Top languages

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Content: Since the winter issue of the ACTFL Newsletter appeared reporting in a brief paragraph a ranking of the world's "ten most influential languages," we have repeatedly seen the same paragraph appear in state and local foreign language newsletters. While the paragraph cites some criteria used in the ranking, it has left us curious about the ORIGINAL ARTICLE. After much searching we were able to find the British publication Language Today (Vol. 2, Dec. 1997) and the specific article reprinted here, with the kind permission of the
editor, Geoffrey Kingscott. The article appeared under the rubric "Geolinguistics." We decided to reprint the article in its entirety, despite its length, because its density and its complexity make it difficult to summarize or extract other than in the very brief form we have all seen, as previously indicated. We hope you will find it interesting as well as be warned away from any sense of security or smugness about the second place of French after English.
the Word's
One hardly risks controversy with the statement that today English was a more influential language world-wide than Yanomami. To a child's
ments make sense only if one looks at the world-wide picture, not just parochial bits of it. What does 'influential' mean in this context? Each
10 Most Influential Languages by
question why that should be so, the well-informed parental brush-off would be that English had hundreds of millions of speakers while Yanomami could with difficulty scratch together 16,000. Really difficult and
number of primary speakers (native or home speakers) 1
socioliterary 6 prestige
number of
secondary speakers
language carries considerable cultural, social, historical and psychological baggage. As anyone who has ever had to learn a foreign language knows, doing so in many ways alters one's attitudes and world view. To what extent, in what form and how deeply such changes actually mani-
George Weber
well-informed off-spring could then point out that in this case, Chinese would be the most important language of the world. At this point, the
economic power of countries using the language 5
number and population of countries 3 using the language
fest themselves in the individual learner depends on many factors, the circumstances that have led to the decision to learn the foreign language, the learner's character, intel-
experienced parent would send the brat off to annoy someone else. Every language, including Yanomami, is the most im-
4 number of major fields (science, diplomacy, etc) using the language internationally
ligence, education and background. Theories on this subject need not detain us here. The very discovery that one can actually express the same thing in different words or look
portant language of the world FIG. 1. Factors that make a language influential at something in totally different ways
- to its speakers. Rather than
alone widens many a mental hori-
'important' we shall here, there-
zon. But not all. There are polyglot fanatics and it would
fore, use the world 'influential'
be naive to claim that knowing a foreign language nec-
number of points 40
1. English 2. French 3. Spanish 4. Russian
37 points 23 points 20 points 16 points
in its stead. Chinese is a very influential language, no doubt about it, but is it more so than
essarily reduces aggression and the risk of war. It helps if other conditions are right, but more than linguistic skill is needed to bring that about. Leaders in what used to
5. Arabic 6. Chinese 7. German
14 points 13 points 12 points
English? Clearly not. The number of speakers is relevant but
be Yugoslavia spouting murderous sentiments in nearperfect English provide sufficient warning of exagger-
8. Japanese 10 points
quite insufficient for a meaning-
ated hopes in this respect.
9. Portuguese 10 points 10. Hindi/Urdu 9 points
ful ranking of languages in or-
No people are more acutely conscious of the long-
der of current world-wide influ-
term influence that knowledge of another language can
ence, the stress being on the
have on its learners than the French. No other lan-
word 'world-wide'. There are
guage is promoted so aggressively all over the world.
many other factors to be taken
The French clearly understand that their language is
into account and this is what we
the main carrier of la civilisation franзaise. Speakers of
shall attempt to do in the fol-
most other major languages think along similar lines.
However, two major civilisations, the Chinese and to a
Ranking the world's current
lesser extent the Japanese, actually take the opposite
top languages is not just an idle
attitude. They consider their civilisations so manifestly
English French Spanish Russian Arabic Chinese German Japanese Portuguese Hindi/Urdu
pastime. The world is growing
superior that pressing their language on foreigners was
closer and this historical devel-
really doing them too much honour. They also tend to
opment is matched by large-
think their languages far too complex to be mastered
scale linguistic adjustments, the
by clumsy strangers, although they are far too polite to
most dramatic of which being
say so openly.
