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I'm referring to Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, and Denmark.

Will it be possible to add Norway, Sweden, and possibly even Finland and Iceland?

And how about the northern parts of France and Italy?

(I've listed them according to 3 groups which I thought would be easiest to include, and then west to east except for Denmark so as to be mentioned right before the other Scandinavian states, and Iceland because of the leap in distance. I hope I didn't step on anyone's toes.)

In case my question wasn't clear, I was wondering if there are two or three languages which would, with the addition of English, be understood by the vast majority of people in North-Western Europe. It doesn't have to be their first language. For example, perhaps Germany's "official" German would be understood by anyone in the first group (and perhaps the third group as well?) who doesn't understand English, and then some Scandinavian language would be understood by almost everyone in the second group. Or perhaps France's "official" French could be substituted for German, gaining all of France (and northern Italy?) without losing anyone? Or maybe English would be understood by most everyone in the first group, and one Scandinavian language would be understood by the rest? If so, which one? Or maybe English is enough since I'm not asking about carrying long conversations well, just about being understood.

I've already seen As a native English speaker, which two further languages would give me the most travel utility worldwide? but that's worldwide.

EDITS

A comment says that it "Feels like a flawed question" because I couldn't learn another language as well as the "vast majority of people in NW Europe" know English. Besides the fact that many other answers here say that that (that the vast majority know English) is wrong, and besides the fact that even if that is true, that would simply be the answer (that there is no need for any other language) and not knowing the answer doesn't make a question flawed, it also completely misunderstands the question (by assuming I would like to learn a language that others already know).

From the comments, it seems that some misunderstood the question. So:

  • If a person there understands a basic English - I won't need another language to communicate with said person. (I'm not trying to compose a poem for them, just do some basic communication.) I'm asking about additional languages for communication with those who don't understand enough English for a simple conversation.
  • If 51% of a country speaks a language I know (e.g. English), that is not the "vast majority" (mentioned in the title). If 51% of the population of a country understands English, that means that in areas out of the tourist areas and big cities one is likely to have a hard time because of lack of a common language.
  • Learning a language well can take a lot of time so might be impractical. But learning enough to get by is much faster.
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    I was wondering for a while what FEW might stand for. – Carsten S Jun 8 at 8:53
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    Feels like a flawed question. English alone will let you be understood by the "vast majority of people in NW Europe". Maybe with the exception of Italy and France, almost everyone speaks English way better than you could learn a third language unless you dedicate many years to it to get to almost native level. In order to gain any benefit from a another language you'd have to speak it better than the natives speak English, which is very high bar to meet. – Hilmar Jun 8 at 12:36
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    Hilmar, then that's the answer. Me not knowing the answer doesn't make the question flawed. – ispiro Jun 8 at 12:40
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    As you mention you're a native English speaker -- you should be aware that you're less likely to be understood than a non-native English speaker. (as you're more likely to use idioms and complex phrases). You might want to read up on the concept of "Simple English" and the reduced "Basic English") – Joe Jun 8 at 15:21
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    No part of Italy is in northwestern Europe – fqq Jun 8 at 19:33

17 Answers 17

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I assume you speak English so I will discuss other languages.

German will be understood by nearly everyone in Germany (!), Austria, and over half of the residents of Switzerland. It's spoken by people who grew up/were schooled in Luxembourg (but a significant part of the resident population and an even larger part of the workforce will not speak it) and by many (older) people in the Netherlands.

French is spoken in Belgium, Switzerland, Luxembourg and France (and you cannot realistically substitute anything, certainly not German).

Speakers of Scandinavian languages can achieve a level of inter-comprehensibility but many more people (than in Germany, France, etc.) in Denmark or Sweden will know at least some English so it wouldn't buy you much. Same thing for Dutch (spoken in the Netherlands and Belgium). Finland is a special case.

