Landscape in east asia

The Best Languages to Learn for Doing Business in Southeast Asia

Southeast Asia is a region that is rich in cultural heritage, and it is also a region full of languages. But if you are interested in doing business in the region, it may be overwhelming to attempt to determine which languages you should focus on. Here’s a look at the languages that will allow you to communicate effectively with the most people in Southeast Asia.


There are more than 80 million Vietnamese speakers worldwide, and although it has more speakers than those fluent in Dutch or Italian, it is still widely regarded as a ‘niche’ language. But despite an admittedly steep learning curve, it may be a language worth learning due to the alluring job prospects in Vietnam’s rapidly expanding economy. Also known as Annamese, Vietnamese can prove difficult for Westerners due to the six vocal tones that are required to speak the language effectively. However, this means that not many people study the language, so you could have some exciting ground-floor opportunities if this is a language you can master.


In Thailand, people consider it a great compliment if a foreigner can speak Thai. This will automatically win you some points in the business world if Thailand is a market into which you are interested in expanding. As in Vietnamese, vocal tones come into play in Thai, and they are not easy to learn. But often, people in Thailand can understand what is being said through context, even if you don’t get the tones perfect.


There are a huge number of Chinese people living in Southeast Asia, making Mandarin a useful language all over the region. There are 6 million Chinese people in Malaysia, making up 34% of the population; 6 million in Indonesia (3 percent); 6 million in Thailand (14 percent); and 2 million in Singapore (76 percent of the population). So regardless of where you’re interested in expanding your business, Mandarin will most definitely come in handy.

[Note: If you’re looking for more recommended reading on written Chinese dialects, read our previous post that compares Simplified Chinese vs Traditional Chinese.

If you’re looking for recommended reading on spoken Chinese dialects, read our previous post that looks at the differences between Cantonese and Mandarin.]

In many areas of Southeast Asia, you will find that people can speak conversational English. But if you want to market your product or service, or if you are interested in finding international business partners or customers and clients, then learning one of their many languages if most definitely the way to go.

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