FIG. 2. The real strength of the top ten languages
the explosive growth of the English language. It does matter how major languages stand and evolve in relation to each other. Like the weather, many develop-
Languages expand and shrink on the back of the social, cultural, military, scientific, technological, organisational and other strengths and weaknesses of
AATF National Bulletin, Vol. 24, No. 3 (January 1999)
their speakers. What is today called, over-simplistically and geographically incorrectly. 'The West' dominates the world in countless subtle and not-so-subtle ways. While this is often denied for reasons of self-respect, even stand-offish China has for half a century embraced an ideology of Western origin. With the introduction of Western technologies Western ideas slip in quietly, along with Western attitudes and languages. That these effects can be absorbed without abandoning one's cultural identity has been shown with huge success by the Japanese and Koreans. Not all cultures and languages share the inherent strengths of those two. More fragile cultures can feel seriously threatened by Westernisation but if they wish to participate in the ongoing industrialisation of the world they have little choice beyond making protesting noises. Fig. 2 shows that, as far as languages are concerned, "The West" means first and foremost the English language, followed only after a rather large gap by French and Spanish. It cannot be stressed enough that it is not inherent superiority, not linguistic but historical factors that have put English, French and Spanish where they are now. Whatever the historical factors that have pushed English into the top position, they are still at work and look like continuing. It should be a sobering thought to any triumphalist impulse than in 100 AD Latin looked set to dominate its slice of the world forever. In a Third World country which shall remain nameless because it is not the only guilty one, it is common practice for companies to have three sets of books. One for the government, a second for the government's tax inspector to assess the size of the bribe he can demand for officially accepting the first set of books, and a third set showing the real figures to the owners. It is, of course, the first set of figures that enter government statistics. World-wide statistics not only add up the figures supplied by individual countries, they also add up all the falsifications supplied along with them. economic data is easy to collect by comparison to the same on population, let alone languages. Nor is the temptation to cook the figures less. Few national censuses show much interest in language and those that do all too often are interfered with for political reasons. Governments have been known to massage figures until they are "right". Unpopular minorities and languages are made to disappear or shrink into insignificance while the figures of ruling groups are inflated. Sometimes even rock-solid linguistic classifications are brushed away as in Turkey where Kurdish (which is not even remotely related to Turkish) was, for a while, officially reclassified as Mountain Turkish. Census work in many technologically backward and ethnologically diverse countries (which description covers a substantial slice of the world) can be downright dangerous. For many people government traditionally is not the benevolent institution of UN mythology but The Enemy. Many have no trust in or love for their rulers and can be violently suspicious of government agents asking too many, or indeed any, questions. Many Westerners, especially academics working in sheltered institutions of established democracies, tend to have a little difficulty in grasping this fact of life. The speed with which census figures are processed and published is another problem. Some computerized and technologically advanced countries can pub- AATF National Bulletin, Vol. 24, No. 3 (January 1999)
lish quickly but the majority take years before even
preliminary figures come out and by the time they do,
they are long out of date. In
very large and populous
countries such as India and
China, the sheer size and
variety to be counted is stag- in million 400
gering. The Indian Census people
is indeed one of the statisti-
cal marvels of this world.
Even the best censuses
of the best-organised coun- 1100
tries can only ask a few
simple questions about lan- 1050
guages and must depend on
the self-assessment and 1000
honesty of the interviewed
citizenry. Just what does
"knowing" a language mean
exactly? The spectrum
ranges from a Chulalong-
Chinese English Spanish Hindi/Urdu Arabic Portuguese Russian Japanese German French
korn University Professor of HJW
English to a street seller in
a Bangkok tourist area who
has a few dozen English
words and no grammar to
rub together. Both the professor and the seller make their living from their knowledge of the English language. If asked in a census, both could honestly claim to "know" English. If a linguist reports that language X uses gram-
FIG. 3. Uncertainty: how estimates vary (e.g. primary speakers)
matical feature Y, one can
go out into the field and
verify the fact. No single person can go out and verify statistical facts. They are like the two sexes among humans, one has to accept the other the way it is, with all its faults. Why discuss the problems of census takers and the reliability of their figures in so much detail? Before the charts of this article are looked at, it has to be understood just how unreliable world-wide figures generally
in million people 1100 1000 900 800 700 600 500 400
1. Chinese >1100 million 20.7%
2. English >330 million 6.2%
3. Spanish >300 million 5.6%
4. Hindi/Urdu >250 million 4.7%
5. Arabic >200 million 3.8%
6. Bengali >185 million 3.5%
7. Portuguese>160 million 3.0%
8. Russian >160 million 3.0%
9. Japanese <125 million 2.3%
10.German <100 million 1.8%
11.Panjabi >90 million 1.6%
12.Javanese >80 million 1.5%
13. French >75 million 1.4%
14. Korean <70 million 1.3%
15. Tamil
>65 million 1.2%
16. Telugu >65 million 1.2%
17.Vietnamese >65 million 1.2%
18.Marathi <65 million 1.2%
19. Italian
<60 million 1.1%
20.Turkish >50 million 1.0%
Percentages shown are
percent of world population
are and especially those
concerning languages.