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    A high percentage of dutch and belgium citizens can also "understand" basic/intermediate german. This is because the dutch language is closely related to german. – Jordi Kroon Jun 7 at 13:40
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    All Finns learn Swedish in school (with varying degrees of success), so "skandinaviska" will be useful there as well. Although, as you rightly note, not as useful as English. – lambshaanxy Jun 7 at 13:45
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    Many of the "smaller" countries (the Netherlands, and probably Scandinavian countries) will have a lot more people speaking/understanding English: many of the movies on TV are shown in English with subtitles rather than having a voice-over, which helps a lot, and they have much less of the chauvinistic "our language is better and must be protected at all costs" attitude the French have for instance. – jcaron Jun 7 at 14:44
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    @jcaron Not that many people in Eastern France actually speak German, certainly outside of the Alsatian countryside. I seriously doubt anybody prefers it outside of the minority speaking Alsatian at home. I already mentioned the fact that English is widely spoken in Scandinavia and the Netherlands but that shouldn't be overstated either: many people there struggle with it. Regarding France, IMO, the fear of making a fool of oneself is a bigger issue than arrogance and French people refusing to speak English is little more than a cliché at this point. – Relaxed Jun 7 at 16:29
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    In the last 10 (or even 20 years) the attitude in France has changed. Most young people and quite a few not so young people now speak English, often as good as any young person in any of the other European countries. It will still be helpful to know French and German in the countries those are the main language, it is less needed than it was in the past. – Willeke Jun 7 at 16:56
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I would make this a comment if I had the reputation, but:

As a late-twenties working Norwegian living in Helsinki I can confirm that English is more useful than Swedish in Finland. The only people I've spoken Swedish to are those who want to practice their Swedish. On the other hand, being able to understand all official communications and signs is useful.

The situation might be different in primarily Swedish-speaking areas.

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    When I tried to address an older Finnish woman on a hiking trail in English, she appeared to indicate she did not understand English, and actually ran away (I wonder if there is a Finnish sound similar to Excuse me, do you speak English? that is rude?). This is my sole experience in addressing a native Finnish person in Finland (except tourism workers), so I realise my sample size is small, and I have no doubt English is more useful than Swedish... but I found English is less universally understood in Finland than in other Nordic countries. – gerrit Jun 8 at 9:42
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    @gerrit I have, on the other hand, talked to an elderly Finnish person who spoke a bit of English but not a word of Swedish, but I haven't spoken with enough elderly people here to make any conclusions. As for her running away, I suspect you encountered the typical Finnish aversion to awkward social situations rather than any rudeness on your part ;) – Vegard Jun 8 at 11:31
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    @eagle275 According to the Wikipedia page "Swedish-speaking population of Finland", 5.2% of Finnish people have Swedish as their mother tongue. However, both languages are official in Finland, so cities and places have names in both languages. Everyone learns Swedish in school so if you set the standard low enough I suppose you could say half the population speaks Swedish, but in terms of practically being able or willing to communicate that's not my experience – Vegard Jun 9 at 6:11
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    In my limited experience, English will get you far with about the younger two thirds of the population in Finland and you have a decent chance with German with the elderly. Some people also speak Russian, which might be a good idea anyway if the question would include eastern Europe, but since it doesn't, I wouldn't bother with Russian. – Sumyrda - remember Monica Jun 9 at 7:20
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    Knowledge of Swedish in Finland is very localized. There are small spots where it is the majority language. In Helsinki and Turku areas there is enough Swedish speaking people that there is incentive to learn it. I live near Turku. 40 years ago those high school mates who were able to converse also in Swedish could expect a slightly higher paying summer job as a salesperson (say, in a higher end department store). That applies in the capital area as well. If you go further inland, you will meet reluctance and even active resistance to learning Swedish. – Jyrki Lahtonen Jun 10 at 16:46
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English alone will allow you to speak to (just about) a majority of adults in your all your different groups of countries. Adding German alone achieves a comfortable majority in all your groupings of countries

Let's put some numbers on this. We can look at the numbers who speak various languages in each country as listed on wikipedia which considers only those aged 15+ (reasonable for these purposes). Note that these numbers date from 2012 and the number of English speakers now may well be higher given English is generally more prevalent among younger Europeans than older ones. Similar numbers don't appear to be easily available for the Swiss (or Norwegians or Icelanders), but if look at native languages we can get put a lower bound on the number speaking each language.

