After spending a few months traveling through East and West Africa, I was eager to get home, cook Thanksgiving dinner and finally sleep without a mosquito net. But when I arrived to my flight, the attendant tore up my ticket.
He said, “Vous ne pouvez pas entrer.”
Dumbfounded, I asked a hundred questions—in English. But Senegal is a Francophone country and, unable to speak French or Wolof, I floundered, then searched desperately for someone who could translate his brisk French replies. By the time I unearthed an Australian backpacker who explained that I didn’t have the proper yellow fever card required for exit, I’d already missed my thousand-dollar flight.
Devastated, I spent an extra two weeks in Senegal, bouncing from doctor to doctor and hotel to hotel, searching for the elusive yellow fever vaccine. Whenever I walked into a hospital, I would have to hold up a piece of paper that said “yellow fever vaccine” in Google Translated French. And every time, doctors or nurses would explain, in some version of rapid and impatient French, that they couldn’t help me.
Finally, after ten days, I located the vaccine and headed to the airport. This time, the attendant spoke English. I explained what happened, and she said, “Oh, we have a doctor in the building next door. If you’d gone there, he could have given you the vaccine in time for your flight. That’s probably what the first attendant was trying to tell you.”
To this day, I am still paying off my expenses from that two-week debacle.
Should I have studied basic French before traveling to Senegal? Yes. Definitely. But I’d assumed (incorrectly) that everyone could speak some degree of English. My mistake cost me dearly—for one, I missed Thanksgiving stuffing.
But I did learn something valuable: English isn’t always enough. Most native English speakers don’t know a foreign language. This is sad but true. In the United States, eighty percent of adults cannot speak any language other than English. And this is despite the fact that the US is the second-largest Spanish-speaking country in the world after Mexico; Spanish-speaking immigrants are moving to the United States, but native English speakers don’t feel the need to pick up the language for themselves.
England is slightly better, but not by much. Only twenty-five percent of British adults can hold even a basic conversation in any language other than English, which means that seventy-five percent don’t speak a foreign language at all. And this number is on the decline, since, in 2004, the Labor Party made foreign languages optional for teenagers. Since the legislation passed, the number of students taking French (the most popular foreign language in the UK) dropped by fifty percent. But, worldwide, monolingual people are still a minority. According to the US National Institute of Health, more than half of the world’s population speaks at least two languages, while some sources cite at least sixty percent.
Fifty-six percent of Europeans can speak at least two languages comfortably. For example, in Luxembourg, nearly the entire population fluently speaks English, French, German and Luxembourgish. Across the ocean in Aruba, all students are required to learn Dutch, English and Spanish, and they often speak Papiamento at home. Meanwhile, South Africa has eleven official languages, and most South Africans can speak at least three. In India, the majority of the population learns Hindi and English in addition to a third language determined by the state.
But English-speaking people don’t have to worry about that. After all, the whole world speaks English. Right?
Wrong. English is much rarer than you think. Only twenty-five percent of the world speaks English at all. Twenty-five percent.
That means three-quarters of the world—or 5.7 billion people—do not speak any English. Monolingual English-speakers are effectively cut off from 6 billion people.
In Europe, only 38% of EU citizens know enough English to hold a conversation—if you’re going to Spain, study up on your Spanish first because only eleven percent of the population speaks English, and the numbers are just as low in Italy and the Czech Republic. On the African continent, fifty-eight percent of people know English. And while colonization forced many countries in the Caribbean to operate in English, today most Caribbean citizens speak non-standard English or Creole.
And in many countries, fewer than ten percent of the population speaks English. In China, less than one percent do. Even in The Gambia, where English is an official language, only three percent speak it. If you’re not willing to learn a second language, you’ll also struggle in Malawi, Brazil, Russia, Argentina, Colombia, Chile, Tanzania, and the list goes on and on.
And before you think, “No, problem! That’s what Google Translate is for!” sorry, we’ve already debunked that theory. What languages are the most valuable to learn? That depends on you. If you’re taking a backpacking trip to Arusha, you may need to brush up on your Kiswahili, while a month-long sabbatical to Egypt might require you to learn Masri Arabic. Or maybe you just really, really want to learn Amharic, even though you’ve never been Ethiopia and maybe never will. That’s okay. There’s no “right” or “wrong” reason to learn a language—as long as you want to learn, that’s all that matters!
But if you want to learn a language that will take you the farthest in the world, then you might want to look at languages by population.
Mandarin Chinese is the most spoken language in the world, with more than a billion speakers—955 million native speakers and 194 non-native speakers. If you’re interested in Taiwan, Singapore or China, this is the language for you.
Spanish has more than 500 million speakers and is official, national or widely spoken in forty-four countries. The US is the second-largest Spanish-speaking country in the world, so even if you never plan on going further south than Texas, you can still put it to use.
Hindi has 430 million speakers and is one of India’s official languages. However, it’s also spoken in Nepal, Fiji and Pakistan.
Arabic has 422 million speakers and is the liturgical language of 1.6 billion Muslims, or more than twenty percent of the world’s population. Not bad.
Malay and Indonesian are closely related languages spoken by almost 250 million people across Malaysia, Brunei, Singapore, Indonesia and Thailand—and because Thailand is one of the top destinations for travelers to backpack and live, picking up a little vocabulary isn’t a bad idea. What are the benefits of learning another language? Even outside of helping you travel more easily, learning another language comes with numerous benefits, according to Auburn University:
Learning a foreign language causes people to feel more positive and less prejudiced toward diverse groups of people.
Studying a foreign language improves analytical skills and increases creativity.
Eighty percent of new jobs created in the United States are created as a result of foreign trade. Knowing a second language increases competitiveness in the global marketplace.
Studying a foreign language improves not only one’s memory but also one’s problem-solving skills and ability to grasp abstract concepts.
English-speakers learning a foreign language have actually reported an increase in their own English vocabulary.
But the benefits don’t stop there…Learning a foreign language makes you more rational. When you make a decision in your foreign language, you actually think more logically and analytically. This is because thinking in a second language “reduces deep-seated, misleading biases that unduly influence how risks and benefits are perceived.” Learning a foreign language immerses you in new ideas. When you can understand a second language, you open yourself up to literature, philosophies, music and theories that you would never have before. Sure, many pieces of art are translated into English, but not all—and even the translations are rarely as good as the original.
Wouldn’t you rather read what Proust truly thinks about time in the original À la recherche du temps perdu, instead of skimming an English translation of the madeleine excerpt? And you’ll get more out of any opera if you comprehend the original Italian and German than if you try to dig for an English translation.
And what about non-Western art? You’ll have a hard time finding suitable translations of Kazakh literature, but some of the most innovative and textured fiction in the world is coming out in Kazakhstan right now. Knowing a second language opens you up to a world of ideas. Learning a foreign language lets you work anywhere in the world. The world is becoming more globalized. That doesn’t just mean your iPhone was made in China and you can vacation in Barbados. That means you can live where you never dared to live before.
Yes, you could just ask your company to transfer you out, by picking up a language that’s good for business, you could also move to your dream country and start shopping around your resume. When you know another language, the world becomes yours. English just isn’t enough. If you know English, you can get by—in a quarter of the world. But if you truly want to travel, participate in global business or just expand your mind, you need to pick up a second language.
What are you waiting for? Carpe diem.
Post by guest blogger Jamie McGhee: Jamie McGhee is a novelist, playwright and aspiring polyglot currently making her way through East Africa with a backpack.