Learning a language, or at least a few basic phrases, is a huge part of any travel experience. If you’ve ever been in this situation, you’ll agree that it feels really good when you know how to say please and thank you in the local language, it shows effort and respect.
That’s why you don’t have to be intimidated by the thought of learning a new language — you don’t have to be fluent. It’s good enough to know words and phrases so that you can have a basic conversation. And, of course, choose a language you want to learn wisely. Our list can help you with deciding — here are the best languages to learn for travel.
Why Learning Languages is Important for Traveling
From training your brain and improving memory to landing a job abroad and understanding different parts of the world — there are many benefits of learning a new language and being multilingual. Knowing a local language especially comes in handy when traveling, here’s why:
- It makes getting around easier: Knowing the basics of the local language will help you with reading street signs, asking for directions, checking into a hotel, ordering food, buying stuff on the local market, etc.
- It makes you closer to the culture: Understanding a different culture is one of the top reasons many people like to travel. Knowing a local language will help you have an even richer, more personal experience and get to know the culture even more.
- You'll avoid making a cultural mistake: If you have taken time to learn a new language, you probably learned local traditions, culture, and appropriate behavior, as well.
- You can create new connections easier: Getting to know native people will make any trip unforgettable. What's a better way of connecting with them than talking in their language?
- You can explore local spots: If you know the language of the country you're visiting, you'll be able to pass the most popular tourist spots and explore hidden local gems, without the fear of not knowing how to ask for directions or communicate.
Best Languages to Learn for Traveling Through Europe and Americas
Spanish is for sure one of the most useful languages for travel. If you learn it, you'll be able to easily get around Spain, but also the majority of Central and South America. If you know English or other Latin-based languages like Italian or French, learning it may not be as difficult as you think.
If you're preparing for a trip to Europe, learning German is a good idea. Not only will you be able to flourish in Germany, a country with 83 million people, exciting cities like Berlin, and fun festivities like Octoberfest, but you'll also be able to get around other German-speaking countries like Austria and Switzerland.
It's a widely known fact that French love their language, as well as people who take time to learn their language. The French will appreciate it if you learn the basics like knowing how to say hi, order a café au lait or grab a cab to Louvre. Remember, if you speak French, you'll be able to communicate to 7 million mother-tongue speakers in Canada, too.
You probably knew that Portuguese is the official language of Portugal and Brazil, but did you know that Brazil alone has over 200 million Portuguese speakers? Also, Portuguese is one of the fastest-growing languages in the world. You might come across it in surprising places, for example in Asian countries like Macau and Japan.
Other languages worth learning
- Italian: Latin-based Romance language which is official in Italy, but also has speakers in countries like Switzerland, Belgium, Malta, Slovenia, and Croatia.
- Russian: The official language of Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan, also a minority language in Uzbekistan, Ukraine, Moldova, Romania, Norway, and other Eastern European countries.
Best Languages to Learn if Traveling to Africa
If you're planning on visiting East Africa, consider learning a few basic words and phrases in Swahili. With a few of the right phrases, you'll be able to bridge the cultural gap and people will be friendlier and more helpful anywhere you go.
Knowing French will be enormously helpful when visiting Africa because Africa is the continent with the most French-speaking people in the world. African French is spoken by an estimated 141 million people spread across 34 countries and territories — and this is only counting people who speak it as their first or second language. The number of African French speakers who know it as their third language is even bigger.
Other languages worth learning
- Amharic: One of the main languages spoken in Ethiopia by more than 20 million speakers. After Arabic, it’s the second most spoken Semitic language in the world (Semitic languages are the ones that originate from the Middle East).
- Yoruba: It’s spoken by more than 30 million people in West Africa, in countries like Nigeria, Benin, and Togo.
Best Languages to Learn for Traveling to Asia
Thai may not be on top of your mind when picking a new travel language, but it's spoken in many popular tourist countries like Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam, and the Philippines. Try learning a few basic phrases to experience these exotic countries and their rich culture better.
