With the advent of the internet, globalization, and ever-expanding technology, travel is not what it used to be. Compare your travels today with those you embarked on 20 years ago, and they may not even resemble each other. Not only are we now using apps, Google, and virtual maps to navigate our way through new cities, we’re also communicating differently.
As English has become the universal language of business, it’s also been widely embraced by the tourism industry. If learning a foreign language is problematic for you, no longer do you have to limit yourself to traveling to Canada, the UK, or Australia. Below are 10 surprising places around the world where many people speak English — and very well.
When you think of Latin America, your first thought is probably breaking out the dusty Spanish dictionary hidden somewhere in your garage. Nevertheless, this region is comprised of a rich linguistic tapestry, woven with indigenous languages, a variety of Spanish, Portuguese, French, and — you guessed it –English dialects. While the majority of colonization was done by the Spanish and Portuguese, there are still a few places where English is widely spoken.
Bordering Mexico and Guatemala, Belize is one of those countries where you’d never think people spoke English. However, this Central American country used to be a British Colony. While traveling here, you may hear a mix of Kriol, Spanish, and Maya, but you’re likely to hear English most of the time. After all, this is Belize’s official language. Sure, it may be spoken with a Caribbean lilt, but you’ll have no trouble whatsoever being understood.
Just east of Venezuela, Guyana is one of those small countries that, unfortunately, not many people have ventured into. If you decide to take a trip here, you will get along swimmingly with just the English language. Formerly a Dutch colony, Guyana was taken over by the British in 1831. While the Guyanese established independence over 50 years ago, English is still the official language. And though this is the only nation in South America to officially speak English, you will also hear their own version of Creole peppered in local conversation.
Coming from the Western World, a trip to Asia can seem intimidating at first glance. Eastern culture is certainly distinct in many ways, especially when it comes to language. Nearly every nation has a different alphabet, in addition to tonalities we’ve never come across before. Even if you have your dictionary in hand, you are likely to massively mispronounce each word without a ton of practice. The good news is that English is widely spoken throughout the majority of Asia — even on the islands.
Linguistically speaking, the Philippines is one of the most fascinating countries in Asia. (Yes, the food, landscapes, and people are also incredible.) While it was not the only Asian nation conquered by the Spanish, the conquistadors left an indelible mark on Filipinos. If you’ve ever spent time around Filipinos speaking in their native tongue, you may have noticed how similar Tagalog and Spanish sound. Given their eclectic linguistic history, it may not be such a surprise that English is widely spoken on the Philippines. In fact, it’s one of their two official languages, taught in schools nationwide and easily picked up from TV, in the papers, and on the street.
While it may be a small country, Singapore is home to four million people. It’s also one of Asia’s most affluent nations. Situated south of Malaysia, this island city state claims four official languages, including Malay, Mandarin, Tamil, and — you guessed it — English. Once a British colony, supposedly founded by Sir Thomas Raffles, Singaporeans still learn English (in addition to their families’ native tongues) from the time they’re children. For people with very different Indian, Chinese, and Malaysian roots, English acts as a common language. If you’re looking for cultural diversity, organization, and zero effort in communicating, Singapore is your ultimate destination.
Europe is one of the most popular destinations for tourists; roughly half of the most visited countries in the world are on this continent. Perhaps it’s the allure of romantic experiences that cities like Paris, Venice, and Porto promise. Maybe people want to visit Europe because of its art and architectural history, as found in Germany, Spain, and Hungary. No matter what the exact reason is, travelers continue their fascination with Europe. With Europeans confidently speaking three or more languages fluently — English commonly being among these — the appeal only proliferates.
Situated in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea, Malta used to be an Italian-speaking island. However, as of 1934, Maltese has been the country’s official language. Interestingly, their native tongue shares more roots with Arabic than any European dialect. Italian is still widely spoken; nonetheless, it is estimated that nearly 90 percent of the population speak English as. So if you’re looking to spend some time in the Mediterranean soaking up the sun without wracking your brain, Malta is the place to be. It’s important to note, however, that Maltese is written in Latin characters, and many people are very appreciative of any effort to speak their nation’s language.
Boasting the world’s most northern capital, Reykjavik, in addition to some serious alien-like landscapes, Iceland has relentlessly climbed the scale of most desirable destinations over the years. Even if English weren’t so widely spoken — as it most certainly is — this island would undoubtedly continue to attract people from all over the world. With its Viking past, its current lore of troll and fairy history, and its reputation for the best international vegan cuisine, this place isn’t going anywhere. While its official language is Icelandic, up to 98 percent of people in the service industry are fluent in English. It’s not easy to master or even understand the national language. Lucky for you, English-speakers will be understood in most places throughout the country.
