If you wanted to travel a lot in South America, it would be useful to learn Spanish. It would help you get around most countries—and even Brazil has a similar language, Portuguese. But the situation is not so simple in Asia.
There is not one “Asian language.” There are many. So, you might be asking some of the these questions:
- Which Asian language is used in the most countries?
- Which Asian language has the most speakers?
- Which Asian language is easiest to learn?
- Which Asian languages are closely related or mutually intelligible? (Can you learn one Asian language, which then makes it easy to learn another?)
- Is it even worth learning a language to travel in Asia?
We’ll look at all of these issues and more below. I’ll also share my personal experience with learning Japanese as a digital nomad in Asia, and whether it’s been worth the time I spent on it.
What Language Is Most Useful for Traveling in Asia?
If you’re planning to visit many countries in Asia, the most useful language overall will probably be English. Even in Asia, English is the most common language used by locals to communicate with tourists and other foreigners.
The fact is, if you’re fluent in English, you’ll already be able to handle most common travel situations in Asia. Especially in popular tourist areas, English will usually get the job done for basic communication.
Second place would likely go to Mandarin Chinese. Mandarin is prominent in much of China and Taiwan. It’s also heavily present in Singapore, parts of Malaysia, and to a much lesser extent in Thailand and other places across Asia.
It’s also worth noting that Malay and Indonesian are generally mutually intelligible languages. So, learning either of those would help you communicate with locals in both Indonesia and Malaysia.
And you could say the same about Thai and Lao. Those languages are mutually intelligible when spoken. So if you learn Thai, for example, you could chat with locals in Laos, too.
What about Japanese and Korean—are they useful across Asia? To a limited extent, yes. While living in SE Asia, I notice a lot of tourists from Japan and Korea, and I often see signage written in these languages.
There are also overlaps between Japanese, Korean, and Chinese. So if you learn one of those, it’ll be easier to learn another. Japanese and Chinese share a lot of characters, for example, while Japanese and Korean grammar is similar.
That said, there is not any one Asian language that is spoken across all of Asia. In Thailand, the most helpful language is Thai, by far. In Vietnam, the most helpful language is Vietnamese, by far. And so on.
So, it’s worth thinking ahead about which countries you are most interested in exploring or living in. Then you can focus your language study based on that.
Which Asian Language Has the Most Speakers?
Another way to think about a language’s usefulness is to refer at the total number of speakers in the world. By this count, here are some of the top Asian languages (source):
- Mandarin Chinese: 1.138 billion
- Hindi: 609 million
- Modern Standard Arabic: 274 million
- Bengali: 273 million
- Russian: 255 million
- Urdu: 232 million
- Indonesian: 199 million
- Japanese: 123 million
- Yue Chinese (incl. Cantonese): 87 million
- Vietnamese: 86 million
- Tagalog: 83 million
- Korean: 82 million
- Thai: 61 million
But personally, I don’t think this way of ranking languages makes much sense. In many cases, it’s just a way of comparing the population of each country.
For example, the languages spoken in China and India have the most speakers because those countries have the biggest populations. But that doesn’t mean those languages will be super useful across the rest of Asia.
If you’re in South Korea, I can guarantee you Korean will be much more useful than Hindi, despite Hindi having 10x more speakers globally. So again, knowing your travel itinerary is really helpful.
Which Asian Language Is Easiest to Learn?
Another way to choose a language would be looking at which will be easiest or quickest to learn. So, if that’s your criteria, which Asian language is best?
The easiest Asian languages for native speakers of English to learn are Indonesian and Malay. They are both ranked as “Category 2” languages by the U.S. Foreign Service Institute. Indonesian and Malay take an estimated 36 weeks (a little over 8 months) to learn.
As mentioned above, Indonesian and Malay are also very similar languages to each other. They are even mutually intelligible in most cases. So, they might be efficient languages to learn if you’re interesting in traveling Indonesia and Malaysia.
Below are a bunch more Asian languages ranked by the U.S. Foreign Service Institute, categorized by difficulty. The “Category 1” languages are easiest, while “Category 4” languages are hardest:
Category 1 Languages (~24-30 weeks, 600-750 class hours):
- [No Asian Languages]
Category 2 Languages (~36 weeks, 900 class hours):
Category 3 Languages (~44 weeks, 1,100 class hours):
Category 4 Languages (~88 weeks, 2,200 class hours):
- Chinese (Cantonese)
- Chinese (Mandarin)
As you can see, the East Asian languages—Chinese, Japanese, and Korean—are the hardest. South and Southeast Asian languages tend to be quicker to learn, although they are still pretty hard.
What Makes Each Language Hard?
Each language is also challenging in a different way. So, you can kind of choose which type of challenge you’d like to have. For example:
- Japanese has relatively easy pronunciation because it isn’t a tonal language, but it’s hard because of the grammar and the writing system (especially kanji).
- Vietnamese has an easier writing system because it overlaps a lot with English, but the pronunciation is very challenging for English speakers.
- Chinese is challenging because of the both the tonal pronunciation and the writing system with thousands of characters.
But overall, any Asian language will come with significant challenges for a native English speaker. You should probably choose the language based on other factors, since all of them will still take a lot of time and effort.
Is It Worth Learning a Language to Travel in Asia?
The answer to this question really depends on how you plan to travel in Asia, and whether you have an interest in language learning itself.
If you’re already fluent in English, if you’ll only briefly visit each country, and if you don’t have interest in language learning itself, then it’s probably not worth learning a language to travel in Asia.
Why not? Well, your English will be sufficient in most places. You can also use Google Translate or other apps to communicate with locals. Pointing and gesturing also works surprisingly well in many cases.
That said, if you want to spend a long time in one Asian country, visiting often or living there, and if you want to explore non-tourist areas, then learning that country’s language will enrich your experience.
It can be special to strike up conversations with locals in their own language. You can have experiences that would simply not be possible in English. You’ll be treated differently.
So, it all depends on your plans and your interests. Unfortunately, there is not one Asian language that will be super useful across the whole continent.
Therefore, it’s very helpful if you can clarify which country you want to explore most. Then you could consider learning that country’s language.
My Experience Learning Japanese as a Digital Nomad
Personally, I learned Japanese during my first two years of traveling in Asia. Overall, I enjoy language learning, so the experience was good. However, I’d like to set some realistic expectations.
First off: In two years of learning Japanese, I was only able to achieve basic conversations (maybe a low B1 on the CEFR scale). It takes a long time to reach full fluency in an East Asian language as an English speaker.
So, it was fun to have basic conversation with locals in Japan—but I still felt very limited in understanding the language all around me in Japan. I still felt a big language barrier between me and most locals, even after 2 years of studying.
And secondly: Outside of Japan, my Japanese has not been very useful in Asia at all. Yes, I can read some Japanese signs in other countries, and occasionally I’ll meet a Japanese person in another country. But that’s about it.
In fact, it’s felt silly at times, when I’m staying for a month or two in Thailand, but learning Japanese… The fact is that Thai would’ve been 100x more helpful to know in Thailand.
Thirdly, my long-term travel plans ended up changing. I was initially most interested in Japan—but I ended up enjoying life more in Thailand and Vietnam. So, I might not end up spending a ton of time in Japan after all.
This is all to say: Learning Japanese has not been a very practical decision for me. It has been fun, but the “return on investment” (ROI) has not been very great at this point.
So, What Is the Best Asian Language to Learn for Travel?
Here are some takeaway points from everything we covered above:
- English is probably the language spoken in the most Asian countries, with Mandarin Chinese coming in second.
- Indonesian and Malay are the easiest Asian languages for English speakers to learn. They are also mutually intelligible, so it’s kind of a “2 for 1” deal. Spoken Thai and Lao are also mutually intelligible.
- If you can clarify which country you want to explore most, focusing on that country’s language will be most helpful. But as my experience with Japanese shows, you might end up changing your mind later anyway.
If you’re thinking of exploring Asia with just English, you may also be interested in my post on the 7 Most Fluent English-Speaking Countries in Asia.