If you learn Mandarin, you'll learn the language with the most speakers in the world. It will come in handy when visiting China, but also Taiwan where it is the official language. Keep in mind that not everybody in China speaks Mandarin, but it will certainly make getting around easier.
Hindi is one of the best traveling languages because if you learn Hindi you'll be able to converse with half a billion new people. After Mandarin, Hindi is the second most commonly spoken language in the world. It's also the official language of India, a country you'll surely visit someday if you consider yourself a traveler.
Other languages worth learning
- Arabic: It’s spoken throughout the Middle East and North Africa, including Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Lebanon, United Arab Emirates, and Jordan.
- Japanese: The official language of Japan has 127 million native speakers and many more who decided to learn it as a second or third language. If you’re traveling for business a lot, Japanese is especially beneficial.
Advice for Learning the Basic Vocabulary in Any Language
1. Learn most common words and expressions
Start with learning the words that will provide you with the vocabulary you need to communicate the most important information and hold basic conversations with the locals. Some of the first words and phrases you should learn are:
2. Learn words similar to your or English language (cognates)
Many polyglots say that learning cognates can save you months of work when learning a new language. Simply put, cognates are words that share a common etymological origin. For example nuit (French), noite (Portuguese), and noche (Spanish) all mean “night”. That's because they all have the same origin — their grand-grand-grandpa word also meant "night". That's also the reason all Romance languages look similar, as they are all descendants of Latin.
An important part of working with cognates is understanding how your target language is connected to your mother tongue. If you understand English you have a good start, as the list of English cognate languages includes Spanish, French, Portuguese, and Italian. If you're a native English speaker starting to learn Spanish, you'll start with a 20.000-word vocabulary. It's simple! Es simple! È semplice!
3. Use flashcards when learning
Flashcards are a simple way of memorizing facts, often used in school. They are also quite useful for learning a new language. Instead of reading lists of words and sentences, writing them out and adding pictures will strengthen your recall ability. You can find existing flashcards online, but making your own is a more impactful way to learn. That way you can make sure they are correct and relevant to the vocabulary you want to master first.
4. Try reading a beginner-friendly novel
Tackling a novel in a foreign language might scare you, but there's plenty of literature suited for beginners just like you. To make it easier, try reading stories you're already familiar with or reading a bilingual version of the novel. Here's something to start with:
- Spanish: “Aura” by Carlos Fuentes (bilingual edition)
- French: “Le Petit Nicolas” by René Goscinny
- German: “Emil Und Die Detektive” by Erich Kastner
- Portuguese: “Aventuras de Dona Redonda” by Virgínia de Castro e Almeida
- Swahili: an online collection of beginner stories
- Thai: easy Thai stories with audio
- Mandarin: “Journey to the West” by Wu Cheng’en
- Hindi: “With You; Without You” by Prabhat Ranjan
5. Use it online on social media and forums
Studies have shown that learning a new language is easier when it’s social and interactive, so it makes sense that using social media will facilitate mastering it. First, you'll have to find a community of like-minded language learners. Facebook offers numerous groups for learning a specific language. Don't be intimidated when you see all posts in another language — the sooner you join in and start participating in conversations, the more you'll learn. You can also try reading tweets in a foreign language on Twitter, browse blogs or watch specialized YouTube channels.
6. Speak with native speakers
- italki: It’s the most popular site for finding native speakers to talk with. The service is one-on-one, so the teacher will be able to give you their full attention and focus on your needs. You can watch teacher introductions, schedule lessons at a time and date that suits you, and start learning. The average price is €12,5 ($15) an hour, but you can come across lower prices if you choose newer teachers.
- Speaky: It lets you connect with more people from the culture that interests you. So, aside from learning the language, you’ll be able to socialize and gain friends — and it’s been proven that learning with friends makes studying easier. The price of a 12-month subscription is €3,31 ($3,91) a month.
- InterPals: It sets you up with native speakers around the globe who are willing to become your pen pal. The setting is informal and fun — and the platform is 100% free.
You don’t have to be fluent to enjoy yourself while traveling, but knowing the local language will surely make your experience better. Here are a couple of more details that, according to experienced travelers, can make or break your next trip: