You know that language will always be a concern when you leave the nation, whether you’re a monolingual English speaker or a polyglot with enough language skills to put the United Nations to shame.
When English is your only language, you may want to restrict your travels to countries where you can get by with what you know. And, luckily for you, you have a lot of choices.
According to The Telegraph’s graphic, there are 45 countries in the world where English is spoken by at least half of the population. This club contains well-known members such as Australia and Ireland, as well as a surprising number of newcomers, such as the Philippines, Guyana, Liberia, Malaysia, Nigeria, and Estonia.
You may also broaden your horizons by including countries like Pakistan, Papua New Guinea, Sri Lanka, Croatia, Nepal, Latvia, and Italy, where more than a third of the population speaks English.
If, on the other hand, you’re the type of person who takes traveling and language study seriously, you’re definitely looking for an adventure without training wheels. This list is for you if this sounds like you—or even if you’re just curious about which countries speak the least English.
The Research Methodology
According to The Telegraph, we initially looked at the 13 countries where less than 10% of the population speaks English to narrow down this list. China, Gambia, Malawi, Colombia, Swaziland, Brazil, Russia, Argentina, Algeria, Uganda, Yemen, Chile, and Tanzania are among these countries.
The EF English Competency Index, which assesses countries based on their English language proficiency, was also employed. This indicator is based on test results from adult language learners, so it is skewed toward students and adults just starting out in their careers. However, the gender and age distributions are generally balanced.
According to the EPI, the Netherlands rated #1 in ESL (English as a Second Language) ability, followed by Sweden, Denmark, Norway, and Singapore, according to the EPI.
Iran, Egypt, Kazakhstan, Venezuela, El Salvador, Oman, Mongolia, Saudi Arabia, Angola, Kuwait, Cameroon, Libya, Iraq, and Laos were the 15 countries with the lowest scores, in order of strength to weakness.
If you haven’t noticed, the overlap isn’t always straightforward. For example, China, which is at the center of the EF index, is a place where kids can easily study English. According to data from The Telegraph, less than 1% of Chinese individuals can converse in English.
Furthermore, despite the fact that English is an official language and there is a thriving tourism business in The Gambia, only about 3% of the population speaks it. Malawi also has English as an official language.
This only goes to show that you can’t always rely on a single piece of information to determine how well you’ll be able to traverse a country using solely English as a guide.
Here’s our roundup of the most difficult tourist destinations for travelers who want to use no English once they arrive, based on a combination of the above data (plus some consideration of whether tourists are welcome at all, or whether you’d be likely to encounter English-language signage in these places).
Note that these are not listed in any particular order, and this is by no means an exhaustive list of which countries have the fewest English-speaking speakers.
Despite China’s ranking of 36th on the EF EPI, The Telegraph reports that the vast majority of individuals (more than 99 percent) do not consider themselves to be English speakers. Though you may see some English on restaurant menus (which is more than probable if you’re dining at a tourist trap), if you don’t speak Mandarin, you’ll have a difficult time navigating around, especially because you won’t be able to rely on the Latin alphabet. Of course, this varies depending on where you are in China, where younger individuals are more likely to speak English. You can get by using only English in Hong Kong, which scored somewhat higher on the EPI than China. In 2012, 46% of Hong Kong citizens could communicate in English. Large cities, such as Beijing and Shanghai, are likely to be more welcoming to English speakers. If you’re looking for a challenge, visit a smaller city or town.
Russia was ranked 38th on the EPI, just behind China, but with 5.48 percent of the population speaking English—not to mention a foreign alphabet you won’t be able to read—it’s a difficult place to visit. Large cities, such as Moscow and St. Petersburg, are once again more acclimated to English speakers. According to census data from 2002, 7 million individuals out of 145 million in Russia speak English, with the majority of those living in Moscow.
Colombia, which ranks 51st (out of 80) on the EPI index, is one Latin American country where you’re unlikely to meet many English-speakers. Colombia, on the other hand, has become a considerably more attractive tourist destination in recent years as it has shed its previous image. Tourist destinations, like Cartagena, are likely to be more accommodating to English speakers. However, even in large cities like Bogotá and Medell, you’ll need to use your Spanish skills to get around.
Brazil is a fantastic place for a Portuguese student to study. Only 5% of Brazilians speak English, despite the country’s being 41st in the EPI index. On the other hand, about 99 percent of the population speaks Portuguese (that’s pretty much everyone). Here’s a rundown of the most widely spoken languages in Brazil.
This smaller Southeast Asian country ranks worst in the EPI index, and it’s also a place where your English is unlikely to go very far. According to one blogger, China and Vietnam are the two least English-friendly Asian countries, with Laos a close third. People who speak Lao, the country’s official language, will also speak French and smaller minority languages, like the Khmu and Hmong languages.