The first group of countries you list (Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, and Denmark) has a combined population aged 15+ pf about 105 million, of whom about 61 million speak English - so English alone will allow you to speak with the majority (58%) of adults in these countries.

If we then add the second group of countries (Norway, Sweden, Finland and Iceland) the total 15+ population increases to about 122 million. Adding the number of Swedes, Finns, Norwegians and Icelanders who speak English (last two at around 90%) we have around 74.5 million speaking English. So again English alone will be enough to speak to a majority (61%) of people.

Finally, if we add all of France and Italy, we have a total population aged 15+ of about 222 million of whom about 111 million speak English, i.e. around 50%. However, adding any one of German, French or Italian would be sufficient to make this a comfortable majority.

Specifically if you add German (and conservatively assume that all German speakers outside of Germany, Austria and Luxembourg also speak English, whilst all English speakers in those countries speak German) you reach about 90 million (85%) in group 1, 103 million (84%) in group 1+2 and 140 million (63%) in group 1+2+3.

Doing the same for French, we get 64 million (61%) in group 1, 78 million (64%) in group 1+2 and 142 million (64%) in group 1+2+3.

Finally for Italians the numbers are unchanged for groups 1 and 1+2, whilst for groups 1+2+3 we get 144 million (65%).

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  • all German speakers outside of Germany, Austria and Luxembourg also speak English — in Central/Eastern Europe, that assumption does not hold. Neither in France. – gerrit Jun 8 at 9:44
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    @gerrit I don't expect that it does, but it is the most conservative assumption I can make, i.e. the one that results in the lowest number of speakers across the two languages. Without knowing how many people speak English & German as opposed to just one (info I don't have) I have to make some assumption. – stuart10 Jun 8 at 11:20
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    That's a very odd way to approach the question, aggregating countries like this confuses the reader more than anything else, a table would be more useful. Along the same lines, speaking French will make you understood to a majority of adults in France and Italy. Meanwhile, speaking Polish will make you understood by over half of all adults in Poland, Denmark, Sweden, and Finland together. – Relaxed Jun 8 at 16:35
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    I would be extremely skeptical that speaking English will allow you to be understood by more than half of the people in Italy. In highly touristic areas, sure. Go off the beaten track though, and even most young people have enormous difficulties understanding simple sentences. – Denis Nardin Jun 8 at 18:38
  • @Relaxed The question doesn't ask what languages will allow you to speak with a vast majority of people in each country in NW Europe. It asks what language will allow you to be understood by a majority of people in NW Europe (i.e. the entire region). – stuart10 Jun 9 at 7:57
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German would get you quite far: This map on the Wikipedia page of the German language shows how many people understand german:

Knowledge of Standard German within the nations of the European Union

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    This map only shows the EU countries though, or else Switzerland wouldn't be grayed out. :) – waka Jun 8 at 12:29
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    10% of Czech Republic does NOT understand German on a reasonable level. Same for 20% in Poland or Slovakia. I suspect the others are wrong too. – JonathanReez Jun 8 at 15:03
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    German is also very location-dependent in France. As a reasonably fluent German speaker who lived for a while in the Geneva area, German was entirely useless in every part of France I visited (note: I didn't visit Alsace-Lorraine, which is where I assume you'll find almost all of the German speakers). – probably_someone Jun 8 at 15:35
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    I suspect that in the Iberian peninsula most of the German speakers are older people who were at one point Gastarbeiter so the figure may be very age-dependant. – mdewey Jun 8 at 16:51
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    @Tim I'm pretty sure most people in Germany understand Hochdeutsch (although possibly speaking with a certain accent). I certainly never needed to speak Bayrisch to be understood where I live. – Denis Nardin Jun 8 at 18:32
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English will get you understood by the vast majority of people in the Scandinavian countries (including Finland and I believe Iceland) and I at least by the vast majority of the younger generations in the Netherlands, Germany, Austria, German Switzerland and probably Flemish Belgium.

French will top up that list by getting you understood in France, French Belgium, French Switzerland and Luxembourg.

