Portugese is also spoken in a lot of countries in South America, though Brazil is of course a main one.
I have heard that if you speak German then it will really help you get around in Eastern Europe, especially if your other language is English. Apparently there aren't very many English-speakers in Eastern Europe.
The experience Peter described about Germans refusing to speak English in the Netherlands comes as a surprise to me because while I was in Germany I found many Germans anxeous to practise their English on me. They learn English from a young age in schools now in Germany, so most of the younger people are very fluent. The older ones tend to not speak English, though, and people who live in small towns. And in the Netherlands EVERYONE speaks English!
Spanish is deffinately important. It is quite international, spoken in many parts of Latin America, on some streets in the USA, and in Spain, of course.
I don't really think that Chinese, either the Mandarin or Cantonese dialects, are really that useful unless you are going to be travelling to Hong Kong and mainland China. Where else do they speak it?
I do think that French is important, though. In France, people appreciate it if you try to speak French, and there are a few countries in Europe with French speaking people, France, obviously, as well as parts of Switzerland and in Belgium, too. There are similarities between French and Spanish and Italian, also, as they are all latin-based languages. French, as someone mentioned, is also spoken in parts of Africa, and unless you already speak a tonal langauge, it may be quite difficult to pick up Swahilli or another similar language once you are there. In Canada, nearly everyone who speaks French speaks English, also, and Canadian French is very flat in comparasen to Parisian French. They can't even understand each other. So it won't be useful in Quebec.
I guess I am doing this a little backwards. These paragraphs aren't in any particular order, just how I thought of them. In order of importance I would say the most important languages to know would be:
Numbers 3 and 4 are still a bit of a toss-up, though.
there are two languages i can handle---Chinese and English, i've got great helps becuz i speak them very well while travelling...
my mom was lost in Koeln, and she doesn't speak any English , but she recognize Chinese ppl who finally found her way back...
I noticed that a lot of Europeans speak German, even they don't know how to speak , they understand...
Quoting bluewaav: "I don't really think that Chinese, either the Mandarin or Cantonese dialects, are really that useful unless you are going to be travelling to Hong Kong and mainland China. Where else do they speak it?"
There are many Chinese in other countries too, especially Malaysia (about 26% or 5mil) and Singapore (about 80% or 3mil) in the south-east Asia. There are quite a sizeable populations of Chinese in Indonesia, Thailand and Vietman too.
Speaking of Malaysia and Singapore, even though most people in this two countries speak English, there are quite many (about 30-35%) who don't, made up mostly by the older generations (>40years).
Then, there are many Chinese communities in other countries as well.
Mandarin is more important than Cantonese. Cantonese is spoken mainly by the Hongkongers and the Chinese in Guangzhou. Mandarin on the other hand is the official language in China and is used as the medium of teaching in Chinese schools outside China.
Just a small correction Blueaway,
In South America, Brasil is the only country where portuguese is spoken.
In Africa it's the official language of five former portuguese colonies: Cabo Verde, Angola, Guiné, São Tomé e Príncipe and Moçambique. In Macau (China) some people still speak it, as it was part of the portuguese territory until recently.
Thanks Hien and Tiagops for the info. I have never been to South America or Asia, so I guess that is why I didn't know that. I knew they spoke portugese in Brasil, but I guess I assumed they must speak it elsewhere in South America, which apparently isn't the case. And I had no idea so many people in east Asia spoke Mandarin! Well, I stand corrected.
I would add to the list Japanese, if you want to be a travel guide. Everywhere I travel I see Japanese tourists. They seldom travel alone, but in "school" like fish!
From what I read in this forum, I guess it should be especially English and Spanish? Well I need to know a language where if I can't speak it it will be difficult to survive. I hear that French people don't (want to) speak English, is it true? What about people in Greece, Italy, & Spain, do they speak English? Because I only speak English & a little Japanese, beside my mother-tongue.
I would strongly recommend Japanese IF you will go to Japan. Because most Japanese people don't speak English...except if you to Tokyo or Kyoto...you will find some people who speaks English. But in most part of Japan, it's difficult. I was really happy when in Kyoto I met a traveller from the Netherlands who spoke English. It was like I met someone familiar... Well maybe I was Lost In Translation, like in the movie...
When I was in Japan, I was forced to speak Japanese although my skill is not good, I found it useful...at least I can buy drinks and food when I got hungry at train stations I brought my mini Japanese-English dictionary. Still sometimes I found it difficult to make people understand what I meant when our conversation were getting a little bit complicated.
I agree with Peter, next question is: which PHRASES do we need to know? Will anyone share?
Fair point about how some countries people may be less willing/able to speak English.
For instance, in Germany or Holland or Northern Europe really English should do just fine. Most everyone can communicate a little in English. Strangely while I was in Amsterdam yesterday, I even asked someone something in Dutch (which I don't really have an accent in either mind you) and got an answer back in English - I think the waiter didn't even speak Dutch!!! I found last year in Rome that Italians would actually rather speak English to you as well if you don't know Italian very well. In Spain, it was not nearly so easy to get by without using some Spanish. And Paris certainly, it is very hard to get by without knowing at least some french. Even at the (international) airport, the person at the information desk was totally unwilling to speak to me in English!!!
Oh, another thing I've been noticing in bookshops recently are these little picture books that seem VERY handy to me. You can just point at pictures of colours, maps, food, etc.. to get your question across. You know what they say; pictures say more than a thousand words. Has anyone every used these books? I'm thinking of getting one for Eastern Europe.
You really only need english. Any other language is nice to learn, but english is a must, and choosing which other language would suit you best would only matter if you were to pick one specific country or sub-region to spend all your time in. So I say learn a little bit of the languages of the places you travel, get better at english, but don't waste your time learning a new language unless your really going to use it. And if you don't use it, you'll lose it.