Traveling With Only English


One of the reasons Americans don’t generally travel overseas is the lack of ability to speak a second language. Those Americans who do speak a second language generally travel only to countries where that language is spoken. If your second language is Spanish, you have quite a few options for your travels; South America, Central America, and even Europe. If your second language is Italian, you may think your vacation choices are limited. That’s just not the case though. Speaking only English shouldn’t hinder you from traveling, even to Europe where dozens of languages exist. The very fact that there are dozens of languages spoken in Europe actually helps you during your travels. While most people in Italy speak Italian to each other, when they travel to other counties their language of choice is English. Even in some of the smaller European countries you can find English speakers in many of the hotels, and even some of the smaller restaurants and shops. While you may not find any English speakers in some of the smaller towns, most big cities will have their fair share of English speakers. As a matter of fact there was a study conducted in 2006 where 13% of participants living in Europe listed English as their first language. Another 38% of those surveyed stated they knew enough English to have a limited conversation. While that study’s conclusion is that 51% of those in Europe speak English, it’s highly unlikely that half the people you run into will be able to converse with you. A large majority of that 51% live in the UK, where English is the primary language. Still though, the UK hardly constitutes 51% of the population of Europe, so there are still many people outside of the UK who speak at least a little English.

Let’s look at some of the most widely traveled countries in Europe, and see whether or not a person speaking only English could get by. We’ll ignore England, Scotland, and Ireland for now since you will obviously, although with a little difficulty, be able to converse with people in those countries.

This island in the Mediterranean would be your best bet for an exotic location in Europe where English is widely spoken. While Greek and Turkish are the official languages of Cyprus, it’s estimated that around 80% of the residents of this island speak at least a little English. Placed under British protection during World War I Cyprus maintained English as its official second language all the way up until 1996 when it was still being used in the legislature. Even since then the residents of this island speak English both to tourists, and amongst themselves.

Another island in the Mediterranean, Malta, offers visitors warm days, beautiful ocean views, and a wealth of archeological sites. It also just so happens that English, thanks to British occupiers in the 1800’s, is one of the official languages of the island. While only 12% of the residents on Malta stated that they prefer to speak in English, 88% of them considered English their second language. English only speaking tourists should have no problem in this Mediterranean tourist destination.

Although English isn’t one of Norway’s official languages, it is the second language taught in all primary schools. Most of the residents of Norway have an excellent grasp of the English language, and anyone traveling to this country would be able to find someone to converse with.

Here’s another country you should have no problems finding an English speaking resident in. Even though Sweden is quite large, its population density is pretty low. Most Swedes live in the south of Sweden, and 85% of its residents live in urban areas. It may be no coincidence then that a full 86% of the residents of Sweden consider English to be a second language. Here, almost no matter what area of Sweden you visit, you should be able to find someone to talk to.

Due to the large influx of Western culture brought to Germany after WWII it’s estimated that a full 64% of Germans can speak English conversationally. Good news for those Americans who would like to visit for an authentic Oktoberfest, or take in a tour of one of the many breweries Germany has. While some of the smaller villages, particularly those in the eastern part of the country, may cause some difficulty, your shouldn’t have any problems with language in any of the large, to mid-sized cities.

This picturesque country is starting to see a rise in American tourists. While I’m sure this has more to do with the beautiful towns, and its rich history, it doesn’t hurt that 60% of its residents can speak English. It really doesn’t matter where you travel in Belgium, even in some of the smallest towns you should be able to find someone to help you with directions, or to recommend the best restaurant in town.

France gets a bit of a bad rap for shunning the use of the English language. I’m not sure I can blame them though. France has had a long history of being at war with English speaking nations, and while their pride may keep them from conversing in English, almost 40% of them admit to being able to. I imagine this has more to do with tourism than anything. France gets millions of English speaking tourists a year, and most learn the language out of necessity. If you try to at least learn a few French terms, such as greetings, and how to order food and drinks, you’ll find some of the French residents opening up to you a little and breaking out their English language skills.

Another tourism hot spot in Europe, Italy, hosts a high number of people who know at least enough English to help you get by. About a third of Italian citizens say they speak enough English to be conversational. This varies greatly though between the rural and urban areas. While 50% of the people in Rome may speak English, those numbers drop dramatically once you get outside of the large cities. As a matter of fact in most of the small rural villages the numbers may drop to near zero. If you’re only interested in the larger cities you should be fine without knowing any Italian. Once you decide to travel the countryside though things might start to get a little more difficult for you.

While a third of the people in Poland speak enough English to be able to help most tourists, those numbers reflect, mostly, younger adults living in the larger cities. Most everyone over the age of forty was raised with Russian as a second language. Once the Cold War ended, and Poland began to see more Western influences, the choice of second language shifted from Russian to English. Again though, you won’t find too many people outside of the city who have even a passing knowledge of any English words. You’re best learning at least a little Polish should you be vacationing in the countryside.

The further you go east in Europe, the less likely it is that English can be understood. Turkey, on the far eastern fringe of Europe, is a good example. Turkey is one of the larger countries in Europe, yet only around 11% of the population speaks English. In order for you to find someone who speaks conversational English you’re going to have to be in one of the large cities, and most likely speaking to someone under the age of thirty. Right now it seems the only Turks who speak English are those who work in tourism, or those in university who are studying business. Other than that you may want to polish up on some of the key phrases you’re going to need.

While only an estimated 6% of Russians speak any English, that percentage needs to take into account the staggering amount of people that live in Russia. While the percentage of English speakers is low, there are still almost as many English speakers in Russia as in Sweden. They’re just a little harder to find. Again, large university towns are going to be your best bet. With Russia starting to emulate the west’s fascination with capitalism though, these numbers are expected to rise.

As you can see you can travel throughout most of Europe and find people who can speak at least a little English. Your odds lessen the further you travel outside of the tourist destinations, or large cities though. If you’re adamant about not learning another language, you have plenty of European cities to choose from. If you should find yourself in a small town though, and can’t find anyone who speaks English, just try to keep calm. The worst thing you can do is to keep repeating the same phrase in English, over and over again, speaking louder each time you repeat it. All that will do is keep you flustered, and upset whoever you’re speaking to. If possible learn at least a little of the language spoken in the country you’re traveling to, or at least carry a small phrase book with you. You’d be surprised how much information you can gather with just a small phrase book, some hand gestures, and a little patience.

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