Most useful languages for world travel

by Julie on December 28, 2016

International travel means encountering many different cultures and languages and, like a good boy scout, an experienced traveller knows it pays to be prepared in advance. Whether you’re going abroad for business or pleasure, being aware of local customs and etiquette, and being able to communicate at least at a basic level, will stand you in good stead in your host country. Languages can be tricky, however, there are some that prove useful repeatedly in different parts of the world. Here are some important things to bear in mind.

  1. Besides English, the 10 most commonly spoken languages in the world are Arabic, Chinese (Mandarin), German, Hindi, Japanese, Portuguese, Russian and Spanish, as well as Bengali and Punjabi.
  1. In addition to English, the United Nations designates Spanish, Russian, French, Chinese and Arabic as official languages.

  2.  In terms of number of countries, the 10 most spoken languages are the same as the UN official languages, plus Portuguese, German, Malay, Italian and Swahili.

You can learn all of the official UN languages at City Lit in London, plus Swahili and many more.


First time learning a new language?

 If English is your first and only language, it’s often best to start with a new language that has a similar, recognisable alphabet to English. This will mean a focus on the European languages, unless you have plenty of time to invest in assimilating a different structure entirely, such as you will find with Arabic, Mandarin and Russian, for example. However, if you plan to travel to any countries where these languages are used it’s worth taking a little extra time to learn at least the basics.

Expert advice

Being consummate world travellers, there is no doubt that the backpacking brigade knows a thing or two when it comes to the most useful languages. Often sites offering advice will ‘zone’ the globe so that it’s easier to identify which sections, north to south and east to west, share some common languages.


  1. As a result of colonisation, Portuguese is spoken in Africa, Asia and the Pacific region, South America and in parts of North America as well as in Europe. Increasingly it is used in business negotiations, so is growing in economic importance.

  2.  French has spread in a similar way. In Africa, it is a first or second language in many countries and it has an important presence within the European Union. Widely used in both North and South America, it is also prevalent in the Caribbean, Asia and the Pacific region.

  1. Chinese (Mandarin) is traditionally taught for use in business and is used primarily in mainland China. However, backpackers have observed that where Chinese people have settled around the world, Cantonese is often the language used, as many people are primarily from the south, Macau and Hong Kong. You will be most likely to find Cantonese, therefore, outside China in Chinese communities abroad.

  2.  Russian is becoming an increasingly important language to know if you intend to travel in areas that include the former Soviet republics. Understanding Russian is likely to be of benefit in Eastern Europe and Central Asia and knowledge of the Cyrillic Alphabet is said to be very useful for places where current languages have Slavic roots.
  3. Finally, while seasoned travellers recommend the languages listed above they also endorse Spanish and Arabic. In addition, Farsi/Persian is said to be of particular use in the Middle East as is Turkish, which also has benefits if you are travelling in Europe and Asia.

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