Visiting South East Asia? It’s a good idea to learn some local languages.
If you’re visiting South East Asia you’re well placed to have a great time by speaking English. A lot of locals do speak English well, and there are many labels in supermarkets, shops and otherwise that are in English.
However, if you are the type of person who goes off the beaten track it is particularly helpful to know some of the local language. This will help you to:
- Ask for directions
- Speak with locals
- Ask what different things are
- Understand local customs and events
- Avoid offending people
- Get local transport
The question is, which language should you learn and, is it a good idea to learn multiple languages?
Which Language To Learn If You Travel To South East Asia
There are eleven countries in South East Asia including; Brunei, Myanmar, Cambodia, Timor-Leste, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, The Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.
Unlike areas like South America, where English is predominantly spoken (some local TV shows use American accent voice overs), South East Asia has a lot of different languages being spoken within it. Lao, Thai, Burmese, Khymer, Vietnamese, Tagalog, Malay and Indonesian are spoken, as well as some Chinese dialects.
So, which language should you learn if you’re travelling across multiple parts of South East Asia? Here are some helpful suggestions:
Laos – English is not spoken well in Laos so you could learn some Lao to help get you by. Lots of the media in Laos is from Thailand, so learning some Thai will also be helpful. Interestingly, the parts of Laos bordering with China also contain locals who speak some Chinese so a little bit of Chinese can also be helpful.
Thailand – Lots of Thai people speak English, largely in part because the country relies on tourism and there has been a push to ‘internationalise’ the country to boost visitor numbers and experience. There are also voice over and subtitle options on TV in hotels and bars, and English labelling in restaurants and shops. However, knowing some Thai will be helpful if only to get to know locals a bit better, and if you are travelling into Laos.
Indonesia – The Indonesian language is the easiest to learn across all South East Asian languages. The sounds and the alphabet are really easy to pronounce compared to other South East Asian languages. Most people in Indonesia are very happy to speak in the language too, making it easy to get to know the culture better.
Cambodia – Thai is spoken in areas of Cambodia, namely by workers who are originally from Thailand, or within areas that are on the borders. It is a challenging language to learn though, so don’t worry about only understanding a few phrases as they should get you by.
Vietnam – Vietnamese is spoken by 75 million people and is a challenging language to learn, but in some remote areas you may need at least some phrases to get by. In busier areas of Vietnam English is more widely spoken so you should be able to get by OK overall, although even then it never hurts to know a little of the local language.
A Little Bit Of Every Language Helps In South East Asia
The main languages spoken in South East Asia are Thai and Burmese, however Khymer is spoken most commonly in Cambodia, and Vietnamese is spoken most commonly in Vietnam. So realistically, a little bit of everything will come in handy on a full trip around South East Asia. If you are only going to one country, you can specify more, otherwise, arm yourself with common phrases in a few main languages so you’re prepared for all of your exciting explorations.