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.

  • 7
    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. Commented Aug 18, 2014 at 7:27
  • 16
    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
    Commented Aug 18, 2014 at 8:15
  • 4
    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. Commented Aug 19, 2014 at 3:25
  • 3
    @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. Commented Aug 19, 2014 at 10:08
  • 2
    Seems like languages written in another alphabet should get bonus points. I can perhaps muddle out some French signs, city names on Spanish signs, and so on for most European languages. But if it's in Chinese, Arabic, or any other language that doesn't use the Roman alphabet, I don't get any information from signs at all. Commented May 12, 2016 at 12:10

5 Answers 5


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:

  • Mandarin is the world's undisputed #1 language by number of native speakers, but it's of 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.)
  • 27
    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
    Commented Aug 18, 2014 at 12:51
  • 9
    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
    Commented Aug 18, 2014 at 13:17
  • 1
    @JonathanReez Actually, official advice on Comoros is quite positive, what's the deal? The Central African Republic should certainly be quite up the list, Niger and Mali are also completely off-limit if you go by official advice. And then? Even 5-6 countries down, French is still more widespread than Spanish, even before wondering about Honduras or Venezuela. And jpatokal list is based strictly on official language so it does not include a bunch of places where French is actually spoken… even Morocco, which is really an easy destination!
    – Relaxed
    Commented Jan 12, 2017 at 18:36
  • 1
    @JonathanReez I don't know why you "would argue that Spanish should be at #1". jpatokal clearly states in the beginning of his answer that we are choosing out of all the countries of the world at random without taking into account size, population, popularity with tourists, etc. If you change the assumptions to account for safety, size, and the distribution of the population in the world, then yes, the answer may change and Spanish should perhaps be #1. Just to be the devil's advocate (like DumbCoder said), the Spanish speaking world has its dangerous-places-to-go as well. Commented Jan 12, 2017 at 19:19
  • 1
    In addition to the subjective criteria of "wanting to visit", which puts Spanish in first place, total speaking population also puts Spanish at #1 (460 million), followed by arabic, french, and portuguese, in that order. Chinese and Hindi/Urdu would obviously be #1, but as noted in the original answer, Chinese is only useful in China and enough of the Hindi/Urdu speaking ppl also speak English.
    – Gaia
    Commented Apr 25, 2023 at 17:09

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.

  • 4
    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. Commented Aug 19, 2014 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. Commented Aug 19, 2014 at 18:29
  • 3
    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. Commented Aug 20, 2014 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. Commented Aug 25, 2014 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)

  • 6
    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
    Commented Aug 19, 2014 at 2:05
  • 1
    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
    Commented Aug 19, 2014 at 3:03
  • 2
    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. Commented Aug 19, 2014 at 3:46
  • 1
    @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
    Commented Aug 19, 2014 at 5:54
  • 2
    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. Commented Aug 19, 2014 at 6:28

As a English speaker if you want to maximize the places that you can visit your obvious first elections should be Spanish and Russian, at least in my experience. Of course I have a Bias since I am native Spanish and I speak some Russian, but I will try to be objective.

Whereas some could argue that Arabic is more widely spoke than Russian I think that are several arguments against it. First, the pronunciation is practically impossible for a non native. Second, there is a lot of dialects, than for a nonnative will be hard to understand.

The arguments in favor of Spanish are the very big amount of native speakers. Lot of times, traveling across Europe I have found native Spanish speakers working in different places or just living there. In places so different as Kiev, Berlin Oslo, Prague, Zurich or Moscow. Also I have found a surprisingly amount of people who have learnt Spanish at some point in Germany. The second argument is of course South American Countries. And the third is that you can understand people from Italy and Portuguese countries if they speak slow. You will not have a philosophical debate but you will understand if they want to overtrick you and also any kind of explanation that they could give.

Arguments in favor of Russian is that is spoken in all post soviet republics and also in some more countries like Poland, Baltic countries (only old people). Very important fact about Russian is that is hardly substitute for any other language. Yes you can travel across Russia without knowing Russian but is hard as hell, I did in the past an I do not recommend the experience. In small cities you can easily find that nobody speaks English.

The same argument it can be used in favor of Spanish. Go to Spain knowing only English is much harder than go to Portugal knowing only English.

Probably my answer is very focus in the western world, since I do not know a lot about Asian languages, but I hope it can be helpful since it is based in m experience and not in my opinion.


