9 Surprising Foreign Destinations Where You Don’t Need to Speak the Language

See recent posts by Claire Shefchik

Learning a foreign language can be a rewarding experience, allowing you to communicate and befriend folks of different cultures while you travel the globe. Trying to communicate with someone in a language you don't understand when all you want is a train ticket or an extra pillow, however, can be stressful and downright frustrating. Luckily, your options extend beyond solely England, if you don't feel like stumbling over an unfamiliar local language, but still want to sip exotic cocktails whose ingredients you can confidently inquire about. Many people -- expats and locals -- living in some of the world's most far-flung foreign destinations converse in English -- and do it well, at that. Here, nine that might just surprise you.

1. Belize

Since it sits smack in the middle of Central America, many American tourists are surprised to learn that Belize is actually part of the British Commonwealth and has much more in common — culturally speaking — with Caribbean islands like Jamaica than it does with neighboring Guatemala. All of which is to say you can certainly use English (the country’s official language) while exploring Mayan ruins deep in the jaguar-dotted rainforest or snorkeling with moray eels in the popular Hol Chan Marine Reserve.

2. Iceland

Strategically located between North America and Europe, it would be foolish not to stop at this volcanic Nordic island country, which is home to the steaming, sky-blue waters of the Blue Lagoon, spectacular sights of the Northern Lights, and top-notch whale watching. Even better, native Icelanders make it a downright breeze for travelers to visit. Here, English is a mandatory subject in primary school, giving locals the opportunity to fluently converse with visitors.

3. Singapore

This prosperous former British city-state is one of the few southeast Asian destinations whose inhabitants are mostly all proficient in English. The three main ethnic groups of Singapore grow up speaking either Mandarin, Malay, or Tamil. When they get together, however, they are known to pepper their native language with English phrases, giving birth to the creole known as “Singlish.” In fact, 80 percent of the population speaks standard English (it’s even the predominant language used inside classrooms). So, what are you waiting for? Go ahead and get to exploring the colonial character of the Central Business District and the island’s spectacular vertical gardens known as “supertrees.” 

4. Malta

Home to ancient temples, churches, and cobbled coastal cityscapes straight out of a fantasy storybook, this destination is a must-hit when island-hopping in the Mediterranean. The native language, Maltese, is a hybrid of Arabic and Sicilian that arose in the 11th century. It uses the Latin alphabet, but bears little to no resemblance to any language in surrounding Europe. Through the years, English has even become widely spoken — close to 90 percent of the population can communicate in it, to be more specific. So, while the Maltese appreciate when travelers make an effort to learn their language, they are also quite happy responding fluently in English.

5. South Africa

English is just one of the 11 official languages of South Africa, but rest assured that wherever you go in this vast and varied country — whether spotting elephants and hyenas in Kruger National Park or tasting the fruits of its vineyards — you’ll be able to use it. Although only around nine percent of South Africans speak English as their native language (you may hear Zulu, Xhosa, or Afrikaans spoken on the street), it’s not only understood in many urban areas, but it’s the main language used in industries like business, finance, government, media, and more.

6. Fiji

Travelers flock to this stunning former British colony in the South Pacific to marvel over the overwater bungalows, turquoise ocean, and shimmering white sand. Once they’ve arrive, they’ll likely hear both Fijian, a Polynesian language spoken by the indigenous population, and Fiji Hindi, which was brought to the island by Indian migrant workers during colonial times. However, most Fijians study English (the other official language) and can communicate in it quite easily. If you stay long enough, you might even become acquainted with the informal Finglish, English with native Fijian words thrown in.

7. India

The Leela Palace New Delhi

Home to more than one billion people, this is the second most populous country in the world. It is also (naturally) home to a mind-blowing array of native languages, including Hindi, Kannada, Tamil, Bengali, and more. Given this diversity, it’s not surprising that English has become a lingua franca. Indians picked up English from the colonizing Brits and continued to use it even after India gained its independence. The country has an overwhelming amount to offer travelers, from mountains in the northeast to stunning beaches in Goa to the dizzying cityscapes in New Delhi.

8. Netherlands

While the Dutch have a rich, native culture, they also pride themselves on the fluency of their English, which they learn in school from a young age. Approximately 90 percent report being able to hold a conversation in English. In fact, they will occasionally switch from Dutch to English to make matters easier, even if you make an effort to speak it. So whether you’re admiring Dutch Golden Age paintings at the museums in Amsterdam or relaxing in a turn-of-the-century hotel in The Hague, you can be confident that your English will you get you wherever you need to go. 

9. Philippines

There are about 175 languages spoken on this cluster of more than 7,000 islands, which were under Spanish control for many years. But it only has two official ones — English (approximately 80 percent) and Tagalog. Filipinos grow up studying English in school and hearing it on television and in movies. And while most speak basic English, the well-educated speak the language fluently. This makes it a popular destination for visitors from the U.S., Great Britain, and Australia, who come to splash and party on the beaches of Boracay and Palawan. 

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