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I had a discussion with a friend on how many language one should learn to be able to be understood worldwide? My estimate would be with around 4-5 languages, but this is a gut feeling which I cannot verify. My friend was really firm in his statement, that you only need to speak English. It is the global language. According to him, there will be always someone around being sufficient in English. Is he correct, or are there regions where you need to speak another language then English, to travel around.

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11 Answers 11

up vote 26 down vote accepted

This year I travelled from London to Mongolia overland. There was a period from leaving Saint Petersburg, Russia to reaching Khiva, Uzbekistan - where for 10 days, I did not hear any native English. Two people had broken English, that was it.

So no, it will NOT get you by wherever you are in the world. However, you can still get by - with hand signals, learning a few key words, and even resorting to drawing pictures to make yourself understood.

Generally in big cities in most countries there will be someone around who speaks a few words of English, at the least. Not always. Even at embassies in some Central Asian countries, I had no English spoken to me. Going to the hospital at Iguazu Falls - arguably one of the top tourist spots in South America, and there was zero English - that was lots of fun with my limited dictionary and wild gesticulating!

So to answer your question about whether you can get around with just English - no, English will not get you everywhere, but there are other forms of expression/communication that will.

As for languages, Spanish (South America), French (lots of the world and Africa), Russian for all ex-Soviet states, and Mandarin, and you've got a ton of the world covered.

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¡De acuerdo con el español! –  hippietrail Oct 29 '11 at 21:52
    
can indeed attest to Uzbekistan. Used to be English classes were mandatory there for schoolkids, but that lasted only a few years and lack of teaching material meant those classes never happened. As is, over half (estimated) the population speak Uzbek and/or Tadjik exclusively, not even Russian. –  jwenting Oct 30 '12 at 15:06

While some people have mentioned that you sometimes get a translation in English on signs, I've found that especially in ex-Soviet states, this often isn't the case.

That doesn't mean you can't get by. Sometimes a picture with the words is worth a thousand words:

landmine warning on the Tajikistan border with Afghanistan

(landmine warning on the Tajikistan border with Afghanistan)

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I think it says "PLEASE NOT TO TAKE RISK OF THE SHIN". –  hippietrail Oct 31 '11 at 8:23
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in Indonesia, saw this year a lot of roadsigns with texts only in Bahasa and no pictures... –  jwenting Oct 30 '12 at 15:07
    
In Vietnam there are few signs that are also written in English. It mostly appears in shops in the center where there are lots of foreigners around. There are many roadsigns in Vietnamese only without a picture too –  Lưu Vĩnh Phúc May 19 at 12:16

You said EVERYWHERE so the answer is no. Try getting around in rural Thailand with just English. I would say there's a lot of places you can't get by with just English. But within Thailand, only Bangkok and the big tourist destinations are the only places English will get you by. Even in Chiangmai, there will be times when you will need a translator or assistance of some sort.

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English is a global language, and it is definitely the most widely used language, but to say that knowing will get around everywhere without a problem is entirely wrong.

Hotels will generally have someone who speaks English. However, government officials (police, conductors, even customs and those who sell train tickets, aren't as likely.

I've been stopped in Germany where the policeman had to go find someone who spoke English. I've been in places in Bulgaria and Czech Republic where I communicated by waving my hands or by using very common English words that they may recognize.

Knowing German, Spanish, or French definitely helps in being able to communicate.

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Your last statement is correct when you're in Europe, but in other continents I would at least add Russian and Chinese and maybe even Portuguese. –  RoflcoptrException Oct 26 '11 at 21:44
    
Yeah, absolutely correct. The best language is of course the language of the country you're in, or a country adjacent to it. –  Reverend Gonzo Oct 27 '11 at 3:41
    
Unless you have a reason to learn Portuguese, you will get further with Spanish. Portuguese speakers invariably understand Spanish moreso than the reverse. Also Spanish is easier to learn and once you know it a bit will make Portuguese easier to learn later. –  hippietrail Oct 29 '11 at 21:57

I think the problem you would face is not being able to read the local language rather than having problems with spoken communication.

Most European "Romance" languages are fairly similar so you would perhaps work out which sign was pointing to the train station if you couldn't find someone who speaks English nearby but when visiting somewhere where all of the road signs are in Kanji for example you would find it impossible to distinguish anything.

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Then again most countries with other scripts also use English as a second language on signs. I've seen this in countries where the local language used Arabic, Armenian, Georgian, Greek, Korean Hangeul, and Japanese scripts. I doubt there are many countries which don't do it. I'll admit that some things are harder to find in English though. The train fare maps on the walls in Japanese stations can be tricky! –  hippietrail Oct 27 '11 at 23:28
    
@hippietrail I suppose this applies mostly to countries where the official language comes with a non-latin script. I didn't ever see something like this in Germany, other than maybe an occasional "Airport" sign. –  Paŭlo Ebermann Oct 28 '11 at 16:11
    
@PaŭloEbermann: All the languages I listed have non-Latin scripts since that is what Richard's answer is about. –  hippietrail Oct 29 '11 at 21:59
    
@hippietrail: Ah, sorry, I somehow missed the "with other scripts" part of your comment. –  Paŭlo Ebermann Oct 29 '11 at 22:57

Really depends on where you go. In Europe, Australia/Pacific region and big cities with a lot of international visitors you will always find someone who speaks (at least some) English.

In eastern Europe you should rather know Russian, or Czech, or wherever the local language is. Russian will even be useful in Mongolia and the northern towns of China.

South and Central America is different, even at the US/Mexican border some people did not understand English.

