If you’re searching the internet for information about English in Asia, chances are you can’t speak any Asian languages. Having studied Chinese, Japanese and Thai myself, I can understand why you might feel apprehensive about this—they’re not easy!
On the other hand, being able to speak some of the local language in Asian countries where you travel is priceless, even if the local population can speak some English. This will gain you a lot of respect—it will show that you respect the country—and may allow you to communicate with people with whom conversation would otherwise be off-limits.
Below, I’ll explain some of the benefits and advantages of learning a language before you travel in Asia, and some of the most valuable Asian languages to learn. I’ll then give an overview of where in Asia people tend to speak the most English.
Why to Learn a Foreign Language Before You Visit Asia
I won’t lie: It’s often possible to speak English in Asia, even if it’s just perfunctory chatter with the person who checks you in at the hotel or takes your food order. But why not flip that dynamic around? Even if you only end up learning enough of your target language to tell the taxi where to go, or to bargain for the price of a souvenir, travel is so much more rewarding when you experience it linguistically.
As far as which is the easiest language to learn in Asia? That’s a loaded question! I’d say tonal languages like Chinese, Thai and Vietnamese are the most difficult, while Japanese and Korean are also challenging because of the character and alphabet systems they use. The languages (Bahasa) of Indonesia and Malaysia are known to be pretty straightforward, although the Malaysian version is not as useful since to many people there speak English.
Best Asian Languages to Learn
Given that rates of English speaking in China are the lowest in Asia, Mandarin Chinese is probably the most important language to learn for travel. Unfortunately, it’s also the most difficult: It’s a tonal language and uses a character-based writing system. With this being said, knowing even basic Chinese expressions and how to count can be hugely helpful when you travel.
Japan is another place plagued by some of the fewest numbers of people who speak English in Asia. Unlike Chinese, Japanese isn’t tonal; you can write Japanese words using the hiragana and katakana alphabets if you don’t know the kanji characters. Speaking Japanese is especially helpful when visiting smaller cities and towns in Japan, particularly in restaurants.
While Thai has five tones like Mandarin, it uses an alphabet, rather than a character system. This makes reading Thai (which can allow you to learn words from context, as well as to sound out menu items and other written materials) much easier than Chinese or Japanese. Given the tendency of merchants in Thailand to scam foreigners, knowing some phaasaa Thai can help you get “local” prices!
While Malaysia is one of the easiest places to speak English in Asia, this is not always true in neighboring Indonesia. On the other hand, both of these countries speak a similar language, which was “created” in the mid-20th century as a common language to unite the disparate ethnic and tribal groups spread across the Indonesia archipelago. Bahasa (which simply means “language”) is non-tonal, and uses the Latin alphabet.
As Korean culture becomes more popular around the world, more and more people have exposure to some Korean language. While Korean isn’t necessarily useful outside of Korea (and K-pop or K Dramas), it will make your time in Korea much easier. The Korean alphabet is known to be very easy; the language has grammatical similarities to Japanese, which makes Hangul much easier to learn if you can speak Nihongo.
Where in Asia Are They Fluent in English?
As I mentioned a few paragraphs up, people in Malaysia speak very good English, since it was once a British colony. This also also true in Myanmar, for the same reason; Singaporeans speak good English due to the city’s hub as an international finance center. Surprisingly, I’ve found English to be widely spoken in Cambodia, to a much greater extent than neighboring countries like Thailand and Vietnam.
The Philippines is also one of the easiest places to speak English in Asia, along with India (although accents here can be pretty strong). Hong Kongers have historically spoken a lot of English, although that’s becoming less true the more time passes since the “handover.” Finally, Taiwanese people speak much more English than their counterparts in mainland China.
Other FAQ About Speaking English in Asia
Is English widely spoken in Asia?
English is widely spoken in certain Asian countries, such as the Philippines, India, Singapore, Malaysia and Myanmar. In countries like Thailand and Japan, meanwhile, only people in foreigner-facing occupations can speak English; it can be impossible to get by only with English in most of China.
Which countries speak English in Asia?
You can find English speakers in many countries of Asia, but it’s only an official language for a few of them, such as Singapore and India. In most cases, you’ll be able to speak English to anyone who works in a hotel or restaurant in Asia, but certain countries (namely China, but also sometimes Japan and Korea) are an exception to this rule.
Is English spoken in China?
It’s easier to find English speakers in large, international Chinese cities such as Beijing, Shanghai and Chengdu than it is in smaller cities or rural areas. At the same time, there are plenty of instances in seemingly cosmopolitan Chinese cities where it’s almost impossible to get by without speaking some Mandarin Chinese.
The Bottom Line
Although it’s often possible to English in Asia, learning local languages before you travel offers many benefits. Beyond showing respect for local people and their culture, speaking a few words or phrases can make it much easier for you to travel through a given country. Moreover, if you achieve some level of fluency, this can unlock conversations with interesting people who simply don’t speak English. Regardless of when you plan to take your next trip to Asia, now is the best time to start studying. Here’s to making mistakes—and learning from them—and valuing connection and communication over perfection!