Aside from these two, the most helpful language in getting understood across multiple European countries is probably Russian which most of the older generations in the former Soviet Block states learned in school. In addition, there is a non-negligible similarity among the different Slavic languages that might facilitate understanding between non-Russian Slavic speakers and Russian speakers – like the speakers of various Romance languages (most notably Spanish and Italian) can often understand each other when speaking slowly, clearly and in basic sentences.

In my experience, the southern European countries don’t really have any commonly understood language other than the respective native languages (Italian, French, Portugese, Greek, various languages of the Balkan); in tourist-heavy areas, a significant tourist language may well be understood by employees in the tourism sector (i.e. you can probably order your food in German on Lake Garda). The similarities and limited intelligibility between Italian and Spanish are known, but especially French – despite being geographically in between them – is notably different so French can’t be used as well in those countries and vice-versa.

As for Scandinavia, the Scandinavian languages (except maybe Icelandic; I don’t know enough about that) are similar enough to claim mutual intelligibility. In Finland (Finnish is not a Scandinavian, Germanic or even Indo-European language), Swedish is taught at all public schools and Finlandswedes are a relevant minority but native Finnish speakers tend to have a strong dislike of speaking Swedish at all and often forget all they learnt in a couple of years (unless they are employed by the government or a company that requires knowledge of Swedish such as the state railways). Thus, you could, if you wanted, add e.g. Swedish to the list of languages as it will get you understood across most of Scandinavia. However, almost everybody has also learned and still has a decent grasp of English so there is almost no need to add Swedish to your list when English can do the exact same job but also cover the UK and the Republic of Ireland in addition to serving as a backup language in other places.

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  • I was waiting for Russian... :-) – M. Stern Jun 8 at 20:12
  • Icelandic is still close to the Scandinavian languages. And Icelandic people do learn languages so it is likely that they speak 3 or more foreign languages, including a few Scandinavian ones. – Willeke Jun 9 at 8:07
  • French speaking here: French can't be used at all as a substitute for Italian, Portuguese, Spanish. – dolmen Jun 9 at 20:00
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I don't think you will get much improvement over English by studying more languages, it follows the law of diminishing returns. However, consider these maps which may be useful in deciding which ones would be most useful:

Obviously, English is the top language

French, Spanish and German seem seem to be the next

Source: Map of the most spoken foreign languages in the EU by country

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    The first map is slightly misleading. Many czechs do not consider Slovak as a foreign language and if a czech and slovak do not understand each other it is because they want not to understand :D – Crowley Jun 8 at 20:00
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    I assume Spanish is the second most talked second language in Spain (although Spanish is THE official language) because in some places it's very common to talk Catalan/Galician/Euskera (although these are only co-official). Nevertheless, I can tell you that ANY Spanish person at least understands Spanish. No exceptions. Second most talked secondary language in Spain is French, mostly since it's taught at school in the same way Spanish is taught in the US. – mazunki Jun 9 at 12:14
  • @mazunki and something similar applies to the fact that so many people in the UK speak English as their second language. Apart from indigenous languages like Welsh and Gaelic whose speaker are bilingual there are many people especially in London who have other first languages but nearly all do speak English as well. – mdewey Jun 9 at 13:53
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    It would nevertheless be silly to say that English is the second-most-talked language in the UK. I think the fact that it is the first most-talked language confuses the interpretation a bit. – mazunki Jun 9 at 14:07
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    @user253751 Well, it's even more complicated than that, because ideally you would want to find the most-understood language among people who do not understand English, and then the most-understood language among people who understand neither English nor language #2. – JohnEye Jun 10 at 14:30
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Disclaimer:

I am Norwegian by birth, but grew up in Spain; so I basically have a fluent level of Spanish, English, Norwegian and Catalan. My intuition for languages is quite good.

Storytime:

I travel quite a bit, so I am often in airports. I tend to speak with people of different cultures, and once in the airport of Oslo I met a guy that did not speak English, Norwegian, or Spanish.

He did speak German and French, though. We spent hours talking, by swapping from one language to the other. Body language is universal, anywhere.