They are all a veritable
patchwork of local, regional and national figures collected under wildly different conditions at different times,
100 50 HJW
Chinese English Spanish Hindi/Urdu Arabic Bengali Portuguese Russian Japanese German Panjabi Javanese French Korean Tamil Telugu Vietnamese Marathi Italian Turkish
processed through many
stages by people with wildly
different levels of education,
cultural backgrounds, loyalties, aims and ideas about
FIG. 4. Number of
competence. Of course, statisticians are aware of all primary speakers: the
this and much more, as are those compiling the offi- top twenty
cial UN statistics, but they are reluctant to discuss
this aspect of their work. Surrealistic pseudo-preci-
sion to the nearest 100 speakers is magically pro-
jected by UNESCO: it claims
that there are 285,077,900
in million people 2000 1800 1600 1400 1200 1000 800 600 400
Indo-European (worldwide) Bengali, English, French, German, Hindi/Urdu, Italian, Marathi, Panjabi, Persian, Portuguese, Russian, the Scandinavian langauges, Spanish, etc Sino-Tibetan (East Asia) Burmese, Chinese, Thai, Tibetan, etc Niger-Congo (Africa) Ful, Yoruba, etc. Afro-Asiatic (Africa, Middle East) Amharic, Arabic, Hebrew, Somali, etc Austronesian (Pacific, Madagascar) Indonesian/Malay, Javanese, Malagasy, Tagalog, Polynesian/ Melanesian/Micronesian languages, etc Dravidian (Southern India) Kannada, Malayalam, Tamil, Telugu, etc Altaic (central Asia) Azerbaijani, MongoLian, Turkish, Uzbek, etc Austro-Asiatic (Indochina) Khmer, Vietnamese, etc
primary speakers of Russian and 1,077,548,100 of Chinese. Figure 3 shows the extent to which world-wide estimates can in fact differ if the streamlining is removed that is routinely carried out by international agencies. English has an uncertainty of well over 150,000,000. The much over-quoted Churchill quote regarding statistics comes to mind but I shall resist the temptation. What prevents the published figures from being totally useless (and turning this
article into a complete waste
of valuable paper) is the fact
Indo-European family Sino-Tibetan family Niger-Congo family Afro-Asiatic family Austronesian family Dravidian family Japanese (isolate) Altaic family Austro-Asiatic family Korean (isolate)
that all major languages carry HJW very roughly similar margins
of uncertainty. In other
words, they can still be com-
pared and ranked with a fair
degree of confidence. The
figures on which this article
is based are drawn from ref-
FIG. 5. Number of primary speakers by language family
erence works a few years old now and collected a few years earlier still. In view of all that has been said here so far, the reader will understand that this matters little. The abso-
FIG. 6A. Number of secondary speakers
lute figures will have increased since then but that will not affect the ranking of the ten most influen- tial languages.
If the number of primary
1.French 190 million
speakers of any language is
2.English 150 million 3.Russian 125 million
highly uncertain, the number of
4.Portuguese 28 million
secondary speakers is pure
5.Arabic 21 million 6.Spanish 20 million
guesswork. I have included Fig.
7.Chinese 20 million
6 (the numbers of which are
8.German 9 million
drawn from a different source to
9.Japanese 8 million
those of the others, see the
acknowledgements at the end)
more for the sake of complete-
ness. What is fairly certain is that
in relation to its number of pri-
mary speakers, French has the
most and Chinese the fewest
French English Russian Portuguese Arabic Spanish Chinese German Japanese Hindi/Urdu
secondary speakers.
