Monday-Morning Moving: Do You Really Need To Speak A Foreign Language To Travel?

Smart travelers know: Interacting with the locals is the only way to travel.
Smart travelers know: Interacting with the locals is the only way to travel.

The continents many be expanding – Australia is growing about an inch a year, for instance – but the world is shrinking. Increased travel, the expansion of the Internet and the growth of truly global media have combined to make foreign countries much less foreign than they used to be. Mark Twain’s The Innocents Abroad might as well have been written in the 1500s, for all the resemblance its characters bear to modern-day travelers.

Given these trends, a fair question to ask is: Does an international traveler even need to speak any language other than English?

Since school is about ready to start up again, let’s look at this the way a high-school debate team might – in terms of the affirmative and the negative.

Affirmative: Because of the negative in the question, the affirmative is arguing that people do need to speak a language other than English. And they do. English is not only not the most widely spoken language in the world, it’s not even the second-most widely spoken language. There is a case to be made for speaking English around the world – but only if you first speak Spanish and Chinese. Beyond the raw numbers, there are cultural imperatives in favor of learning other languages. Even a few words in a native language can break down barriers, open doors, and help dispel the myth of the “ugly American.” And here’s the kicker: Learning a few words in a foreign language has never been easier, thanks to a proliferation of free or cheap, internet-based tools that incorporate gamification into language-learning. If it’s cheap and easy to learn a couple of phrases in a foreign language, and if learning those phrases can help travel go more smoothly, why wouldn’t you?

Negative: Not so fast, my affirmative friend. According to the font of all knowledge, Wikipedia, “English has about 400 million native speakers but, depending on the criterion chosen, can be said to have as many as 2 billion speakers.” Two billion speakers are a whole lot of speakers – the most speakers of any language. (See, a whole lot more people know a little bit of English, as opposed to a little bit of Spanish or Chinese.) Throwing out the very young, the very old, the incarcerated, and the institutionalized, from a pure statistical standpoint, your odds are excellent of encountering someone in a foreign country who speaks English – and if that person doesn’t speak a little English, the person next to them probably does. Also sticking with the laws of probability, there are proportionally more English speakers in the countries travelers are the most likely to visit – and in many of those cases, the locals are eager to practice their English because they want to get better at it. You can hammer out your two daily lessons of Swedish on Duolingo, but is it because you really, really want to master Swedish for the rest of your life or because you’re going to Stockholm in a couple of months? And the irony is you’re going to go to Stockholm and discover that everyone there speaks English more precisely than you do. So why even bother?

So there you have the arguments pro and con. (And your answer to the rhetorical question in the last paragraph: the French.) Make your own decision, but in the meantime, consider these practicalities:

  1. It is crazy easy to learn a language. Foreign-language learning apps don’t begin and end with Duolingo. In addition to this popular app, there’s Busuu (crowdsourced language-learning), Memrise (mnemonic-based learning), and others that are well-documented in this Huffington Post article. If you want to learn Urdu you can, and very likely for free. So why would you not?
  2. Even if you don’t want to learn a language, you can make your way around in a language. Google Translate, though imperfect, is also indispensible. Ditto for Word Lens, the freaky visual translator (which was recently sucked into the Google Translate vortex), or the amazing Voice Translate Pro for iPhone. You can no longer use the excuse that you don’t know the language – unless, you know, that’s your standard line.
  3. Learning a few phrases in the native language is polite, and often much appreciated. Basically, the harder the language, the more your attempts to speak it are appreciated. If you know “please,” “thank you,” and “do you speak English?”, you’re off to a good start.
  4. Learning other languages give you a new appreciation for English and its etymology. The more languages you speak, the more you realize how many languages have so much in common. And if you think English has some convoluted rules, try speaking an inflected language like Chinese. Suddenly “right,” “write,” and “wright” don’t seem so horrible.


Author: Kit Kiefer

As content engineer for Berkshire Hathaway Travel Protection, I have one of the world's great jobs. Not only do I get to write about travel, but I get to edit the work of fantastically talented contributors from around the world. Plus I get all the maple syrup I can drink.