Whether you’re a monolingual English speaker or a polyglot with enough language skill to put the United Nations to shame, you know that language will always be a factor when you leave the country.
When English is your only language, you might choose to limit your travels by only visiting countries where you’ll manage to get by on what you know. And fortunately for you, you have plenty of options.
According to this map put together by The Telegraph, there are 45 countries in the world where at least half of the population speaks English. This club includes obvious members like Australia and Ireland, but it also includes a lot of unexpected ones, like the Philippines, Guyana, Liberia, Malaysia, Nigeria and Estonia.
You could also widen your umbrella a little bit further by including countries where more than a third of residents speak English, such as Pakistan, Papua New Guinea, Sri Lanka, Croatia, Nepal, Latvia and Italy.
But if you’re the kind of person who takes traveling and language learning seriously, then you’re probably eager for an experience that won’t come with training wheels. If this sounds like you — or even if you’re just curious to learn where you’re least likely to encounter English speakers — this list is for you.
To narrow down this list, we first looked at the 13 countries where fewer than 10 percent of the population speaks English, according to The Telegraph. These include China, The Gambia, Malawi, Colombia, Swaziland, Brazil, Russia, Argentina, Algeria, Uganda, Yemen, Chile and Tanzania.
We also used the EF English Proficiency Index, which ranks countries according to their English language proficiency. This index is calculated using test scores from adult language learners, which makes it somewhat biased toward students and people at the beginning of their careers. The gender and age distribution is fairly balanced, however.
According to the EPI, the Netherlands was ranked first in its ESL abilities (English as a second language), followed by Sweden, Denmark, Norway and Singapore.
The 15 weakest-scoring countries, in order of strongest to weakest, were Iran, Egypt, Kazakhstan, Venezuela, El Salvador, Oman, Mongolia, Saudi Arabia, Angola, Kuwait, Cameroon, Libya, Iraq and Laos.
The overlap isn’t necessarily straightforward, in case you haven’t noticed. For instance, China is a country where students may readily study English, placing it in the middle of the EF index. But less than 1 percent of people in China speak English conversationally, according to The Telegraph‘s data.
Additionally, there are fewer than 3 percent of people in The Gambia who speak English, even though English is an official language and there’s a busy tourism industry there. English is also an official language in Malawi.
This just goes to show that you can’t always rely on one piece of data to gauge how well you’ll be able to navigate a country using only English as your guide.
Using a combination of the above data (plus some consideration for whether tourists are welcome at all, or whether you’d be likely to encounter English-language signage in these places), here’s our roundup of most challenging tourist destinations for travelers who want to use zero English once they land.
Note: these come in no particular order, and this is by no means an exhaustive list.
Though China ranks 36th on the EF EPI, the vast majority of people (more than 99 percent, according to The Telegraph) do not count themselves as English speakers. Though you might encounter some English on restaurant menus (which is more than likely if you’re dining at a tourist trap), you’ll probably have a hard time getting around if you don’t know Mandarin — especially because you won’t be able to rely on the Latin alphabet. Of course, it depends on where you are in China, and younger people are more likely to know a bit of English. In Hong Kong, which ranked slightly higher on the EPI than China, you can get by fairly easily using just English. As of 2012, 46 percent of Hong Kong residents could speak English. Big cities like Beijing and Shanghai are also likely to be more accommodating to English speakers. If you’re looking for a challenge, try visiting a smaller city or town.
Russia ranked just below China on the EPI at 38th, but with 5.48 percent of its population speaking English — not to mention a foreign alphabet you won’t be able to easily read — this definitely counts as a challenging travel destination. Once again, big cities like Moscow and St. Petersburg are more accustomed to English speakers. According to 2002 census data, 7 million out of 145 million people speak English in Russia, and the majority of those people live in Moscow.
Colombia is one Latin American country where you’re unlikely to encounter very many English speakers, and it ranks 51st (out of 80) on the EPI index. Colombia has become a much more popular tourist destination over the last several years as it’s shed its former reputation, however. Places that are popular among tourists, like Cartagena, will probably be more amenable to English speakers. But even in big cities like Bogotá and Medellín, you’ll need to rely on your Spanish knowledge to help you get around.
For a student of Portuguese, Brazil makes an ideal destination. Though it ranks 41st on the EPI index, only 5 percent of Brazilians speak English. In contrast, roughly 99 percent speak Portuguese (so, pretty much everyone). Here’s a complete overview of the most-spoken languages in Brazil.
This smaller Southeast Asian country brings up the rear of the EPI index, and it’s also one country where your English probably won’t get you very far. One blogger ranked China and Vietnam as the two least English-friendly Asian countries, and Laos as a close third. Instead, you’ll encounter various regional dialects of the country’s official language, Lao, in addition to a little bit of French and smaller minority tongues spoken by the Khmu and Hmong peoples.