Despite the dearth of even
semi-reliable data on the num-
ber of secondary speakers, their
number is such an important fac-
tor in establishing the degree of
influence exercised by a major
language that we have to discuss
briefly at least three groups of
them. Each brings a different
weight onto the scale and the
FIG. 6B. Percentage of secondary in relation to primary speakers
three would have to be treated differently in any proper statistical analysis - if the figures were reliable enough for one.
Foreign students are a tiny minority but influential out of all proportion to their numbers. They tend to belong to the most highly educated social strata of their own countries. As political, business, social and cultural leaders to come they are a major factor in spreading the acceptability and social prestige of a foreign language. Immigrants are people who have moved to another country to live there. They often learn the host country's language in a haphazard way, usually while trying to hold down a job and make ends meet. Their status in the host country is, at least initially, quite low. Only the second generation learns to speak the local language with any fluency. The various nationalities and linguistic groups tend to differ enormously in the way they adapt to their new homeland. Some groups rapidly dissolve into the host population, leaving barely a trace after a few generations while others cling to the ancestral way and language for many generations, using the host language only for dealings with the outside world. Immigrant language in some countries can loom large in statistics but their influence on the host language is usually small. For example, there are sizeable Chinese, Korean, Pakistani and Indian immigrant communities in Canada and the USA. They speak their own languages at home but use English for their outward contacts. The existence of such communities does not make their languages international. The Spanish of Latin American immigrants is a different case. It is spoken more and more widely in the USA and the controversies around its use in US schools show just how influential it has become. Whether it will successfully establish itself as second language besides English in the USA only time will tell. The chances of this happening appear good. National minorities are yet another group of "foreign" language speakers, although foreign here is a misnomer. Members of linguistic minorities who do not speak the majority language often find their career, business, social and general prospects curtailed if not crippled altogether. The influence of minority languages of this type on the majority language is usually small but it can add up over the centuries. It is no coincidence that of the world's top ten languages only two do not function as lingua francas. The two exceptions are Chinese and Japanese; their difficult and custom-tailored systems of writing and the fact that both are used by essentially monoglot societies in sharply limited if large geographical areas has prevented them from becoming the common language of a wider area. Hindi and Urdu suffer from the same limitations but their home base, the Indian subcontinent, is highly polyglot. The same can be said of the former Soviet Union where Russian, though often with a marked lack of enthusiasm, is willy-nilly used as lingua franca. Looking at the languages shown in Fig. 2 it can be seen that the higher a language has climbed up the ranking pole, the more important it is as lingua franca in its area. All major languages today are growing, in influence as well as in numbers of speakers. The higher up a language is on the ranking pole the faster its growth. Apart from the natural population increase AATF National Bulletin, Vol. 24, No. 3 (January 1999)
Key to Figs. 7-10 fringe countries countries in which the language has no legal status whatever and is understood or spoken only by a (usually tiny but often influential) minority as the language of trade and tourism as well as the preferred foreign language, especially of the young. Examples: English in Japan, French in Romania outer core countries countries in which the language has some form of legal or official status (variously described as auxiliary, associated, or recognised language, etc) and where it is the language of a more or less sizeable but always influential minority. Examples: English in India, French in Algeria core countries countries in which the language enjoys full legal and official status (at least de facto) and where it is the normal language of communication, its speakers a majority or at least substantial minority. Examples: Japanese in Japan, Spanish in Spain, English and French in Canada · Included in the count have been independent countries with a population of more than one million. Hong Kong, Puerto Rico and Gaza with the West Bank, though not independent, have also been included. · Countries with more than one language to be counted have been included in full under each language. For example, Canada has been counted with its full population and GNP under both the English and the French headings. · SOUTH AFRICA is treated as one country, the pseudoindependent Bantustans being disregarded. · The successor states to ex-Yugoslavia have been entirely diregarded; the situation there is far too complex and unpredictable for inclusion. · mainland China/Taiwan, Czechia/Slovakia, Ethopia/ Eritrea, North Korea/South Korea have each been counted as separate countries. The core countries: English (9): Australia, Canada, Great Britain, Ireland, Jamaica, New Zealand, Puerto Rico, Trinidad and Tobago, USA French (5): Belgium, Canada, France, Haiti, Switzerland Arabic (17): Algeria, Chad, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Libya, Lebanon, Mauritania, Morocco, Oman, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Tunisia, United Arab Emirates, Yemen Spanish (19): Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Costa Rica, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Puerto Rico, Spain, Uruguay, Venezuela Russian (1): Russia German (3): Austria, Germany, Switzerland Portuguese (2): Brazil, Portugal Chinese (3): China, Hong Kong, Taiwan Hindi/Urdu (2): India, Pakistan Japanese (1): Japan AATF National Bulletin, Vol. 24, No. 3 (January 1999)
everywhere, this growth takes place at the expense
of the smaller, local lan-
guages. Hundreds if not thou-
fringe outer core core total
sands, of smaller languages
are being pushed slowly out of the way. The speakers of
number of countries
some languages have seen the influence of their own checked by one of the ten top languages and they profess their fear of the threatening domination - while at the same time their language is in turn driving smaller local lan-
110 100
1. English 2. French 3. Arabic
82 24 9 115 12 18 5 35 4 2 18 24
4. Spanish
1 - 19 20
5. Russian 11 4 1 16
6. German
513 9
7. Portuguese - 2 3 5
8. Chinese
-23 5
9. Hindi/Urdu - - 2 2
10. Japanese - - 1 1
guages towards extinction.
Few even notice the irony of
English French Arabic Spanish Russian German Portuguese Chinese Hindi/Urdu Japanese
this and loud are the com-
plaints about linguistic and
cultural expansionism. Ex-
pansionism is what others do
to you that you cannot do to
them but would if you could. In relative terms the picture among the top ten FIG. 7. Number of languages is not static but one of slow, steady trends. countries using the
Fig 13 shows in very broad terms the dynamics of language
life at the top over the last 500 years.
Let us now look at the top ten languages, one by
English is the most obvious example of a
in million people
fringe outer core core total
language on the way up. It has survived the fall of the British Empire without even slowing down, it has now gone beyond being the language of the world's only remaining superpower (which in the long run would be a liability), becoming the first truly world-wide lingua franca. Interna-
5000 4800 4600 4400 4200 4000 3800 3600 3400 3200 3000 2800 2600 2400 2200
1. English 3114 1408 366 4888
2. Chinese
- 8 1178 1186
3. Hindi/Urdu - - 957 957
4. French
286 150 107 543
5. Spanish 250 - 293 543
6. Arabic
186 6 231 423
7. Russian
81 68 148 297
8. Portuguese - 25 165 190
9. Japanese
- - 123 123
10. German
9 10 93 112
tional English has be-
come independent of
any one English-speak-
1600 1400
ing country, even the
USA. A Korean manu-
facturer in an Athens
hotel meeting the Brazil-
ian buyer of a Swiss-
based conglomerate will
English Chinese Hindi/Urdu French Spanish Arabic Russian Portuguese Japanese German
not only negotiate but
order dinner from his
room service in English.
There may not be a
single native English speaker in the hotel, but all non-locals staying there FIG. 8. Population of
communicate with each other in English - as a mat- countries using the
ter of course. From a certain level upwards, in busi- language
ness, sport, politics, and many other fields, a knowl-
edge of English has become not a matter of pres-
tige but of necessity. The level at which this occurs
is moving ever downwards.
In science and technology the grip of English is
complete. With growing computer sophistication it
is becoming easier to put even the most awkward lan-
guages and script on screen but that does not alter
the big picture. The Chinese trader, scientist, manu-
facturer who wants to talk to his
foreign contacts is not helped
much by even the most care-
fully presented Chinese char-
acters on his screen. He has
to tell his non-Chinese contacts
French Hindi/Urdu Arabic Russian Spanish English Chinese German Portuguese Japanese
in English.
It is an open question
whether there is room for more
than one global lingua franca.
I doubt it and so does, it seems,
FIG. 9. Percentage of population in core
the famous "market". There is an overwhelming interest in learning English practically everywhere in the world. Geography and his-
countries not
tory has made Mongolia one of the most landlocked
speaking the
and isolated countries in the world until recently, iso-
lated especially from the West and from Western lan-
guages. Yet when the country opened itself up a few
years ago, the change was signalled at once by
signposting the capital's airport in English. Barely
noticed by English-speaking people, an enormous
boom of learning English has developed all over the
world, a boom that is not matched by a similar run on
other languages. There is not a small city in Brazil
that does not boast at least two schools of English.
