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This follows on from a travel conversation a group of us had in a hostel in London. Assuming I am travelling randomly between countries and continents, which two languages in addition to English would provide the most usefulness in any given country?

I suspect Spanish (North America, South America) and French (Europe, Africa) but with the base understanding between French and Spanish maybe the time would be best spent learning another language?

This question is a real puzzler since the following constraints apply

  • Length of time required to be "functional" in the language (cost-time trade off)
  • Chance of reaching proficiency within any meaningful timeframe (Mandarin)
  • Regional dialects destroying proficiency (Arabic)
  • Easier Secondary languages underpinning the society (Arabic versus French argument)
  • Similarity of Language families (Romance) leading to wasted effort (Italian v French)
  • Utility of the Language (German versus English when English is understood)
  • Enjoyment is a minor consideration

Happy to consider any other thoughts but it is a really interesting topic for consideration if you are linguistically minded.

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Arabic, around 20 countries in the middle east and north Africa, plus many Muslims around the world. around 340 million native Arabs and many others can speak it. I speak Arabic and English and Indonesian, my next language will be Spanish and I guess I will be covering almost all the world except China ;) to over some the regional dialects you can always learn the classic Arabic first, everyone will be able to understand you and speak to back to you in that. – Heidel Ber Gensis Aug 18 '14 at 7:27
Not sure I quite follow your reasoning on the similarity of languages. Romance languages are not so similar that you could understand all of them right away if you know Spanish or French but once you know one, the others should be much easier to learn. So learning a second one is not necessarily wasted effort but it's going to be a much more effective use of time than trying to start from scratch in a completely different language as you can become competent with much less effort. – Relaxed Aug 18 '14 at 8:15
It's really not clear what you're asking! You state it's about utility but in your details you don't talk about utility, you talk about a bunch of your preferences. The only thing you give us to clarify what you mean by utility is "most usefulness in any given country". You do not say whether you mean the most number of countries regardless of size or population. Do you want the languages that gain you communication with "the most people" or just with "some people in the most country"? The difference is bigger than you think if you just consider China and India. – hippietrail Aug 19 '14 at 3:25
And on the other side, if all of your other requirements are what you're really asking about, and not utility, then it's going to come down to personal opinions and assumptions rather than facts. The only clear winner no matter which way you slice it is Spanish. Everything else is going to be argued about unless you clarify the utility part of the question and minimize the subjective component. – hippietrail Aug 19 '14 at 3:34
@Venture2099 The question is completely unclear for all the reasons hippietrail lists. A large number of views does not mean the people liked the question when they found it. And hippietrail was not being disparaging to the asker: he gave clear reasons why he thinks this is a bad question. – David Richerby Aug 19 '14 at 10:08
up vote 35 down vote accepted

Assuming we're a) choosing countries at random, regardless of size, population or popularity with tourists, b) choosing languages that let us communicate where English doesn't, and c) ignoring how hard it is to learn the language, I'd probably go with French and Arabic, although Spanish comes close too.

  1. As an official language of 29 countries, plus a whole bunch of non-country territories, French is a pretty clear #2 to English.
  2. Arabic is a close second with 27 countries and territories (not all recognized), and it's of some use in the rest of the Muslim world as well -- although realistically speaking, you're not going to have much luck talking in modern Arabic to a cab driver in Jakarta.
  3. Spanish isn't too far behind with 20 countries, and while not really mutually intelligible, it gives you a pretty big leg up in the 10 Portuguese-speaking countries too. You could even argue that, since quite a few countries in the Maghreb have both Arabic and French speakers, Spanish (which has almost zero overlap) is actually more useful.
  4. Fourth is probably Russian, which while not always official, is spoken by a large part of the population in 20-odd ex-Soviet states.