Point 2:

Personally, I can understand Dutch with ease, yet I don't speak it at all. I spent a lot of time at a friend's place from the Netherlands during my adolescence, and started picking up phrases and words just from listening to him talking with his family. Now I can basically understand any Dutch which is thrown at me, and by "understanding" Dutch, my ability to understand German is heightened.

I don't believe the average person from Norway would just understand Dutch, and much less German, though.

Point 3

As a Norwegian person, Swedish and Danish are basically dialects. There are Norwegian dialects which differ more from "standard" Norwegian than these languages. Finnish is much different, it has basically nothing in common.

Lastly

Have a look at this article (it helps if you understand Swedish, lol):

Håller språket ihop Norden?, by Delsing & Åkesson, explaining how Norwegian people are better at understanding Swedish and Danish than they are at understanding us. There are historical, linguistical and social reasons for this.

Similarly, this video explains some of it: video

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    So, what is your actual answer to the question? – Nij Jun 8 at 5:30
  • Not all answers require black-or-white answers. Also, I did say "body language" is an universal language. Also, between the lines I am saying that a Scandinavian person will be able to understand Dutch without much difficulty. Knowing one language helps communicating in another. The first step towards languages is willingness to understand. – mazunki Jun 8 at 5:38
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    Body language is not universal. The same gestures can mean entirely different things in different parts of the world, and some people (including me) are inherently poor at body language (Asperger syndrome). Usually being misunderstood is not a big problem. In some situations, however, it can lead to trouble. – gerrit Jun 8 at 9:38
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    Please, keep it nice and to the point of this answer. – Willeke Jun 8 at 10:08
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    @Vladimirverleg Vi kan teste hvor god din nederlanske forståelse /uten/ å snakke det. :-) Jeg vet at jeg norsk vel kan lese, men snakke og forstå lykkes ikke så godt. I had to fill in the gap for zonder. (The translation is literal, so talking like this in norwegian makes little to no sense) :P – mazunki Jun 9 at 12:10
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Europeans who speak one at least foreign language, generally speak English. Hence the language(s) you're looking for are those spoken by large number of people that don't speak a second language.

That makes the list rather obvious. The obvious #1 is German for Germany, Austria and parts of Switzerland. Sure, there are Danes who speak German, but those are likely tri-lingual (Danish, English, German). French is useful by the same logic in France, Belgium and again parts of Switzerland. The other two large languages are Italian and Spanish, but those are only really useful in their respective countries.

Smaller languages like Dutch are essentially pointless. Because they're such small languages, a large part of the country will speak at least rudimentary English. You're not going to find many Dutch who do speak German, but not English.

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    @ispiro If you want promote it, you could "accept" it (click on the grey checkbox). Personally, I had a Dutch landlord who spoke fluent German and little to no English and the bit about Europeans who know one foreign language generally knowing English is patently false. I know many French people who know Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Arabic, some vernacular African language... so I am not convinced it adds anything to the other answers. – Relaxed Jun 8 at 19:21
  • @Relaxed I removed my comment as I don't know about this myself. I'll note, though, that a comment by a high-rep user went even further and said that English would be enough by itself. (I'm ignoring the fact that that user and 17 others who upvoted it, completely misunderstood the question. I'm just mentioning their opinion about the prevalence of English.) – ispiro Jun 9 at 21:16
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Focusing on the countries from your first sentence (Belgium, Netherlands, Luxembourg, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, and Denmark) I say that out of all those languages spoken there, German would be the most useful. It's spoken in Germany (duh), Austria, and at least parts of Switzerland, Belgium and Luxembourg. In the Netherlands and Denmark it's not totally uncommon to learn German at school, however most of the time I've met with people from the Netherlands I've conversed in english with them as they felt more comfortable in that language than they did in German (and I don't speak any Dutch at all, so that was out of the question).

Including Norway and Sweden (second part of your question), you might also get the furthest with German. Again, it's not totally unheard of to learn German at school in those countries, but the final result may vary. When I traveled Norway there was one camp ground owner who conversed really well in German, everyone else preferred to speak English.

