Most Useful Languages to Learn for Travelers

Most Useful Languages to Learn for Travelers

This post gives a list of the 13 most useful languages to learn for travelers. It also explains how I decided which languages go on the list, what order of importance they they appear in, and how I am going to apply the results to my personal life.

When I was a child watching Captain Planet I used to think, “if I could have any of those rings it would be the heart ring.” For those of you who are unfamiliar with Captain Planet, the heart rings allows the bearer to be able to speak to the animals. I assume that also includes all humans no matter what language they speak.

As an adult I realise that speaking to animals is impossible. Actually, I knew that as a child also, but being able to speak to the majority of humans in the world is something very achievable. Not only is it achievable, it is also something I have wanted to achieve since I started traveling. 10+ years later and I can barely speak anything other than English 🙁 .

The 13 Most Useful Languages to Learn for Travelers

For those of you that just want the quick list of the 13 most useful languages to learn for travelers here it is. It is presented in order, i.e., #1 is the most useful, then #2, and so on.

  1. English
  2. Mandarin
  3. Arabic
  4. French
  5. Spanish
  6. Russian
  7. German
  8. Portuguese
  9. Italian
  10. Hindi
  11. Bengali
  12. Turkish
  13. Malay

If you want to know how I arrived at this list of the 13 most useful languages to learn for travelers, read on.

The Reasoning Behind the List

Now I will explain how I decided on which languages to put on this list of the most useful languages to learn for travelers and how I ordered their level of usefulness.


First I did a bit of research and gathered lists of the top ten languages in three different categories. The categories and where I got the information from are:

Number of countries where it’s an official language:…

Total number of speakers:…

Since the idea is to be able to speak to as many people as possible this list is by total number of speaker as opposed to total number of native speakers.

Which countries travel the most internationally:…

I decided to include this list because as I travel I meet lots of other travelers such as at tourist attractions, in the hotel, etc. Although most travelers I meet also at least dabble in English it would be nice to speak their native language also, especially when they are a group and they speak.

There actually isn’t much data on this but I found this list from 2014 of countries that spend the most on international travel. While it doesn’t give a population order I think it will suffice for my purposes.

Points System

Basically I put the three lists in a table side by side then gave each row a simple points system, 1 to 10.

Most Useful Languages to Learn for Travelers - Survive Travel (1)

My points system.

As you can see from the table above I converted the nationalities that travel column to the main spoken language. I did consider giving Canada French and English but after a quick google search I discovered that very few Canadians only spoke French.

Next I totalled up all the points and put them in order from largest to smallest. I wasn’t sure what would happen but when I look at the list I think, “man, it’s pretty good.”

Most Useful Languages to Learn for Travelers - Survive Travel (2)

Points totalled.

English obviously the winner due to the being in the top two spots in all columns and having multiples in the third column. It was expected.

Coming in second is Mandarin. I was a bit concerned whether the points formula would work because Mandarin doesn’t even appear in the first column (it is number 11). Thankfully, the fact that it topped the other two lists gave it the boost it needed to put it where it should be. When I saw that I thought, “good, the points system worked.”

How I Will Use the Information

The above list shows the most useful languages to learn for travelers in general circumstances. It does not take into account personal circumstance, e.g., cultural background, places you travel most in, etc.

In my case, I have cultural ties to Spanish (my mother is Colombian), Chinese (my father side of the family is all Chinese) and Malay (I have relatives that live in Malaysia).

I actually kick myself for not being able to speak these languages already. I know a little bit of each but nothing close to conversational. I even lived in China for just shy of three years and I’ve spent on average about one month per year in Malaysia for the past 14 years!

I’ve decided that I am going to learn four languages, and maybe more afterwards. The four languages are Spanish, Malay, Mandarin and French. Looking back at an older post these are actually mostly the same as I have chosen previously.

I think learning each of these four to a basic conversational level is good enough for my purposes. Enough to have simple conversations with locals. I’ll probably try to get better at Spanish and Malay since I have family members who speak the language.

How I Plan to Learn My Most Useful Languages for Travel

I’m going to start by using the phone app memrise. Ill set it to 5 words a day for each of the four languages.

I came across a website called Basically he advocates total immersion, and I agree. So one by one I will study each language in-country, full immersion. The length of time I spend just depends on how I feel. Maybe I’ll live and learn followed by travel, maybe just travel, maybe I’ll take a course.

Whatever language I am doing full immersion in I will up the memrise words to 30 a day.

For any other national language I come across on my travels I will just learn the basics, e.g., if I go to Vietnam I will learn some basic Vietnamese such as numbers, key phrases, personal introduction,.

Why Bother?

Most of the time when I travel I try to learn at least a little the basics of the language (numbers, thankyou, etc.) but sometimes I would think to myself, “Why am I learning a language that I’ll never use it again?”

Then one day while living in Baybay (Philippines) I had an “Aha” moment. It doesnt matter if I won’t use it again. It is useful now, and the human brain doesn’t get full. Also, learning any language makes future learning easier. Finally, talking to the natives in their language, even though most of them can speak English, is fun, and they appreciate the effort.

What do you think are the most useful languages to learn for traveler? Do you agree with my list? Share your thoughts in the comments 😀 .

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Comments ( 2 )
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