And some contenders that don't make the top 4:

  • Chinese is the world's undisputed #1 language by number of native speakers, but it's of very limited use outside China.
  • Hindi/Urdu also have many native and secondary speakers, but virtually all of them are in India, Pakistan and Nepal, where you can usually find an English speaker without too much effort. (This is not the case in eg. China.)
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I would argue that Spanish should be at #1, since a lot of the Arabic and French speaking countries are either in a state of war (Somalia, Iraq, Syria) or dangerous to visit without a guide (DR Congo, Comoros, Haiti) - in which case you wouldn't need to speak the local language. Meanwhile all of the Spanish speaking countries are perfectly safe to visit as of 2014. – JonathanReez Aug 18 '14 at 12:51
I second @JonathanReez point. But not all Spanish speaking countries are safe e.g. Guatemala, Mexico and Colombia(not all places, though). But they are way safer than most Arab countries. Dubai is cool. Jordan and Morocco might be a bit safer. So is Egypt in certain locations. – DumbCoder Aug 18 '14 at 13:17
Chinese is useful in Taiwan, Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia not just China! Still doesn't have the reach of French, which I would recommend as a #2. Also Arabic and Russian are not that great if you're from a country that has English as a native language-- not so safe for you in those places! Though if you were planning to go there anyway, knowing the language would be better than not knowing it... – serakfalcon Aug 18 '14 at 14:32
The question also asks about ease of learning, and based on that I would promote Spanish over Arabic. It'll be much easier for am native English speaker to learn Spanish, especially if they already know French. – DJClayworth Aug 18 '14 at 14:38
Per the assumptions, "dangerousness" is out of scope. And English is far more useful than Chinese in both Singapore and Malaysia. – jpatokal Aug 18 '14 at 23:11

To provide an extension to jpatokal's answer and MeNoTalk's comment, I would argue for learning several romance languages. In raw number of speakers, I think Spanish is clearly ahead but French is also useful in large parts of the world (even if only spoken as a second language by a limited number of people, it is an official language and the language of education in many countries).

Most importantly, for you as an English speaker, it should not be too difficult to learn French, Spanish and maybe Portuguese or even Italian as well. While English is most closely related to Germanic languages, it also has a large latin-based lexicon that will help you learn romance languages. Once you know one of these languages, learning two or three should be even quicker.

As a European French speaker I could be biased of course but I have known (native) speakers of Spanish or French becoming fluent in the other language in a matter of months. I also know many people who are fluent in four or five romance languages. So in terms of reward, you could communicate with many people in South America, Africa, large parts of Europe and a few other countries elsewhere for a relatively small amount of effort.

By contrast, learning Arabic (some overlap with French here, incidentally) and Chinese is arguably more interesting as both of these languages have many speakers and would open a completely different set of cultures to you but you would be looking at many years of effort to become even moderately competent in one of them and then have to start almost from scratch for the second one.

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This shows part of the problem in the question. Do we just want to get the gist of what signs say and what people around us are saying? Do we want just travel basics "how much is it?", "where is the toilet?"? Do we want to be able to communicate, and if so to which degree of fluency? Just knowing Spanish plus some clues on French pronunciation and spelling get me very far with Italian and Portuguese but far less in Romanian than I expected, despite multiple lengthy visits. The same works with Slavic languages if you just learn Russian of course. – hippietrail Aug 19 '14 at 3:41
"...the most utility." Interpret that how you like. If I said how useful is English when travelling the world then you would have no problem answering that question. Therefore you should have no problem answering the question with the second most useful language to English. – Venture2099 Aug 19 '14 at 18:29
Interpreting things as we like is subjectivity. Stack Exchange requires objectivity. Otherwise all answers are correct and all answers are incorrect, depending on who likes to interpret it how. Given that we're embracing vagueness then the second English of the world is definitely between Spanish and French. Arabic, Chinese, and Russian are each a local English in this regard to their respective large portions of the planet. – hippietrail Aug 20 '14 at 1:33
Complete objectivity is impossible. Stop trying to derail the answer with obfuscation. Read back your comments; the are trying to incorporate a ridiculous level of machine-like questioning that human beings cannot maintain. – Venture2099 Aug 25 '14 at 18:36

You have to consider Malay (or Indonesian. It is mostly the same).

