Communication in thank yous
If linguistic ability can be measured purely in terms of how many languages you can say the word for “thank you” in, then I regard myself as something of a marvel. Unfortunately, once I want a conversation in Zulu, Croatian or Icelandic to veer beyond the in-depth confines of repeatedly thanking a shopkeeper for letting me buy something, it all gets a bit trickier.
Native English speakers have been given a blessing and a curse when it comes to travel. In the last 50 years, English has become the global fallback language. If you meet a Dutchman, a Dane, a Greek and an Israeli in a hostel, you can pretty much guarantee they’ll be talking to each other in English. This both makes travelling easy and learning another language hard – it takes a lot more dedication and determination when just about everyone you meet speaks English better than you speak the local lingo.
Benefits of learning a language
But there’s no doubt that fluency – or even the ability to make a conversation less painful than eating a packet of salt and vinegar crisps whilst afflicted by mouth ulcers – in an another language can be a great help whilst travelling. Being able to talk to someone properly, ask the right questions and understand what’s going on opens a lot of doors. But given that most native English-speakers are so bad at learning languages, it’s unrealistic to expect conversational ability in multiple languages. To put off a long haul, multi-country trip because you can’t speak all the languages required means you’ll stay at home forever. A little prioritisation is required.
So then, if you can learn just one language, which one should it be?
Well, obviously a lot depends on where you’re going. If you’re going to spend a year in Indonesia, then Indonesian is the best choice. Same with Japanese for Japan or Thai for Thailand. Outside these countries, however, all three languages are nigh-on useless. The same applies for Mandarin. Yes, it’s the most spoken language in the world, and anyone who can speak Mandarin fluently is clearly going to have a big leg up in the future business world, but any traveller not going to China is not going to need it. It’s also worth bearing in mind that Mandarin isn’t the main spoken language in many parts of China itself.
If you’re looking for a language that is used in a number of countries, the Arabic is worth considering. It has spread over much of the Middle East and Africa, although Omani Arabic, Egyptian Arabic and Moroccan Arabic tend to have some rather large differences. Another factor is that in many Arabic countries, English is used as the defacto language of business and media. In the major travel hubs, such as Dubai, you’ll get by just fine speaking only English.
So how about the languages we get taught at school then? French tends to be the one that most British people learn a smattering of, but how useful is it? In France, very. Outside of France, in former French colonies? Very as well. But start placing those former French colonies on a map and you’ll soon realise that very few of them feature high on a list of appealing destinations. Travellers don’t tend to venture to Cameroon, Chad and the Central African Republic all that often.In other former French colonies – particularly those in Asia such as Vietnam and Cambodia, American influence has seen English overtake French as the second language of choice.
German or Russian?
German, I’d say, is the most handy second language if you’re travelling in Europe, In the likes of Poland, Hungary, Croatia and the Czech Republic, German is often more widely used as a second language than English (although this is changing). Outside of Europe, though, and it’s rarely useful – unless you plan on spending a lot of time in bizarre pockets of Namibia. Head further east, and Russian is the best language to have. Many people in Eastern Europe don’t like speaking what is seen as the language of the oppressor, but it is still widely understood. In the former Soviet states, Russian is by far the best bet, while in Russia itself having at least a few key phrases is absolutely essential.
That leaves Spanish. It’s no use outside Spain and the Americas but – crucially - it is the first language in a hell of a lot of countries. And those tend to be countries where the grasp of English isn’t all that good. The lazy man’s point-and-shout-in-English isn’t as effective in South America as it is in South East Asia. On balance, therefore, if I was to invest time learning a language (or improving my abilities in a language), Spanish would be the one I’d pick. Una cerveza, por favour...