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Basically this question and this one but for Asia and Oceania.

For most of my travel, I've decided upon the destination, and then decided whether or not to learn the language. However, I'm currently wondering if there's any languages that'd be useful for multiple destinations.

I have a suspicion that Asia has fewer languages useful in multiple countries compared to Africa or the Americas.

Criteria:

  • Number of countries involved, rather than population of the country. Yes, even countries you can buy on eBay.
  • Distinctness of countries: Some languages spill over a bit into neighbouring countries, such as Mongolia being spoken in the neighbouring bits of Russia and China. But I'm ideally looking for languages that are spoken in countries that don't border each other, and don't have a similar culture.
  • Ideally relatively easy for tourist-level communication. Some language difficulties are only for those wanting to be fluent, such as learning keigo in Japanese, whereas languages being tonal is a problem that'd affect those wanting beginner-level speaking.
  • Languages likely to be taught in Australia are preferable.
  • I'm more interested in countries close to Australia that are suitable for tourism, but anything east of the middle east, and not part of the Americas, will be considered for Asia and Oceania.

The languages I can think of are English, Chinese (China, Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan), Russian (Russia and the 'stans, plus areas outside the scope of this question) and Korean (South Korea, not sure about North Korea). I can think of one or two countries that can speak French, Spanish or Portuguese, but not a huge number.

Wikivoyage's guide to Asia mainly talks about indigenous languages, rather than the ones actually used, and Oceania doesn't have a "talk" section.

closed as primarily opinion-based by mts, Tor-Einar Jarnbjo, chx, Maître Peseur, mindcorrosive May 16 '16 at 9:04

Many good questions generate some degree of opinion based on expert experience, but answers to this question will tend to be almost entirely based on opinions, rather than facts, references, or specific expertise. If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

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    I have voted to close this question as I think it is mainly an opinion poll in the way it is currently asked and not useful for a traveler, but I can see how other people will see this differently. Regarding your question, you might consider the marginal utility rather than number of countries. E.g. Chinese will help you e.g. in Malaysia and Singapore but you will get as far with English in these countries. Also think about Indonesian which is quite close to Malaysian and easy to learn afaik and both are huge countries. – mts May 12 '16 at 11:57
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    How does Korean even register at all if you go by the number of countries and dismiss French, Spanish or Portuguese for being spoken in one or two countries only? Either way is fine by me but I am left wondering about what you really want... – Relaxed May 12 '16 at 12:26
  • Number of locals speaking English should be the #1 criteria. There's no point in learning anything to come to Singapore or Hong Kong, which have English as an official language. – JonathanReez May 12 '16 at 13:14
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    Can you at least narrow this down to one part of Asia? Russian is great for Kazakhstan, useless for Malaysia. I mean, really. – choster May 12 '16 at 14:10
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I'm pretty sure your best option would be Malay. It's an official language of Malaysia, Brunei and Singapore, and mutually intelligible with Indonesian, which is a designated "working language" in East Timor as well. So that's five countries right there, all easily reached from Australia, quite distinct and full of tourist attractions. Malay/Indonesian is also a famously easy language to pick up (but tough to master!), to the point that "bazaar Malay" was the lingua franca of the region in the colonial period.

What's more, while not mutually intelligible, it's related to Filipino (Tagalog) as well as the Oceanic languages (Fijian, Samoan, Tongan, etc) spoken by the vast majority of the Pacific's island states. I was rather surprised to find out that I could fly halfway across the Pacific to Rarotonga and the number 5 was still rima, nearly the same as the Malay lima!

Your second best bet would be Russian, spoken as a second language in all the ex-Soviet 'stans, and of course Russia itself. It's not, however, what most people would call an easy language to pick up, and the delights of Tajikistan doesn't tend to feature in glossy travel mags quite as often as (say) Bali.

I don't think you'll find another language or even language group in Asia that's of any use in more than three countries. The closest contenders would be Hindi/Urdu (Hindustani), which would be useful in (parts of) India, Pakistan and Nepal, and Mandarin Chinese, usable in China and Taiwan and of some use for reading Japanese. These days, there aren't really any Asian countries left where the old colonial language would more useful than English. (French in French Polynesia and New Caledonia is a notable exception, but technically speaking neither is a country!)

