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Top Languages to Learn for Travel

What languages do you need to know to travel the world?

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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


It is extremely vital for the world traveler to be able to converse in at least two or three of the five world languages. Even if you speak English, when the English language is compared to other languages, there is still an entire stretch of the planet that you cannot readily communicate with, so prepare by studying the other world languages.

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

Filed under: Culture and Society, Language

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 91 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3703 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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VBJ is currently in: New York City

8 comments… add one

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  • Bob L November 18, 2010, 4:37 pm

    English is NOT the official language in the USA. We have no official language. It is the common language, the language our laws are written in (well legaleze I guess) but English is not the official language.

    Makes one wonder……

    Bob L

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    • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com November 18, 2010, 4:55 pm

      Correct, English is not the “official” language of the USA, but it is the official language of 28 states. I suppose official was not the correct word to use in this case, should probably change the caption. Funny that the USA is so hung up with minority rules and being PC that they can’t even have an official language when 95% of the population speaks English.

      Are you commenting from the airport in DC on your trip to Thailand?

      Man, you are a loyal reader haha.


      Walk Slow,


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  • lara dunston November 20, 2010, 3:08 am

    Great post! Love the maps!

    Worth noting that in the Arabian Peninsula, English is widely spoken and in some cases is the official language, and is the language of business and education, eg, UAE, Oman, Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait – which is one reason the UAE has been so successful at positioning itself as a major tourist destination and business/transport hub, and the other countries are trying to do the same, esp. Oman. English is also spoken widely in the cities of Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Egypt and Morocco too, less widely in rural areas of course, making those countries easy for English-speaking travellers.

    The ‘Syrian’ and ‘Lebanese’ languages *are* Arabic, they’re just spoken with their own specific accents and lingo and are different in the way that, say, Spanish is different between Argentina and Chile. Egypt and Iraq have a very heavily accented version of Arabic, which is often derided in the Arabian Peninsula where they speak the purest version of Arabic, in Syria, where many claim a classical Arabic is spoken beautifully in the way some British speak ‘the Queen’s English’, and in Lebanon, where many speak a prettier, softer version of Arabic, that can be compared to how the Brazilians speak Portuguese in comparison to the Portuguese.

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    • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com November 20, 2010, 12:16 pm

      Good addition to this article, Lara.

      Your words are right on.


      Walk Slow,


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  • Chris Smith November 21, 2010, 3:17 pm

    Portuguese is the 4th most spoken language spoken by 335 million (almost 200 million in Brazil – a Country often compared to the U.S.A. in terms of land mass, economy, population size …).

    Why no Portuguese on your list?

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    • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com November 22, 2010, 1:09 pm

      Because Portuguese is predominately only spoken in Portugal, Brazil, and a few islands. You can travel in Brazil and Portugal speaking Portuguese, but it is not going to get you very far anywhere else. Also, English and Spanish can often be used to communicate in Portugal. I didn’t include Portuguese for the same reason that I left off Russian: its usage is highly regionalized and has grown/ is growing out of favor for people in other regions to learn as a second language. Although both countries — Russia and Brazil — are huge, their populations tend to be centered in vastly smaller areas and so much of these countries is virtually inaccessible.

      Though Portuguese would be a great language to learn if a traveler’s intention was to stay for a long time in Brazil.

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  • kallisue June 12, 2013, 5:38 am

    I’d put Russian over Chinese. There are a large number of countries that speak Russian as the main language. It’s a necessity for Central Asia.

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    • Wade | VagabondJourney.com June 14, 2013, 7:42 pm

      Russian is probably my choice for 6th most important language to learn for travel. This is because in many of the former Soviet states the use of Russian is actually in decline. English is becoming the preferred second language. But it is still an incredibly important language to know in order to travel through some regions.

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