By Rachael Funk
Language barriers can be intimidating for travelers, especially if they’re new to travel or going solo.
Thankfully, options are manifold for those who are not confident in their second language proficiency. Here are a few countries you can get by without much trouble, even if you exclusively speak English.
A no-brainer for English-speaking travel is Australia, where your biggest language obstacle could likely be figuring out the local slang. Though Australia doesn’t actually have an official language, people usually default to English. Collectively, Australians speak over 200 different languages, but the two most common ones you’ll find are English and Mandarin.
In the Czech Republic, students begin mandatory foreign language classes at six years old. Very often, this means the people you will encounter on your vacation have been studying English for a significant portion of their lives. Though not every student opts to learn English, it is among the most commonly studied. Prague especially is an easy place to find English speakers, as the city is home to around 200,000 foreigners. Other commonly spoken languages in Czech Republic (other than Czech) are German and Russian.
English is the most common foreign language spoken among Germans. In Munich, many restaurants even offer menus in English. Outside of major cities, English may fall anywhere on the spectrum from a few words to true fluency. If you ask someone, “Sprechen Sie English?” they may reply they speak “a little bit.” Though in the U.S. “a little bit” usually means someone can read a menu or figure out street signs, the German concept of “a little bit” usually refers to a working knowledge of the language. Though they may use an incorrect verb tense here and there or mispronounce something, people are generally able to make themselves understood and carry conversations.
The EF English Proficiency Index of 2016 ranked the Netherlands as the nation with the highest English language proficiency, immediately followed by Denmark, Sweden, and Norway. The Netherlands has about 15 million English speakers, which translates to about 90% of the population.
In large cities such as Porto, Lisbon, Coimbra, Braga, and Algarve, English-speaking visitors have little trouble being understood. If you’re in a Portuguese tourist town, you won’t have to ask around for long until you find someone who can speak your language. The Portuguese also have a reputation of being warm and accommodating to those who at least try to speak a little of their language first, and will often switch to English to help you out.
All schools in Romania have foreign language programs requiring students to study at least one language to an advanced level and another at a more basic level. In 2012, Romania was ranked among the top countries in Europe for English proficiency, ahead of countries such as France, Spain, Italy, and Greece. During the communist period, Russian and German were the two most commonly taught languages, but English emerged as the most popular choice after that. With this in mind, if you are looking for an English speaker, try people in touristy areas or people born after the 1990s.
English is a widely spoken language in Singapore. It is among the country’s most commonly spoken languages in addition to Malay, Mandarin, and Tamil. English is considered the medium of education and business and is the first language taught in schools. The country has a bilingual education policy and uses English as the main language of instruction in all school subjects except for Mother Tongue lessons.
South Africa has 11 official languages: Afrikaans, English, Ndebele, Northern Sotho, Sotho, SiSwati, Tsonga, Tswana, Venda, Xhosa, and Zulu. In the early 1900s, Dutch and English were the first official languages of South Africa, then Afrikaans soon replaced Dutch. Most South Africans can speak more than one language. English is likely the most commonly spoken language in the nation, and other countries often turn to South Africa to find English teachers and other educators.
Switzerland has four national languages: German, French, Italian, and Romansh. Though English is not one of them, it is considered a desirable second language to learn. Those who speak German and French as a first language choose to learn English as well, as it is used as the common language of business in the country. Big cities like Zurich, Bern, or Geneva and college towns with a high population of young people tend to have more English speakers than rural areas. If you are there for a short time, chances are good you won’t have to work too hard to find an English speaker.
United Kingdom (England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland)
English is the most widely spoken language in the United Kingdom. There are a number of regional dialects spoken depending on where you travel, however a 2011 census showed about 98% of the population does speak English either primarily or in addition to other languages.
Though Ireland has its own unique language and culture, English is one of the two official languages with about 99% of Ireland's population speaking English. Suffice it to say, you'll have no trouble finding someone who speaks English when you travel to Ireland!