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    Would French be even marginally useful in Vietnam ? – blackbird May 12 '16 at 13:02
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    @blackbird57 Not in my experience, and it's not of much use in Cambodia or Laos either. – jpatokal May 12 '16 at 13:03
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    Some older Vietnamese speak some French and not English, from back when it was a French colony, but English is much, much more common especially among the younger generations. – user568458 May 12 '16 at 13:04
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    Mandarin can also be used in Singapore and Malaysia. – mega_creamery May 12 '16 at 16:22
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    As far as the Philippines is concerned, you'll be much better off with English than Malay. English is spoken as a (frequently fluent) second language throughout the Philippines. The native language, however, varies from one part of the Philippines to another. – reirab May 12 '16 at 16:35
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In all of my travels in Asia, the only places where I found speaking English wasn't as convenient as speaking the local language, or almost so, were Japan and China. Everywhere else, comprehensible English speakers were thick on the ground.

If you go to some country so small the welcome-to signs are printed on both sides -- say, Laos or Bhutan -- everyone knows you aren't going to speak Lao or Bhutanese, so they learn English. In China, someone who only speaks the local lingo has a billion other people he can talk to instead of you, so they spend that time, I dunno, uploading road-rage videos to YouTube or something.

So I would say: learn Mandarin. If you speak speak English and Mandarin, everywhere on the mainland of Asia and in the Southeast Asian archipelago, you'll be perfectly fine.

  • The national language of Bhutan is Dzongkha. – f'' May 12 '16 at 21:07
  • Are you required to have a tour guide all the time you are in Bhutan? – Andrew Grimm May 12 '16 at 21:56
  • @f'' -- you're pretty picky for someone whose user-name is a single letter and a punctuation mark. Yes, Wikipedia noted that Bhutanese is officially called Dzongkha, but that would have spoiled the joke. – Malvolio May 12 '16 at 22:04
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    @AndrewGrimm -- nothing about Bhutan has inspired me to go there, with the possible exception of the opportunity to learn how to pronounce "Dzongkha". – Malvolio May 12 '16 at 22:05
  • The 'dz' is pronounced rather like the 'j' at the start of 'juice', and the rest is much as you'd expect. Personally I thought Bhutan was a fantastic country, and one I'd like to return to; but each to their own. – Richard Smith Jul 21 '16 at 13:21
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If by Oceania you mean Pacific Islands outside Meganesia, add French to your list. All of French Polynesia, plus New Caledonia, speak French. Vanuatu has many English speakers, but most I met also spoke French or told me their French was better than their English. Also the native languages through Melanesia and Polynesia are very similar. Learn some Maori in New Zealand and you'll be understood from New Caledonia to the Cook islands and on to Tahiti and the Marquesas.

However your question seems to focus on Asia, which is a different story. Your criteria of "close to Australia" applies to New Caledonia, Vanuatu, and Fiji for sure. East of Fiji, New Zealand accents outweighed Australian ones, but there were still Australians all the way to the Cooks.

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I learned Mandarin, I have used it in many places I didnt expect to, because there are Chinese people everywhere.

I have used it in Australia (lots of Chinese students), Vanuatu (with shop keepers and restaurants), Hong Kong (reading only, good for menus and signs), Svalbard (lot of chinese tourists).
But.. using it in China it really pays off, it is a hugely diverse country and for a traveler who can be bothered to make the effort to learn very rewarding.

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    Indeed, a person I know who is fluent in Mandarin (but doesn't look like he would be) reports it is excellent for ordering off menu throughout Singapore. (Also good for freaking out companions who had no idea you spoke it.) He's already fluent in French and English, ok in Hindi, and learning Malay. – Kate Gregory May 14 '16 at 15:30
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Hindi along with English is mostly spoken in the South Asian countries mainly in most parts of India, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Maldives, Nepal and Pakistan and especially in all tourism areas in these countries.

While English is understood by most of the locals in these countries speaking in Hindi can be helpful to you as you would sound like a native even though you may look like a foreigner. Speaking in Hindi can be helpful in bargaining while shopping and can prevent you from getting ripped off by the local businesses especially in tourist areas.

  • All the countries of the former British Raj are pretty good with English, with the possible exception of Somalia. Yes, it was. Check it out. – Malvolio May 12 '16 at 22:10
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Chinese. Chinese is the most widely spoken language in the world. And yes, probably Mandarin, since Mao decreed all Chinese would standardize on it (which was only mildly successful, but whatever.)

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    we already have an answer suggesting Mandarin, posted 6 hours before yours. When you have a touch more rep you can upvote answers you agree with and comment on them to add more information. Repeating an existing answer is rarely the right choice here. – Kate Gregory May 14 '16 at 15:32

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