Even in countries with strong cultural links to France
the young want to learn English, not French. In Cam-
bodia the French government suffered a painful ex-
perience when the young spurned the offers of the
Alliance Franзaise, preferring instead to sign up with
anyone who
offered En-
fringe outer core core total
in 100 million US Dollars 20000 19000 18000 17000 16000 15000 14000 13000 12000 11000 10000 9000 8000
1. English 11160 715 7310 19185
2. Spanish 5445 - 915 6360
3. French 1610 60 2020 3690
4. Japanese
- - 3140 3140
5. German 100 155 2790 3045
6. Russian 280 325 855 1460
7. Chinese
- 100 565 665
8. Arabic
40 50 380 470
9. Portuguese - 5 455 460
10. Hindi/Urdu - - 340 340
however du-
bious. In
school chil-
dren must
learn French
They do so
for political
reasons, the
English Spanish French Japanese German Russian Chinese Arabic Portuguese Hindi/Urdu
mutual intelli-
gibility is
seen as im-
portant in a
country. The
FIG. 10. Gross
kids do not agree with their elders; surveys have shown
national product (GNP) of countries using the language
that they would all very much prefer to learn English. The French are rightly pained by this situation. Be- sides a certain amount of fashionability behind the English boom, there are solid economic and psycho-
logical forces at work. English is seen more and more
widely as the language of world trade, of economic
progress, of science and technology, the main window to
the world and not just because of the Internet which of
course it dominates.
French was, until a century ago, in a similar position
to that of English. Nobody could pass for educated with-
out the ability to speak French. However, French domi-
nance was never so complete as its rival's is now for the
simple reason that 100 years ago large parts of the world
were not yet connected to the rest as they are all today.
In Mongolia it was sufficient to speak Mongolian, in Mada-
gascar Mala-
gasy could
get you anywhere.
Globalisation had not been heard of then. French
French Spanish Russian Arabic
has suffered a decline in its world-wide influence above all
Portuguese German
Hindi/Urdu, Malay/Indonesian Swahili, Turkish Hausa, Ful
when measured against
Quechua, Tok Pisin, Bislama etc.
English. It has more or less held its position against other
in Papu-Niugini there are lingua francas with just a few dozen speakers: (when some neighbouring villages with totally different home languages need a common language to communicate)
major lan- HJW
guages but against En-
FIG. 11. A hierarchy of lingua francas
glish, the situ-
ation is glum. French still has a base in many parts of
Africa, although the position is crumbling as recent events
in Rwanda and Zaire-Congo have shown. It also still
enjoys considerable sympathy in Latin America where
common Latin roots and a certain distaste for English-
speaking gringos can still be found. International En-
glish is advancing there but it is still seen more as the
language of the USA rather than as a politically neutral
means of international communication. In Asia French
has lost virtually all its ground to English, even in Viet-
nam where it is the nostalgic language of an older gen-
eration. French has a narrow base on which to build its
claim as a world language: it is a major language in France
alone and a minority language in Canada, Belgium and
Switzerland. The strength of French in international fields,
especially diplomacy, is also slowly eroding away. Any-
body who watches TV can see this erosion taking place
before his or her very eyes: more and more international
conferences replace French with English country tags
on delegates' tables. In far away places, from Albania to
Chechenia and Georgia - places where English is still
very much a foreign language - demonstrators can be
seen waving posters in English. They know what lan-
guage to use to catch the international news media.