The African continent is often overlooked as a destination due to widely held misconceptions and paranoiac safety concerns. Travelers who can look past these fallacies will be spectacularly rewarded with a dizzying diversity of gastronomic, cultural, religious, and geographic marvels. Africa encompasses 54 distinct countries, in which an estimated two thousand languages are spoken. All of this information can be overwhelming, as there is a complex history behind every country, especially here. If you are familiar with this continent’s past, you know that, like Latin America, much of the land was colonized by Europeans — especially the British. As such, even though decolonization transpired in the 1950s-60s, the English language has continued to flourish in many countries.
If you’re headed to Africa for the first time, skip the all-too-popular destination of Morocco and visit Ghana instead. Accra, the capital of Ghana, is one of the safest metropolitan cities on the continent, and English is widely spoken. While there are approximately 250 living languages in this West African country, English is the official tongue. Business matters are dealt with and the majority of media is produced in English. Otherwise known as Kru English, Ghanaian Pidgin English is a local adaptation of the language with its own pronunciation and phrases. If you’re interested in hearing the difference between Ghanaian and Nigerian English, which is described below, watch this humorous video.
On the west coast of the continent, you’ll find Africa’s most populous country. Nigeria, which boasts gorgeous shores on the Gulf of Guinea, observes over 500 currently spoken languages. For simplicity’s sake, however, one of its official languages is English. While the nation has been independent from colonial forces since 1914, relatively early in relative terms, English is commonly taught to young children in school. Whether you’re planning on visiting Nigeria’s capital, Abuja, its largest city, Lagos, or its many national parks, including Yankari and Cross River, you are bound to find many English-speaking locals. Even if the people you encounter haven’t been formally educated, they are likely to speak Nigerian Pidgin English, making your stay even more interesting.
If there is one region where the number of people speaking English may surprise you, it’s the Middle East. For the most part, British colonization was limited and didn’t arrive until the 18th Century. In comparison with other areas, this was very late. Perhaps because of the Ottoman Empire, Britain observed "a complex mix of respect, awe and fear" for the Islamic world. It is true that most countries have come to speak English as a direct influence of the centuries-long settlement of British colonizers. This isn’t the case for the Middle East, as Arabic is still the primary language within the region. Nonetheless, you’d be surprised how easy it is to get by in many Middle Eastern countries with English.
While it’s certainly a complex region for many reasons, Israel also has so much to offer in terms of history, gastronomy, and landscapes. The Holy Land was previously occupied by the British, and English was one of the country’s three official languages. The other two were — and continue to be — Hebrew and Arabic. However, when Israel gained independence from Britain, English was crossed off the list. Nonetheless, the language has persisted throughout the years. Most everyone you meet in Israel, including the Palestinian territories, will likely speak English. In school, both Jewish and Arabic children are taught each other’s languages for several years. In addition, English is taught as a foreign language and is held in high regard; the idiom is considered a gateway to professional success. No matter where you roam within the country, you’ll get by incredibly well, as even signage is often in English and either Hebrew or Arabic.
10. United Arab Emirates
Like most countries in the Middle East, the UAE’s official language is Arabic. This relatively tiny, affluent nation is bordered by Saudi Arabia and Oman. Home to over 10 million people, a massive 84 percent of its population is comprised of expatriates. As such, many languages are spoken throughout the country, such as Malay, Farsi, Hindi, and English. Perhaps due to its geographic location along the Persian Gulf, the UAE was a British colony until 1971. While Abu Dhabi is the nation’s capital, and worth a visit just to see the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, Dubai is the country’s largest city. If you’re headed there, you may be surprised by its diversity and that English is spoken everywhere — much more than Arabic.
So many countries use English today in the tourism and business sectors, making it much easier to travel as a monolinguist if this is your native tongue. As we’ve seen from the above 10 surprising places around the world that speak English, the presence of certain languages has multiple origins. British colonization is historically one of the main reasons for English-speaking populations, but that doesn’t paint the whole story. Many countries have adopted this language over the years — whether in school, on the street, or in the meeting room — and have made it their own. Fortunately for you, successfully communicating while traveling the world is only going to get easier in the coming years.
Cristina Luisa is an award-winning travel writer, photographer, and human/animal rights’ advocate. A native of the Bay Area, California, she possesses a B.A. in American Literature and Culture and an M.A. in Latin American Studies. So far, her solo adventures have led her to teach, volunteer, and travel extensively through 42+ countries. Currently, Cristina is working on her first travel memoir and settling into her new home in Colombia. You can read more about her travel addiction on Chronicles of a Travel Addict.