The most spoken languages

The data are from a couple of years ago but English remains by a long way the number one language of international publishing.

One challenge with compiling this list is that some countries, for example the USA, do not have an official language (despite various attempts to introduce one). In these cases, the de facto languages of the country have been counted, which naturally raises questions of its own. In other places, measuring what counts as a de facto language can be a challenge.

This list shows the influence of European colonial histories on the worlds linguistic map. Languages with a large number of native speakers like Japanese and Mandarin have not travelled far beyond Asia, unlike the Western European languages that colonists spread to all corners of the world.

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An interesting way of looking at the development of international languages is via internet aggregates information from various sources to create a list of the internets top languages by number of users.

This information, based on number of native speakers, comes fromEthnologue, a widely-respected encyclopaedia of the worlds living languages. At the time of the last update, there were 7105 living languages, but that figure is likely to have decreased since then as languages become extinct. Since Ethnologue started counting in 1950, they calculate 6 languages have gone extinct each year.

Compared to the list of total native speakers, this one is relatively easy to measure. Of the languages listed, Arabic provides the greatest challenge because the spoken languages that fall under the umbrella of Arabic are not all mutually intelligible. However, Standard Arabic is used as the written language in countries where dialects of Arabic are spoken.

The Economists Johnson blog has aninteresting articleon the languages of Wikipedia.

But this doesnt quite illustrate how central English is to the web. Arecent piece of researchby a pair of Googlers shows the percentage of links going to and from websites in various languages. Unsurprisingly, many more links are pointed at English-language sites from other languages than the other way around.

Encyclopaedia Britannicasuggests the following list, which seemingly combines native speakers with non-native speakers:

English remains the worlds most important international language by most measures except for the number of total native speakers, but measuring this can be difficult in itself. A report published by the British Councilestimatesthat around 2 billion people will be learning English at any one time during the next decade. But even then, more than two thirds of the world will not speak English.

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So, with that in mind, here are some statistics:

Even organisations that set out to present information as neutrally as possible are dependent on censuses and surveys for their information. For example, the EUs Eurobarometer reports rely on asking people in which languages apart from their mother tongue they can hold a conversation. Self-assessment is notoriously tricky and people will hold themselves to different standards, especially when it comes tolearning languages.

A more informal way of measuring the languages of the internet would be to look at the number of articles in each language on Wikipedia:

When looking at the numbers, it is important to remember that the exact figures are difficult to measure. For example, when the US government asks about languages in acensus, they state an approximate accuracy of 90%. In a country of (approximately) 312 million inhabitants, thats a margin of error of (approximately) 31 million people. When it comes to measuring in India, home to two of the listed languages and over a billion people, the challenges are multiplied.

The rankings are based on internet penetration per country and seem to assign a generous value added dollop of users to English for the many people who are assumed to speak English as a second language and use it for browsing the web.

UNESCO measures the number of books published by each country per year. Correlating the data for various countries, the British Council gives the following figures:

The tables give an interesting view of the worlds most spoken and written languages. Three of the worlds ten most widely spoken mother tongues are barely used for publishing, the internet or international communication: fields where English is dominant. Two of these are Indian languages and educated speakers would be expected to speak English fluently as a second language.

What is the worlds most spoken language? The answer depends on how you choose to measure. Some statistics are harder to measure than others; all should be taken with a pinch of salt. For example, estimates for how many people speak a language as a second language are often put forward by people with some political or financial interest in making a certain language appear more or less important. This can skew their estimates.

Estimating the number of second language speakers is extremely difficult and even the best estimates involve a fair amount of guess work. For example, the British Council suggests inThe Future of English?that around 1.5 billion people in total speak English a figure you will often hear but that is 500 million more than the estimates used byEncyclopaedia Britannica. Half a billion people is a large discrepancy.

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