You guys are forgetting one of the most important languages in the world now, and for the future - Portuguese !

Once you become fluent in Portuguese you get Spanish practically for free, at in terms of understanding it. The grammar, vocabulary and overall structure between Portuguese and Spanish is about 90%. Not kidding here.

In terms of importance as a major language of the world, there are many, many reasons. Portuguese is spoken officially by 280 million people, on 5 continents, and it is 5th most spoken language in the world! Portuguese is spoken officially in: Portugal (inc. Azores and Madeira), Brazil, Angola, Mozambique, Guinea-Bissau, Cape Verde, San Tome and Principe Islands, East Timor, Macau, Equatorial Guinea.

Brazil has at moment the 5th strongest economy in the world! Brazil is a HUGE country which occupies roughly 50% of the land area in South America. It is an extremely beautiful, and natural resource rich country which has an abundance of: oil, natural gas, gold, silver, coffee, sugar, and is a world leader in aerospace, telecommunications, computer technology, and a major producer/exporter of important consumer goods and foods. 51% of all the speakers in South America speaks Portuguese.

Portuguese is he 3rd most spoken European language in the world, the 3rd most spoken in the Americas, and the 1st most spoken language in the Southern Hemisphere.

Portuguese is the language of many important global organizations including: Mercosur, Latin American Union, European Union, African Union, and CPLP (Community of Portuguese Speaking Countries - which even have their own Olympic Games).

Portuguese is spoken in 6 African countries, whereby Angola an Mozambique have the top 5 strongest African economies in Africa. Both of these countries have abundant natural resources including: oil, natural gas, gold, diamonds, silver, sugar, coffee, etc.

The main trading partners of all of the Portuguese speaking nations, especially Brazil, Angola, Portugal, Mozambique, are: China, United States, India, Canada, and Australia among many others. As such, the Portuguese language is well positioned as an important language of the 21st century and beyond world economy.

Portuguese is currently being taught as a preferred 2d language in many countries in the world including: Japan, China, Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, Venezuela, South Africa, Namibia, Senegal, France, Spain, Luxembourg, Andorra, etc.

There are huge Portuguese immigrant communities all over the world in the following countries: Canada, United States, Venezuela, England, France, Germany, Luxembourg, Andorra, Namibia, South Africa, Israel, Australia, India, China, Japan, etc.

And Portuguese is soon to become the 7th official language of the United Nations.

All of the above reasons given are proof positive of why fluency, or even basic conversational Portuguese is a huge asset in today's globalized world.

And most importantly, Portuguese is a very beautiful and expressive romance language, which is becoming more and more important everyday! And knowing this wonderful language means that you will be able to communicate with millions of Portuguese speakers all over the world. Furthermore, knowledge of the Portuguese language will give you a huge advantage over everyone else if you ever visit a Spanish speaking country!

  • 1
    Do you have any references to back up those numbers ?
    – blackbird
    Commented Aug 19, 2016 at 20:02
  • 1
    Portuguese has been mentioned already. Basically, many of your arguments boil down to the fact that Brazil is big but beyond that it's only useful in a limited number of countries (sure, it might be 51% of speakers in Latin America but it's still only one country, same thing for the relatively contrived southern hemisphere comparison). The rest isn't always very convincing, e.g. Portuguese is hardly an important language the French education system for example (it's certainly taught as a second foreign language along with 50+ other languages but far behind Spanish and German).
    – Relaxed
    Commented Aug 19, 2016 at 20:34
  • 3
    Portuguese as an official UN language is also a long-standing hope of lusophone nations but it's mostly wishful thinking, much like additional permanent security council seats.
    – Relaxed
    Commented Aug 19, 2016 at 20:36
  • 1
    Most of this answer has little relevance to the question of what languages a tourist should learn. Yes, Brazil's economy is large, but the fact that Brazil does a lot of trade with, e.g., the USA means that it might be a good idea for an American businessman to learn Portuguese. But it doesn't make Portuguese remotely useful to a tourist visiting the USA. And doesn't the similarity with Spanish cut both ways? Wouldn't it be better to learn Spanish and then pick up Portuguese "almost for free"? Commented Oct 28, 2017 at 14:01
  • 1
    "Portuguese is the 3rd most spoken in the Americas" plus if you learn it, you will have a great head start on the second! Uh, right.
    – WGroleau
    Commented Nov 10, 2017 at 18:42

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .