As an American who only fluently knows English (working on this), one question I am asked constantly is “am I able to communicate while traveling?”. Short answer, yes. If English if your native or learned tongue, you can get by almost anywhere in the world. Well, in touristic areas at least. Almost everywhere you go in the world, major signs and forms at airports, points of entry, tourist notifications will be in the local language, then English, as it is the “language of travel”. Many places that cater to tourists will have menus and information printed in English, as well as other major world languages. If you are traveling for the first time outside of English speaking countries, here is a list of places you can go where English is strong, as well as some tips on how to get by with English only. Also, I am no expert, just giving my advice on places to visit where English will be useable, based on my experiences.
If you want to have no problems with communication, let me recommend Scandinavia! Not only is it a fun place (though expensive place, Norway is VERY pricy, Sweden is manageable), but pretty much everyone speaks English, some even better than most Americans. This means visiting the countries of Sweden, Finland, and Denmark. Although not in Scandinavia, The Netherlands is also another country with very strong English skills. And based on this Reuters article and this recent study, Scandinavians are among the most fluent in the world, and there are even claims that English is a Scandinavian language, explaining why Scandinavians are so incredibly fluent (I’ve mistaken, many times, a Swede for American because of the accent).
Why are they so fluent? I’ve asked many Dutch and Scandinavian people this and the answers are always the same. First off, it’s taught from a very early age in school, with some schools teaching lessons in English only. Northern European languages are mostly only spoken in Northern Europe, so there is a need to know an international language to compete and communicate with the rest of the world, to travel, and even to communicate with each other. For example, when my Swedish friends visit their Norweigan, Danish, or Finnish neighbors, they communicate in English. And a LOT of people say, honestly, they enjoy speaking it. They grew up with it in their media (American and British television, movies, video games, etc are just as popular and easy to find in Europe as they are in the USA/UK, and unlike France or Spain, the programs are not overdubbed, but presented in English with subtitles), so even if they don’t learn it in school, its saturated into their daily lives. Many signs and advertisements are also in English, and a lot of European bands sing in English, since they have to appeal to an entire continent with dozens of languages. Some of my favorites bands are from Netherlands, Sweden, and Finland, and they sing in English.
If you don’t fancy the cold north and want beautiful beaches on the Mediterranean, amazing food, and a place that is very affordable and has an excellent night/party scene: go to Portugal! Portugal also, for many of the same reasons above, is another place where English is spoken fairly well by most younger people, on a very fluent scale. Portugal also does not overdub English language media, so that contributes to young people knowing English on a fluent scale. Also, go there because Portugal is absolutely amazing! From their Festa de São João do Porto every June in Porto, to the crazy nights in the Bairro Alto neighborhood in Lisbon (where you can buy a large 3 euro cup of Sangria and walk the streets with thousands of other, dance to good music, and meet amazing people), this is a wonderful and lovely country. The atmosphere is so inviting, the architecture is incredible, and it’s one of the friendliest places I have visited. Oh and the beaches in the south are supposed to be some of the best (I haven’t been, but will this year, and I have researched them extensively!).
Otherwise, elsewhere in Europe, you can usually get by in the larger cities in Germany (Berlin, Munich), major Italian cities, and again, Holland. In Spain, Barcelona is a highly touristic place and most center city establishments you will be fine. A lot of Barcelona’s sights and tourist or party areas are located in the city center and by the main beach, so English usually works at the more obvious bars/restaurants and shops that cater to travelers. Once you leave the city center or the city in general, you’re best knowing Spanish or Catalan. In Madrid, I’ve had mostly similar experiences, and I’ve recently lived in Spain twice, so my absolute basic Spanish is good enough now that I can order food, drinks, and read most signs/menus. There I mostly stayed in the center (Sol or Malasana), or main tourist streets, and usually got by ok. I’ve had a harder time in France.
France, for being the most visited country in the world, is actually not too easy to get by with just English. In major tourist areas of Paris and some of the fancy beaches in the south (Cannes/Nice), you can get by in areas that are clearly touristic, but even common areas like major train or bus stations, restaurants and bars in the city, etc, you may encounter situations where you simply need to speak French. France and Spain are very proud and protective of their languages, as they should be. Along with English, those two languages are spoken in many places in the world. But don’t let this deter you, France is one of the most amazing places to visit in the entire world. Paris is rich with culture and history, amazing architecture, food that rivals the Italians, and they have great beaches in the south, lovely countryside, and lots of things to do.
Remember the golden rule of traveling: you are in a country not your own, do not assume everyone can speak to you. Learn how to say the basics (“I would like..”, “I need..”, please and thank you, etc). Come prepared, have your maps, itineraries, bus and train tickets, etc printed out. I recently had a situation where, at a train station, my American credit card wouldn’t work in French ticket machines, so I had to ask for help. I knew how to say “I need to buy a ticket”, but couldn’t explain further that my card wasn’t working because my card doesn’t have the chips that Euro cards have. But I also knew how to say “I don’t speak French”, in French, and they were able to work it out and help me (one of the workers spoke English). But had I printed my tickets out ahead of time, I would have been set. So just be prepared. And if you don’t know French, for your first visit, stick to a more tourist friendly itinerary. But don’t be afraid to go, just be aware English isn’t as prevalent in France and Spain as other places in Europe.
I haven’t made it to Eastern Europe or Russia yet, but popular destinations such as the beaches of Croatia should be fine. I am going there myself hopefully this summer and based on a number of friends recommending Croatia, including many travelers I have met from the region, I would surmise that I will have little trouble.
Aside from that, I found that Asia was surprisingly English friendly, though a lot of Asian countries are investing heavily in English education, including Japan and China and other emerging countries. That and some countries in Asia we’re once British colonies, so there is English influence there as well. I spent a week in Sri Lanka and found that, though we were on a planned tour with a driver who took us to major tourist attractions and we stayed at hotels or destinations popular with Western tourists, a lot of advertisements, restaurants (even non-tourist ones), and shops had signs in English. Sri Lanka was colonized by the British for a point, so it wasn’t a total surprise. Thailand, a highly popular destination for Western travelers is another place where you can get by fairly easily, especially if you are in Bangkok and popular beach destinations. I had no problem even at some more remote train stations, when I had to ask for help or tickets. Hong Kong, which was a British Dependent Territory and under British administration until 1997, was not a problem wither, as there was heavy English influence (its a major city for fashion and international commerce/business, so English is very prevalent there). Japan too was mostly doable, though again, I stuck to major areas and larger, less “locals” restaurants and destinations.
South and Central America are next on my list of travels, so I wont comment to those destinations, but I will say that one way to avoid the stress of not being able to communicate is to travel with a group, or if you can, join tour groups or stay in hostels or accommodations where you will be around fellow travelers, as that increases your chances of someone knowing the language or being able to get by. And it’s always good to go with friends or groups, your stress level will be low since you wont be alone if trying to communicate and you’ll be able to speak to people in your own language and maintain that baseline, which always helps when traveling to countries where English is not the first language.