Out of the scandinavian languages Norwegian is the most useful. It enables you to understand spoken Swedish to a degree (tests have shown that a Norwegian speaker can understand about 80% of spoken Swedish) and you might be able to read simple texts as well, if you can get your head around the different spelling of some words. You'll also be able to read Danish, which comes of no surprise since Norwegian bokmål derives heavily from Danish. Understanding spoken Danish is a very different topic, though. The pronounciation is very different from Norwegian so it would be really hard to follow along.

Also, knowing Norwegian also makes it possible to at least get the gist of simple texts written in Dutch or German, however I don't think you'd be able to understand the spoken languages.

Icelandic is a Germanic language and is closest related to Norwegian (and Faroese), so that brings us back to Norwegian as the most useful language. :)

Adding Finland makes it a lot more difficult, though. Finnish is not a Germanic but a Finno-Ugric language and bears little to no resemblance to the Germanic language tree. While there might be a few people who speak Swedish, Norwegian or other languages, I'd say English is by far the most useful language in Finland apart from Finnish.

To bring this post to a conclusion: based on my personal experiences I say that apart from English the most useful languages in the countries you listed would be German and Norwegian.

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    Today I ( a dutch person) was called by a German speaking person, The German would speak german and I would awnser in "plat dutch". This method is used by alot of people withc this dutch accent to converse with germans. – Vladimir verleg Jun 8 at 11:59
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    Netherlands not totally uncommon to learn German: it's in fact very very common, and used to be mandatory, but many adults don't practice and therefore forget their school German. – gerrit Jun 8 at 12:20
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    @gerrit The "not totally uncommon" part was my failed attempt at humor. :) – waka Jun 8 at 12:29
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    I think it's worthwile to add though, that 99% of the people in The Netherlands that speak German will also speak English, and for most of them their English will be better than their German. – BrtH Jun 8 at 13:31
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    Gerrit, only if doing Mavo or above or living close to the German border and selecting it over English, so about 50% of the Dutch at most. And many of those only took it as long as they had to. (Not learning much in that time.) – Willeke Jun 8 at 15:40
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As already stated and backed up, Basic English is the language that provide you the highest chance you will be understood by th natives.

There is also one universal language that helps anyone to cover the rest - the ol'good hand-foot language.

I has no grammar, no vocabulary. It is solely powered by participants' creativity and will to understand each other.


Almost any foreign language may cause problems in post-soviet regions when speaking with older people - they were forced to learn russian and punished for learning any other (even polish in Czechoslovakia). many of people hated russian by heart and the rest forgot the language because after the fall of iron curtain the russian became obsolete. Every year since 1989 this is getting better and better and more and more people are learning some foreign language.

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Other people have given you the data about which languages have the most potential.

Let me address the generalized question of "what language should I learn" with an anecdote from Surely you're Joking, Mr. Feynman! He decided to study Spanish because it was more widely spoken in South America where he wanted to visit and ended up on an academic exchange in Brazil (chapter "O Americano, Outra Vez!") where they speak Portuguese instead.

Don't get too worked up about studying the right language first. Study the language that you are motivated to learn for whatever whimsical reason, even if it has a small population base. The more languages you learn, the easier it is to learn languages. A lot of Dutch working in South America pick it up faster than the rest of us (say 6 months) because it's their 5th language and no big deal by then.

More important is your immediate access to language materials. If you've got a native speaker available to you, that's the one to learn. I had no great need or desire to learn Bulgarian (5m speakers), but there are 2 people in the office from there, so I got the phrasebook and found that it's kind of a cool language, too.

The other way is to choose the language based on the programs you like to watch. Walter Presents on Channel 4 has a wide range of good non-English series to give you a quick intro.

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It is a boring answer but, once you know English, there is no obvious next language to learn. For a specific country, it will be useful to learn the local language but for general use, it is hard to find another.

In general, when in a country where English is not the primary language, I open conversations with: do you speak English? If possible, I learn how to say this in the local language. In some countries, I have stopped doing this as people seem offended by my doubt.

Further south, French will have some value. Obviously in France but I have found it useful in Portugal where there are people who know French but not English. However, knowledge of English is growing rapidly and hence the value of French is dropping.

Be careful of using French in Belgium as a Flemish speaker might prefer you to use English.