Length of time required to be "functional" in the language
From this point of view, it is by far the easiest language I've ever tried (I've never tried Esperanto).
Pronunciation and grammar are easy. Writing even more (Mostly similar to Italian)

Chance of reaching proficiency within any meaningful timeframe
I had not reached this point yet(3 years), but it seems reasonable. I would say 3 years if you learn seriously (I mean native proficiency).

Utility of the Language
Main language of Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei.
important in Singapore (most Chinese understand Malay), south Thailand and a few other
Can be useful in Taiwan (It is easier to find an Indonesian migrant than an English speaking Taiwanese)
All in all, between 220 and 280 million speakers.

Regional dialects destroying proficiency
Indonesian Malay is 99% understood in Malaysia, Brunai and Singapore (among Malay speaker). The Malay of South Thailand is probably significantly different.

Easier Secondary languages underpinning the society (Arabic versus French argument)
Not sure I understand what you mean.
Chinese (Hokian and Mandarin) are secondary languages in most of the area, but you'll never learn those in your lifetime (assuming you are native English speaker and beyond 5 year old)

Similarity of Language families
Similar to Tagalog (aka Filipino)
Possibly similar to other Austronesian languages. I recognized some Amis words while in Taiwan.

Enjoyment is a minor consideration Good. Because Indonesian pop music is a kind of torture (I do like Batak music, however)

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While I can agree that Malay is relatively easy to learn and potentially a good choice, I would disagree that it is very helpful if you are travelling to Singapore and already speak English. Having traveled with Chinese Singaporeans to Malaysia and Indonesia, I think that "most Chinese understand Malay" is a bit of an exaggeration. I also found the Taiwanese to have every good English (well at least people under 40 years old), I didn't go out looking for Malay speakers in Taiwan, but I would be surprised if it was easier than finding an English speaker. – row1 Aug 19 '14 at 2:05
Not sure if how correct that is these days, I just left Singapore after living there 6 years and mixed with all sorts of people, only ever came across one person who could speak Malay but not English (he was a 60+ Malay dude). In Taiwan, I was on a food/drink vacation and not sure that I would call people at bars the "academic elite", but I get your point. – row1 Aug 19 '14 at 3:03
Your comments on Mandarin are based on assumptions. Everyone I know who learned as a foreigner talks ceaselessly about how easy it is. All struggled with the tones, most did not master the tones at all yet many became fluent. Another deficiency in OP's question is no mention of spoken vs written language. In any case picking up enough characters to be useful in China and Japan is pretty easy. Learning enough to read a newspaper or book is not at all easy but also not at all impossible. – hippietrail Aug 19 '14 at 3:46
@hippietrail I did try to learn Madarin. 6 month quiet seriously in France. Then I travelled 4 month in Taiwan (I admit I had no will anymore to learn). The tones are not only hard to pronounce. They also mess up your (at least mine) hearing when they speak at normal speed. I expect a syllable and they give me a tune. Also, I was 36 yo when I began; certainly doesn't help. While in Taiwan, I was surprised to accidentally learn the alphabet – Madlozoz Aug 19 '14 at 5:54
I agree with you re Malay/Indonesian. It's surely almost as easy to learn as Spanish for a monolingual English speaker. I was 46 when I tackled Mandarin. Two months in China and one month in Taiwan. One thing I learned is that many pronounce both the words and the phonemes differently in different areas, especially minorities for whom Mandarin is a second language. I still got the travel basics like asking where something is and ordering food and drinks, including menus without English. But in both countries there were lots of westerners in my hostels who were conversational in Chinese. – hippietrail Aug 19 '14 at 6:28

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