Despite a clear downward trend relative to English,
French remains the world's second most influential lan-
guage. Its prestige remains extremely high, not least
AATF National Bulletin, Vol. 24, No. 3 (January 1999)
thanks to the tireless efforts and the vast sums spent by the French government, but also by the pride taken in their language by practically all French people. In Hong Kong I once talked to a taxi driver and congratulated him on his excellent English. He said that he could not do without English on his job but that he now wanted to learn French even if he had little practical use for it. He wanted to learn it for its social prestige. The number two position of French in the league table of the ten most influential languages is not so much endangered by the top language (which cannot be overtaken again in the foreseeable course of events) as by Spanish. Coming up quietly from behind it is spreading rapidly in the USA and may expand further afield yet. Latin America is no longer an economically depressing and often depressed area, no longer the backyard of the USA. With growing self-confidence, despite setbacks, Latin America will boost the value of Spanish (and with it that of its closely related Portuguese in Brazil) on the world's linguistic marketplace. Russian has been held hostage by an ideology for 70 years and throughout the empire the language was imposed on subject people by brute force. The situation has changed dramatically since the early 1990s but Russian will take some time to recover any popularity outside Russia proper. For many years the newly independent parts of the former Soviet Union were busily shaking off Russian influence and trying to avoid the use of the Russian language. It turned out rather more difficult than they had imagined. For many Russian was the only common language and they had no choice but to use it. The situation is still confused and will take decades if not generations to settle down. One hesitates to hazard a guess but the chances are that Russian will remain among the top ten languages. An interesting development is the struggle for linguistic dominance within the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe between German and English. Here is a situation where linguistic characteristics and not historical or political forces may actually make a difference. German is a difficult language to learn, its three genders alone see to that, English is much easier initially. The chances are fairly even but my money would be on English as the eventual winner - but I would not bet a large amount. Arabic is the only language apart from English and French that is used in an international 'field'. It is the language of Islam and as such used in countless Koranic schools between Morocco and Indonesia. It is also the only major international linguistic stream of influence that is quite independent of the West and as such is little noticed or appreciated there. Chinese is a language whose speakers are noticeably disinterested in spreading its use outside their own people. Although Chinese is not really one but several languages held together by a common script, we shall disregard such finer distinctions here and call all languages (usually and misleadingly called dialects) Chinese. It is a tenet of the language business that in order to penetrate a market you have to know its language. This may apply to most markets but China is different. Like any other people, the Chinese appreciate it if a foreigner makes the effort to learn their language, but they do not appreciate it if the foreigner
succeeds. To tell the Chinese that their language
was fiendishly difficult and practically impossible to
learn, cheers up their whole day. Everybody may
feel proud to have mastered
something that is too complex
for most others. The Chinese have elevated this feeling into a
western eastern Middle
national art form. A foreigner
who speaks or (worse still) writes
excellent Chinese is regarded
with grave suspicion. Foreign visitors to China, diplomats as well as businessmen, have been known to pretend to a far worse knowledge of the language than they actually possessed. Not
unlike the Japanese, the Chi-
nese prefer to deal with foreigners in English.
FIG. 12. Historical
Despite its high number of native speakers, Chi- lingua francas
nese is not an internationally influential language.
Its use is concentrated in China, Taiwan, Hong Kong,
Singapore and widespread communities all over the
world, especially large ones in Southeast Asia. With
its continent-sized home base it seems sufficient
unto itself. Chinese has been the historical lan-
guage of learning in much of the Far East and has
been a major influence in the past on the Korean,
Japanese, Vietnamese, Thai and some other people.
Its cultural influence has declined sharply over the
past few hundred years but one gets the impres-
sion that the Chinese at home have
not noticed or do not care.
German has suffered the wildest gyrations of all major languages
500 years 100 years 10 years
in the level of its influence. Enter-
ing the 20th century as the major
language of science and technol-
ogy, it suffered a setback when
Germany lost World War I only to
recover most of its position in the
1920s. Until the 1930s, students of chemistry in the USA had to have
a working knowledge of German. At that time the language was also
exceptionally popular in Japan. It never recovered its old prestige af-
ter the catastrophic decline suffered in the wake of World War II, when
it also lost most of its secondary speakers in Eastern Europe. It has
a chance today to restore a little of its lost prestige and influence there
and in the former Soviet Union. German has to face stiff competi-
tion from English and the result will
remain open for some time yet.
Portuguese today means above all Brazil. The language could hitch its wagon to the advance of FIG. 13. The historical Spanish in the wake of Latin American economic dimension
progress. Despite some ups and downs, that wagon
is well on the way and Portuguese should be able
to increase its world-wide influence. The Brazilians
seem so keen to learn English, however, that one
may almost speak of a 'Chinese situation' develop-
AATF National Bulletin, Vol. 24, No. 3 (January 1999)
Latin Chinese Arabic Devanagari Cyrillic Bengali Japanese Panjabi Korean [others] Latin Cyrillic Arabic Devanagari Bengali Chinese Japanese Panjabi Korean [others]
ing, i.e. with Brazilians preferring to negotiate with
foreigners in English. Only the future will show
how this situation develops.
