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Top Languages to Learn for Travel

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What Are The World Languages?

It is my impression that there are only five world languages: English, Spanish, French, Chinese, and Arabic. By my definition, a world language is one that is spoken in multiple countries, by 100’s of millions of people as either first or second languages, across various and diverse regions of the world. It is important for travelers to find a grounding in being able to communicate in world languages, and I present the above list of languages in order of importance for a world traveler to learn.

If a traveler can communicate in three of the five languages written above, they could have verbal access to a truly massive portion of the world’s population.

Map of countries where English is widely spoken

As I travel with a child, who is eagerly learning languages for the first time, I am understanding  the importance of creating an atmosphere to enable to total acquisition of multiple languages — as well as taking into account what these languages should be.

World languages: English, Spanish, French | Chinese, Arabic.

I place a big dividing line in this list between French and Chinese, as, for the traveler which wishes to girdle the globe, it is my impression that it is of much higher value to learn the first three languages than the later two.

In point, English, Spanish, and French are three languages which can be spoken in almost any popular dialect (or accent) and be mutually intelligible anywhere the language is spoken. A native speaker of American English can go to England, Ireland, Scotland, Australia, Guyana, Belize, Jamaica, Sierra Leone, Liberia, many other countries, and can expect to be, more or less, understood. The same goes with Spanish: almost any type of popular Spanish can be spoken and understood in any Spanish speaking country. French is often learned by people throughout the world as a second language, and its various forms are often book standardized and mutually understandable to anybody who has a knowledge of the language.

Map of where Arabic is spoken with different dialects

Regionalized vs. World Languages

It is true that Chinese and Arabic are spoken by large masses of people, throughout many different countries, but these languages are so rife with mutually unintelligible dialects and differences that their usage for the traveler is stunted.

Well over a billion people in the world speak Chinese, but it is a language that has many different forms and dialects that its global usage for the traveler is often limited. Even the Chinese that is spoken in the north of China is very different than in the south; the Chinese that is spoken in Chinese communities throughout the world is often not Mandarin, the language that is being pushed as a standard in China. In point, a Chinese speaker cannot travel between various Chinese communities in the world (or even China) and expect to be understood. When most parts of China — a truly giant country — a traveler can often get by speaking Mandarin, as they could in Hong Kong, Singapore, or Taiwan, but, on a global scale, the broad usage of the language is regionalized to certain parts of a few countries.

This is similar for Arabic. Although Arabic is spoken officially across 22 countries, there are many different dialects which are not mutually intelligible to all speakers. The usage of Arabic is highly regionalized, with each country that claims to speak it having their own version. In Lebanon, they say they speak Lebanese, Syrians are said to speak Syrian — although the languages are really branches off of Arabic. In point, some forms of Arabic can be understand by other speakers of the language, but the broader dialects tend to be segmented into regions, i.e. North Africa, Middle East . . .

For this reason, I rank Arabic lower on my list of pertinent languages for a traveler to learn than Chinese Mandarin — which is only spoken in a few countries. Another reason that I do not truly feel that Arabic is a high ranking language for travelers to learn is that French or English is often learned by native Arabic speakers as second languages. French was once the intermediary language of much of north Africa and parts of the Middle East, and a traveler can still get along pretty well in these regions speaking it — sometimes even better than trying to speak Modern Standard Arabic.

Map of where Chinese Mandarin is the main language in China

Meanwhile, English or French are of very little use in most of China — even though 300 million people are currently studying English. In point, to travel in China, you must use Mandarin Chinese as your modus operandi of communication. Outside of the tourist areas in China, other world languages are about as useful as — in the words of my father — a one legged man in an ass kicking contest.

It is my impression that the various forms of Chinese and Arabic, although spoken in some form by the bulk of the world, are more or less regionalized languages: one dialect will work in certain regions, while other dialects are spoken elsewhere. They are not like English, French, or Spanish, which can be used to communicate wherever the language is spoken. Though there are current drives to push standardizations of both Chinese Mandarin and Arabic, which, if successful, would definitely rank them much higher in my reckoning of world languages.

Spanish language map

French is spoken in these countries

Percentage of world that speaks the 5 world languages

English- 17%
Mandarin Chinese- 17%
Spanish- 7%
Arabic- 7%
French- 3%

Number of countries where world languages dominate

English- 58 countries
Mandarin Chinese- 3 countries
Spanish-21 countries
Arabic- 22 countries
French- 28 countries

Sources: List of countries where English is an official language | Chinese Mandarin | Arabic | Hobotraveler.com six languages to learn | Maps from Wikipedia

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Filed under: Culture and Society, Language

About the Author:

Wade Shepard is the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been traveling the world since 1999, through 76 countries. He is the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to Forbes, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3048 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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