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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
As a romance language, learning Spanish also makes it easier to learn other romance languages like French, Italian and Portuguese.
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.
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.
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.
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, or explore beautiful gothic cathedrals, French is a great language to learn.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
“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:
- Excuse Me/Pardon Me
- 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.
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This article on languages for travel was originally published in March 2016 and was updated in July 2021 for accuracy and current information.