The Three Must-Have Travel Languages

The other day a fellow traveler wrote to ask me what I thought were the most important languages for a traveler to have. I’m not much for lists (hate all those magazine cover lines that reduce the subtlety and wonder of the world to the 5 most this and the 50 best that), but once I got started on this theme, I couldn’t stop

And so–with apologies to an overused meme–here’s my somewhat list-like take on the language-while-traveling issue.

First up–what’s the number one language you need to have in your travel toolkit? The hands down, no-contest winner is…drum roll…

1. English

Not only is it the lingua franca of the travel industry worldwide, English is also the lingua franca, amazingly, of Asia. I remember the first time I flew on Cathay Pacific, and was amazed to find, on this Hong Kong based Asian airline, that the default language was not Chinese, or Cantonese, but my mother tongue. Yes, English is the language that a Japanese traveler will use first to communicate with a Thai, and that a Taiwanese traveler will use to address a Korean.

BUT…before all you native English speakers start to relax and get lazy, thinking “Okay, well, I guess I don’t have to learn a foreign language at all.”, a word of warning. The “English” that has become a global lingua franca is not YOUR English. It is Global English, the contemporary version of the creoles and pidgins of the seafaring days of the 18th century. Global English is stripped down, bookish English, devoid of grammatical quirks, colloquialisms and regional/national accents. If you want to successfully use your native language to communicate with the world’s community of English-as-second-language speakers, you will have to become fluent in this other English. Which means paying close attention to how you say things, keeping your sentences direct and simple, and editing out regionalisms

Okay, so you’ve got your basic global language. Now what? Well, I think that anyone who is planning on becoming a serious traveler should set this goal: getting a basic fluency in two other languages besides Global English.

2. One European language from the following list: Spanish, French, Portuguese, Italian


3. One non-European language from the following A list: Chinese, Arabic, Russian

I’ve chosen my list based on global reach. You want to know languages that are widely spoken not just inside but outside their original countries (sorry, German). You also want to dig into languages that have close relatives, so that you can use your fluency in one to help you fake your way through another. With Spanish in your toolkit, you’ll have most of Latin America in your pocket, and can slide through Brazil and Portugal and Italy without too much trouble. Even France is more accessible to the very fluent Spanish speaker.

It goes without saying that Spanish is the essential second language to own when you’re in the US. Every American ought to be reasonably fluent in it, IMO. We’re not just a bilingual hemisphere, we’re de facto a bi-lingual nation.

French will help you throughout Africa, and even through a lot of the Arabic world. Once again, it’s a bridge to other Romance languages and so extremely useful. Portuguese, which used to be an also-ran in the Romance department, has become more valuable since the rise of Brazil as a global power. Most Brazilians don’t speak English, so having Portuguese is essential if you want to travel there.

Italian–well, to be honest, it’s really not as good as Spanish or French in the global scheme of things. But it’s so much fun to speak, and Italians are great travelers who really know how to enjoy themselves on the road. With Italian fluency, you’ll be able to take advantage of their travel joie de vivre wherever you go, from the Dominican Republic to the South Pacific.

Now on to the non-Euro languages.

This is the hard part. Once you step outside of the Western European linguistic bubble, as an English native speaker you are in deep water without a life jacket. You might have to learn to use tones, uncomfortable glottal stops, or a different alphabet script. Even worse, the grammar you know will not help you to unlock the riddles of these tongues, not one little bit. So I recommend choosing the non-Euro language that matches the area you think you’ll be traveling in the most, the culture you feel most drawn towards.

The big three–Chinese, Arabic and Russian—are all extraordinarily different. And difficult. Each demands serious study, cultural immersion, learning a new script. Yet each opens up a huge portion of the world to you, and a deep, rich cultural tradition. (Russian will also help you through Eastern Europe and the vastness of Central Asia and Siberia, since it is the lingua franca of the former Soviet bloc).

Some of us are really talented in languages and have lots of time. They will learn Chinese AND Arabic, Russian AND Japanese (while a second-tier language, Japanese is absolutely necessary if you want to have a serious relationship with that country…and it will help you somewhat in China as well, since the Japanese script includes many Chinese characters).

Other B list non-Euros you might want to consider besides Japanese: Bahasa (works in Indonesia and Malaysia..and it uses Western script and is supposedly very easy). Swahili (a good lingua franca for East Africa, also relatively easy) Thai (it’s kind of the Italian of Asia–not so useful outside of its own country, but really lovely and fun to speak)

Most of us travelers will only have time in this lifetime to tackle one of the non-Western languages. So pick the culture that moves you the most, and dive in.

I dove into Cantonese.My linguistic love affair. Harder and more beautiful and complex than Mandarin, full of sass and splendor. It’s got everything you want in a language. Great food culture. Terrific vocabulary of insults. And the best thing of all: no hierarchy of class or gender built into the grammar.