree! In high school, we had exchange students from various European countries live with us for a year, and at the age of 16, they knew perfect English, as well as their native language, and usually a third language. I think American kids are really at a disadvantage because foreign languages aren’t taught beginning in grade school or Pre-K.

I have unfortunately run into these situations far too frequently as well. When people leave the borders of their own country (which I encourage everyone to do), they can’t expect the world to cater to them. Why would anyone want to go somewhere that’s exactly like home anyway?
I was very fortunate that in Canada, we must learn French up to Grade 8 and then are highly encouraged to either continue with it or choose another language throughout high school. It is not even the language itself that matters, but rather the process of learning another language.

It’s been several years since I’ve used it, so my Spanish ability has regressed quite a bit, but I used to be very capable and confident in that language and traveled to several places in Central and South America. Knowing the language allowed me to experience so much more than I ever could have otherwise. I made some great friendships with locals who couldn’t speak English.

Years later (about ten years ago now) I got a job in Korea. It was my first experience traveling to a place where I could not speak the local language. I could get around, and I managed fine, but my experience traveling was so different. I couldn’t make friends with locals (unless they spoke English) and I getting off the beaten path was much more challenging. I only planned to stay there a few years so never made a concerted effort to learn Korean, but two years turned into ten before I finally decided to leave. It saddens me to think of how richer my experience could have been if I had started right away to learn the language and if I had been committed to trying harder.

Earlier this year, we moved to China and I decided I wouldn’t make the same mistake twice. I’ve been trying to learn Mandarin. It’s so much more difficult than Spanish. I think I could study it for ten years and not have the same level I achieved after a year studying Spanish. My kids are picking it up so much faster than I am. It makes me happy for them, but frustrated with myself. But in the end, all we can do is try, right?

I applaud your efforts to get out there and not be intimidated with your lack of language. It shows your kids that you value other cultures and languages.

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