I have frequently heard Danes and Swedes using English to speak to each other rather than their own languages. Most know English so well that this is the easier route. I have even heard French tourists in Italy use English which I found more surprising.

Are you a native speaker of English? My wife and I have often noticed that people are more willing to speak English with her than me. The explanation seems to be that I look and sound like a native speaker but she does not. So, with her, English is seen as a neutral third language. This suggests a non-obvious strategy: learn to speak English worse.

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From my experience French and German. English is widely spoken in the Scandinavian countries and the Netherlands. German is great in German speaking countries, but also eastern Europe (certainly Hungary, where you can find people who speak German, but not English). A lot of Italians have worked in Germany and speak the language from my experience. Speakers of Romance languages (Spain, Italy) find French easier to learn, though of course some of the Costas have a lot of English living there and thus English is widely known in those parts.

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When you add to the mix France and Italy, you're pretty much out of luck. The French speaks French, and Italians speak Italian. Most of both can deal with English, and you may well find Italians who speak French or German, especially in the North that is closer to the borders, but don't count at all on speaking German anywhere in Italy.

Don't expect people to understand esperanto or interlingua, at least in Italy.

Then again, you may find anything! I remember when I was in Wien and I, a basic German speaker, tried to prepare the "perfect" German sentence to ask for underground directions: I stood at the underground exit, I aimed for a passenger to come by, and then, with all the confidence I could be capable of: "Entschuldigung, ist dieser der richt..." only to be be cut off: "I'm sorry, I can't speak German!".

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0

German would probably be a good choice.

With English as a baseline, you already have a very reasonable coverage all over Europe. That is, not everybody will speak with an accent that is bearable without causing convulsions, not everybody will be willing to speak it or attempting to understand (French, in particular), and not everybody will be able to follow and understand a political discussion or a scientific debate (but not everyone will be able to do that in his native language either). Overall, it will "kinda work" for a good share of the population, if general understanding is the goal.
In theory, coverage among the younger generations (under 50) should be something like 95-99% because there is no way you can grow up and not go to school, and there is no way you can go to school without having English as mandatory language for at least two years or so in the overwhelming majority (possibly all, but I won't claim that!) of west European countries. So unless you are a migrant coming from some place where no English is spoken and where no schools exist, it's pretty much guaranteed that you have at least basic coverage.

Now, about German and Benelux as well as East France (which is really kinda West Germany) and northern Italy (which is definitively Southern Germany) you are good to go with German. Same for Austria, and a good part of Switzerland.
In fact, in some parts of Northern Italy, you had better not speak Italian! A very significant amount of people there speaks Italian only because they must, and they pay as little tax as they possibly can to cursed Rome. They're more German than the Germans, and they hate Italian with a passion. I'm acquainted with someone who is now "retired", but he used to be in what's the petty north-Italian equivalent of ETA or IRA, whatever you call it, when I was a teenager. A certain way of having him punch you in the face even today is to point out that technically, he is Italian. I don't think they still do bombings and puncture tires nowadays, but sure enough if you disqualify yourself as Italian in the wrong region, you get a frown at the very least, also the worst possible service, minimal courtesy and cooperation, and you're going to get cheated (and spit in your food), if there is any chance of doing so. So, consequentially... no worries about understanding German there.
It's surprising how well people understand and speak German in some parts of Spain, too. You wonder why. Must be due to tourism, I guess.

Scandinavian countries (not counting Finland, their language is abysmal, but luckily they speak English), I wouldn't know about their side to be honest, but I found it embarrassingly trivial to understand at least some, and to learn enough Swedish to actually work there and get around, all over a period of just two weeks. Try and learn French in two weeks, heh.
It's sooooooo similar. So the assumption would be that if you do not plan to do a scientific discussion, you are probably good to go with German, too. Also, they're excellent at English, and since that was a baseline assumption, you're good to go.

France may be a real problem, not because they couldn't understand or speak English or German, but because they won't do it. I've personally never had this problem since I've had French as first foreign language, and don't bother speaking it the same as if I'd speak German or English. But I've heard soooo many times from people that you get zero cooperation otherwise. Guess how surprised I was to find out after 12 years (!) that a French friend of mine actually speaks German without an accent. Only just, he'd rather die than do so.

