Speaking the local language is one of the most useful tools for fully experiencing your travels. A great part of traveling adventurously can also include fully immersing yourself in the local culture and customs and, although you could do this without learning the language, knowing what your guides or hosts are saying can make the difference in how you live the experience.
Communicating with other humans is a special and beautiful thing. Little else compares to exchanging stories and laughs with peoples of other cultures. Communicating well deepens our friendships and broadens our social circle; it allows us to appreciate the situation of others better.
Deciding which language to learn… what you need to know.
According to sources, there are over 7,000 languages in the world. And considering the amount of effort it takes to speak any one of those fluently, choosing two or even three of those to master can be a tough decision. But don’t worry! Only 23 of those 7,000 languages make up those spoken by half of the world’s population!
First, you’ll have to decide which language you want to learn. In order to make the best decision, you’ll need to analyze the reasons behind your choice. Maybe you feel an inclination towards a certain tongue because of your ancestry, or you simply like how it sounds. Maybe you took a year or two of French in college or high school. Maybe you’re one of the few lucky people born into a bilingual family.
So… “what’s the best language for traveling the world?” you might ask. As usual, there is no perfect answer to such an open-ended question. Several different factors might weigh in your decision and sway you in favor of a certain language.
Are you going abroad to spend a year or two in a country or region? Do you want to take a trip around the world and simply want to be better prepared? These are only some of the questions you’re going to have to answer.
Also, remember that many languages have their own dialects too. Just Arabic has over 20 different regional varieties! Languages take on a life of their own and evolve over time, just as people and customs do. Some languages (such as English) are better suited for change and a modern world, while others stick firmly to their roots and the traditionalism of the cultures they represent.
Most spoken languages by number of native speakers
The most common way of determining which are the most significant languages is by the number of native speakers it has. In this respect, the most spoken languages in the world are:
- Mandarin (c. 955 million speakers)
- Spanish (c. 405 million speakers)
- English (c. 360 million speakers)
- Hindi (c. 310 million speakers)
- Arabic (c. 295 million speakers)
As you can see, if you’re considering learning a language based solely on the sheer number of people who speak it, Mandarin would be the obvious first choice. But the problem in this example is that it’s only widely spoken in China (and maybe as a second language in neighboring countries and regions). Hindi is another example as it’s spoken mostly by people in India.
Spanish, English, and Arabic, on the other hand, are different in the sense that they are spoken in a broader variety of countries in different continents and regions, which might serve you better if you’re going to be traveling extensively and might provide a better value based on that viewpoint.
Most spoken languages by their status as an official language
On the other hand, another way of determining which are the most spoken languages in the world is by the number of countries that recognize it as an official language. It’s common for countries (and even some states and regions in the world such as Louisiana in the US and Quebec in Canada) to recognize two or three different languages as their main tongues. For example, French is widely spoken in Africa as a second language in addition to native languages, and English is recognized in many countries where there is a significant population that speaks English.
By the number of countries that recognize a language as official, the most widely spoken are:
- English (recognized in 59 countries)
- French (recognized in 29 countries)
- Arabic (recognized in 26 countries)
- Spanish (recognized in 21 countries)
- Portuguese (recognized in 9 countries)
As you can see, if we are considering learning a language by the number of countries in which it’s spoken, we get very different results than if we take into consideration how many people actually speak these languages.
If you think about it, these languages are those of countries which used to have vast empires and colonies scattered all over the world, and where their language is likely still spoken alongside local dialects. The cultural influence and legacy of colonialism is undeniable and devastating, in many cases, but it was instrumental in promoting the use of certain languages all over the world.
The bottom line
Taking everything we’ve discussed into consideration, if I wanted to make an around the world trip and if you were to force me to take a stance, English would be the most useful language (if you’re reading this blog, then I might have reason enough to suppose you already know how to speak it). It is recognized as an official language in more than two score countries around the world, but it’s also widely spoken all over the world… it is, after all, the language of the internet, and can be considered as the lingua franca of our age. Also, tourism operators all over the world and most travelers are fairly fluent in English, which increases its usefulness.
If you’re already a native English speaker or are already fluent in it, I would highly recommend considering French, Arabic or Spanish as a second language, depending on the areas in which you are more interested in traveling.
If you’ll be traveling in the Americas, Spanish would be your most obvious choice, followed closely by English. If you’re going to be traveling Africa, English and French would be very useful. If you’ll be traveling in the middle-east, North Africa and certain countries with a high Muslim population, then Arabic is an excellent language option.
If you have the ability, feel free to learn two at a time! Also, bear in mind that travel is a great way (and excuse) to learn another language. Nothing like brushing up on your Spanish while hiking the Andes or practicing your English by hanging out with your new friends in a Melbourne pub.
Learning a language can be a fun experience, especially as a part of a greater cultural travel experience. There’s just something about immersing yourself in the way things are said by others that just adds to the general enjoyment of travel.
Which language has best helped you on your travels? Have anything more you wish to add to the conversation? Be sure to post in the comments!