Language for travel – is it essential to speak a second language?

Tiago in front of a sign with many indications and directions in Italy

This post is also available in: Português

It is taken for granted that if you speak English, you can travel the world without having any communication problem. However, after travelling since December 2014, we beg to differ, at least a little bit. So, with regards to language for travel, is it essential to speak a second language?

Well, yes and no.

There is no way we can give you a direct answer to that as it depends on many facts. To speak just English will probably give you a comfort zone when travelling. But it really depends on where you are going and the kind of traveller you are.

Communicate with locals

A Georgian, who does not speak English and Fernanda and Tiago, who don't speak Russia, drinking in Georgia
The night at our new Georgian friend’s house, when we spoke with no words!

Even though English is the unofficial international language, what we realise from our 2 years and a half travelling around the world, is that local people hardly speak at a conversational level. In fact, we communicate with many local people we had just met simply by hands (and trust us, it works!).

We believe that with a great willpower and an open-heart, everything works out.

We always remember, for instance, when we spent a night in Georgia on someone’s house, drinking their local spirit – something like vodka, they call it chacha – and cheering at the best Georgian style. On that night, even not speaking the same language, we talked in length about love, family, death, culture, history and more. We hugged each other and felt emotional. He spoke Russian, we answered in English. Did the chacha help the communication? No doubt! But similar things has happened to us before and after that too.

The window of a metro in Tehran saying women only in English and Farsi
The underground in Tehran, Iran

As we hitchhiked quite often and sleep on people’s house, of whom we just meet along our way, we normally found ourselves in this situation which we cannot communicate well with the person due to language barriers, and yet have incredible experiences.

On the other hand, once in South Korea, the cashier of the bus station could not understand us, even though we were pretty much just saying the name of the city we wanted to go. She replied in Korean only, then panicked with the situation and simply SOLD US A TICKET TO ANOTHER CITY. Really, that happened. We realised the bus passed the city we wanted to stop and we got off on the next city. That means, to speak English doesn’t necessarily mean you will succeed on your travels.

Communicate with other travellers

people on Stand-up Paddle in Malawi Lake
Group of South Africans, Canadians, Brazilians, Spanish and Polish!

At the same time few locals speak English, the complete opposite happens with the traveller community. Amongst groups, gatherings, hotel/hostel, bars and so on, English is the most spoken language.

That has been a great help for us, such as when we were in Kyrgyzstan. As most of Central Asia, they speak mostly Russia and not at all English. We were lucky to have met a Portuguese couple that were doing a beautiful magazine, Diaries Of Magazine, who told us interesting stories about locals that we gathered from talking in Russian with them. Somehow they knew Russian, and thank you for that!

Signs, directions and information

Smoking area in Morocco
Arriving in Marrakech

Another point which can be stressful is to understand traffic signs or information at airports. Even in countries less open to tourism, such as Iran, there are important information in English, which is great. However, that’s not always the case. Then, be always aware, observe people around you and, whenever you aren’t sure about something, ask for help.

Once in Russia, for instance, we were completely lost in the metro station. Russians metro stations are huge – and stunning though – but immense, and before Sochi, there weren’t many signs translated to English.

Russia metro station
The immense metro stations in Russia

As we were lost, we had to ask someone the way out of there. Even though no one spoke English, we managed to find a person who speaks Spanish and helped us out. That means, don’t be shy and on the difficult moments go asking people around you. Somebody will eventually help you.

After all, is it essential to speak a second language?

Tiago in front of a sign with many indications and directions in Italy
Imagine driving and having to make sense of that!

The conclusion is no. You don’t really must speak a second language to travel. However, don’t take for granted that simply by speaking English you are free of all the language barriers when travelling. Plus, learn a second language has many benefits, such as a deeper understanding of the culture and exercise for the brain.

promotion that doesn't make sense in the market from 15,95 to 15,95
We are still trying to understand this massive deal (it does say offert)

To learn a new language is always useful and many doors can open for you because of that. Do not give up, though. It will look very hard at the beginning, but eventually, you will talk and all the hard work, as always, will pay off.

If you are planning a big trip and to make a lifestyle out of it, like us, we definitely recommend a second language, such as Spanish, Russian or Arabic. You can join a crash course before starting the trip, or learn some basic and keep on learning on the go.

Tips for all travellers/tourists

  • Learn basic words in other languages, particular from the local country before arriving;
  • Download the Google Translator App which makes instantaneous translation;
  • When talking, speak slowly and use body language;
  • Always smile. When you smile, people are more likely to help you;
  • Be open to difficult moments. As we said before, they will happen, a lot, whether you speak just English or a second language too.