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  • The part about northern Italy is highly misleading. You probably refer to Alto Adige, the province of Bolzano/Bozen, also called Südtirol, with a large German-culture majority. While the city of Bolzano is not that much "tiroler" as the smaller towns and the valleys, in the whole province German is the main language. It's true that this cultural difference is sometimes sported with a bit of arrogance, but there is no bombing or violent hate at all. Maybe waiters will be more kind if you speak German :) Anyway, this only happens in Alto Adige and not in other parts of Italy. – Simone Jun 10 at 9:48
  • A similar phenomenon may be encountered in Aosta and its Valley, but with French culture. It's a common misconception in Italy that "Aosta is France", but it actually has an independent culture and language, called "patois", both of which borrow heavily from French culture and language, but have been influenced a lot by Italian in general and Piedmontese in particular. Both those provinces (Bolzano and Aosta) are bilingual, and you'll find signs in Italian/French or Italian/German (usually German/Italian). – Simone Jun 10 at 9:52
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English + 1 to be understood

I presume that you want to learn a single language to maximize your reach, therefore my suggestion will be different to the other answers.

I'm referring to Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, and Denmark.

English is a safe bet in all these countries (personal experience in Austria and Germany). German increases your chances of things going smoothly, but my recommendation is to keep your "slot," in these countries it is easy to find a passer-by who will interpret for you if need be.

Will it be possible to add Norway, Sweden, and possibly even Finland and Iceland?

English is once again a safe bet; in Finland I encountered language issues but once during my 4 months there. Scandinavian movie theaters tend to air movies in the original language with subtitles, people pick up English from a young age,

And how about the northern parts of France and Italy?

These are the harder ones. In my experience you need help to understand the Italians once you go past tourist hot spots, but they try and the passers-by will be happy to help.
In France you need to observe the language and cultural barriers, I have anecdotal evidence of them being rude (e.g. receptionist not handing over customer's key) in response to not speaking the language and starting a conversation on the wrong foot. Once they see your attempt at speaking French they will likely ease up and might even offer to switch to English.

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  • When was this problem in France? I often travel in France and have never had a local person not being helpful. Only French speaking young tourists traveling in a group. And that was about 35 years ago. (I do not speak French myself.) – Willeke Jun 10 at 10:18
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Interlingua (!)

From Wikipedia:

Interlingua is an Italic international auxiliary language (IAL), developed between 1937 and 1951 by the International Auxiliary Language Association (IALA).

Interlingua's greatest advantage is that it is the most widely understood international auxiliary language by virtue of its naturalistic (as opposed to schematic) grammar and vocabulary, allowing those familiar with a Romance language, and educated speakers of English, to read and understand it without prior study.

It ranks among the top most widely used IALs, and is the most widely used naturalistic IAL: in other words, its vocabulary, grammar and other characteristics are derived from natural languages, rather than being centrally planned. Interlingua was developed to combine a simple, mostly regular grammar with a vocabulary common to the widest possible range of western European languages, making it unusually easy to learn, at least for those whose native languages were sources of Interlingua's vocabulary and grammar. Conversely, it is used as a rapid introduction to many natural languages.

Interlingua literature maintains that (written) Interlingua is comprehensible to the hundreds of millions of people who speak Romance languages

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  • 2
    I don't know whether the claim about written interlingua being comprehensible to all Romance speaker is true, but it does not say much about whether it would be useful in conversation, especially if pronounced with an english/germanic accent. – fqq Jun 9 at 14:45
  • While you may find helpful locals trying to understand what you said in Interlingua, you'll probably appear very weird. You may also sound like you're trying to speak, for example, Italian but you're mixing it with Spanish or Romanian, as if you were confusing the languages - which may well end up making you look hostile to the locals. – Simone Jun 10 at 9:56
  • I'm a Romanian speaker and could comprehend 90% of the written Interlingua I've seen. Spoken is probably another story. – Dan Dascalescu Jun 10 at 18:34

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