German is only useful in Central Europe, terrible grammar-wise and has some things in it that doesn't really make sense - for example the last 2 digits are spelled out reverse if you count (23 -> drei und zwanzig -> 3+20; always confuses the heck out of me if someone tells me a price or street address), and the Swiss and Austrian spoken German is even hard to understand for Germans.

I would go with English, Spanish and Mandarin, those are the most spoken languages in the world.

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But all Swiss and Austrian can speak Standard German if necessary ;) –  RoflcoptrException Oct 27 '11 at 3:46
    
Yep. You just have to ask for it. It's optional, but free ;-) –  user766 Oct 27 '11 at 20:45
    
My German is terrible but I can understand Austrians and Swiss no worse than Germans. Of course they tone down the dialect when they talk to me. –  hippietrail Oct 29 '11 at 21:54
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@Roflcoptr: The easiest way for a German to piss off a Swiss person is to tell them that their Schwyzerdütsch is not as hard to understand as you feared, when they were in fact trying their best to speak clean High German. –  Michael Borgwardt Nov 29 '11 at 12:01
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You did not get the point. People were probably talking to you in German. If they had talked to you in Swiss German, the Alemannic dialect, you would not have understood. And this dialect cannot be toned down. That's what @Annoyed wanted to say. –  PERSONA NON GRATA Aug 9 '13 at 16:57

Mandarin is high-ranked in number of speakers, but that is because China is so huge, so that its use is mostly restricted to China. It won't help you much in Japan, or Korea, for example. The same is true with Hindi, whose high number of speakers is limited to India.

English, Spanish and French, on the other hand, have a much wider reach in terms of countries. With those 3 you can get by very well in most of America, Africa and Europe, except Eastern Europe, where knowing some Russian would be useful.

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Yes Chinese is almost limited to China and China towns around the word. Arabic is also wider in terms of countries –  Lưu Vĩnh Phúc May 19 at 12:50

Was it a native English speaker who said this to you Andra, by any chance? Have a feeling it was. Yes English is the global language, but you will not get by with it everywhere in the world. This is largely an American viewpoint, as they are largely isolated from the world in a huge country and don't travel much outside it, partly understand this, but it is not the correct viewpoint. Yes, you will largely get by with English in many places today in Europe, Asia, and without any doubt in North America and Oceania. However Africa and Latin America are different stories. You will get by in English in Africa in former British colonies.However, in most other countries, you will need some French, in 3 or 4 Portugeuse. French is still a significant lingua franca in Africa. In Latin America, you generally need some Spanish, or Portugeuse perhaps in Brazil, but I've heard from some sources you can get by in Brazil with Spanish as its quite similar. So your friend is only partly correct, you can get by with English on certain continents, but not all, the evidence is there. Even if you can get by mainly with English, it never hurts to know a few words in the host language, it can make a difference to your trip.

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Except from English, the status of global languages have: Russian, Spanish, French, Arabic and Chinese. I assume you come from English-speaking country, so you can easily test your friend's statement checking how much people speak those in your environment.

While the statement that in every country you will find someone speaking English is generally true, it applies:

  • Mostly to big cities
  • some people speaking English in 1 million city would be hard to find
  • People with higher education usually have learned at least 2 foreign languages, but it doesn't mean, they can understand/speak them a dozen years after!

Geographically, in Germanic-speaking countries English is well known, because of language similarities. In most European countries many young people learn English, but the older generation in Eastern Europe usually have learnt Russian

  • In ex-SSSR countries Russian is a must. In Ukraine practically everyone speaks Russian, some people learn western languages, which can be German or Italian, not English
  • In Montenegro it was much easier to find someone speaking Italian or German than English. On Railway stations it was impossible for us to find some worker speaking any foreign language. In Restaurants menus were available in English and Russian, but waiters doesn't speak them
  • In French people usually don't like English, and expect everyone to speak French
  • In Georgia I've learned what an advantage is it for you, when you can understand at least numbers - if the country you're going to use other digits than Latin (ASCII) learn them!
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Do people in Georgia not understand Arabic numerals? –  Lưu Vĩnh Phúc May 19 at 14:20
    
They use them, it was my advantage. –  РСТȢѸФХѾЦЧШЩЪЫЬѢѤЮѦѪѨѬѠѺѮѰѲѴ May 19 at 14:22

In a nutshell:

  • English is an obvious first choice and will help you in many places.
  • Several other languages have some claims of being international languages in some sense and can be useful (other answers provided useful details).

BUT ultimately, even with 4 or 5 carefully chosen languages, you won't always find someone who understands one of the languages you speak, you won't be able to read any sign or document you might come across or communicate with everybody you see. It comes down to what you mean by “getting around”, where exactly you want to go and how much you want to engage with the locals but I don't see any particular reason why 3 or 5 or … would be the number of languages you need.

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One more data point--while English education seems to be required in China that doesn't mean people actually learn to speak it. I got quite a surprise one day when I realized the clerk in the internet cafe actually did know some English--but even when I knew exactly what she was saying I couldn't understand her at all. (She could, however, spell the words perfectly.)

I have also managed to go a week over there without hearing a word of English (other than from my wife) except for a group of students practicing their English on us once. I also didn't see a white face in that time.

When you're on the foreign tourist path there's usually some English about because without it it's pretty hard to sell to those foreigners who have money. It gets tiring at times with them always trying to interest me even when she tells them we aren't interested. Get off the path, though, and the English vanishes. Instead of being the target of every salesman around it's like I'm invisible.

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protected by Ankur Banerjee Aug 7 '13 at 8:00

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