The sister lan-
in million people 2000 1900 1800 1700 1600
1. Latin 2. Chinese 3. Arabic 4. Devanagari 5. Cyrillic 6. Bengali 7. Japanese 8. Panjabi 9. Korean 10. [others]
1,950 million 1,100 million 550 million 440 million 330 million 210 million 123 million 90 million 70 million 450 million
guages of Hindi and Urdu, like all languages in the top ten group, have increased in absolute numbers of native speakers and in the spread of their influ-
1500 1400 1300 1200 1100
[others] sums up systems of writing with less than 70 million but more than 200,000 primary speakers each (the number of primary speakers in all languages using the system of writing is given in parentheses in million):
ence within India, Pakistan respectively. The two languages are local variants of the same language.
1000 900 800 700 600
Amharic (44.5), Armenian (4.5), Burmese (37), Georgian (4), Greek (11), Gujarati (36), Hebrew (3.2), Kannada (32), Khmer (8), Laotian (9), Malayalam (30), Maldivian (0.2), Mongolian (7), Oriya (30), Sinhalese (130), Tamil (65), Telugu (65), Thai (45) and Tibetan (6).
Hindi is written in the Devanagari script in India, Urdu with Arabic script in Pakistan. Both have large numbers
of native speakers
living in immigrant
communities over-
seas. Neither can
boast of significant
worldwide influence
outside their own
communities. As lo-
cal lingua francas
they have an un-
known but no doubt
large number of
secondary speak-
FIG. 14. Systems of ers. Hindi is also the official union language, i.e.
writing by primary the official lingua franca of all India. Since the
Dravidian-speaking south does not take to Hindi
and prefers English which is also the language
of the educated elite in the north, the use of En-
glish is widespread and the situation has been
accepted officially by making English an 'associ-
ate language'. As the language of the higher
administration, of secondary and university edu-
cation it is in fact at least equal to Hindi as the
lingua franca of India.
The article on Urdu in the International
Encyclopaedia of Linguistics contains the follow-
ing quotation:
"The growing popularity of Urdu mushaira (po-
etic symposia) and literary conferences in the
United Kingdom, United States, Soviet Union,
Canada, and a number of Middle Eastern and
African countries has led to the emergence of a
large number of literary organisations and publi-
cations which reflect the spread of Urdu as an
international language."
It would be regrettable if this article with its
emphasis on economic power and numbers, con-
tributed in however small a measure to
the destruction of such delightful inno-
cence. May
Urdu with its po-
etic symposia
and literary organisations become ever more international. The world would be a better place if all expansion was through such charming means. © George Weber, Switzerland 1997
number of languages 180 170 160 150 140 130 120 110 100 90 80 70 60 50
1. Latin
172 languages
2. Cyrillic 37 languages
3. Arabic 22 languages
4. Devanagari 20 languages
5. Bengali
7 languages
6. Chinese 2 languages
7. Japanese 1 language
8. Panjabi
1 language
9. Korean
1 language
10. [others]
(19 scripts)
[others] sums up systems of writing used for languages with less than 70 million but more than 200,000 primary speakers each (the number of languages, if more than one, is given in parentheses):
Amharic (7), Armenian, Burmese (4), Georgian, Greek, Gujarati (2), Hebrew (2), Kannada (2), Khmer, Laotian, Malayalam, Maldivian, Mongolian, Oriya, Sinhalese, Tamil, Telugu, Thai and Tibetan (3)
FIG. 14. Systems of writing by languages SOURCES AND ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS Most figures on languages are taken from Eric V. Gunnemark's Countries, People and Their Languages (a Geolinguistic Handbook), 1991, Gothenburg, Sweden. For cross-reference and back-up checks as well as for non-linguistic figures the following sources have been used: Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1984, Encyclopaedia Britannica Inc. Chicago, USA Encyclopaedia Britannica Yearbooks 1985, 1993, 1994 Fischer Weltalmanach 1960-1993. Fischer Taschenbuchverlag, Frankfurt, Germany The Cambridge Encyclopaedia of Language, 1987, Cambridge University Press, England Fig. 6 is based on a table given in the Fischer Weltalamanach 1986, p. 910. For economic figures the Fischer Weltalamanch 1993 and the World Bank Atlas 1991 as well as UN and IMF publications have been major sources.
AATF National Bulletin, Vol. 24, No. 3 (January 1999)

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