I love playing around with data. Languages are fascinating in this respect, as you can study everything from speaker numbers (both native and total) to the size and shape of language family trees. Most recently, I’ve been crunching some numbers to look at growing languages. More specifically, the fastest growing languages in the world.
As with all things data-based, there are various ways to approach this. Calculating the speed at which the language landscape has changed over the past century for example, will likely produce different results in terms of the fastest growing languages than calculating it over the past 20 years.
Of course, there are regional variations at play. For example, Spanish is increasingly important in the United States because of localised migration patterns between Latin America and the States. But does that mean that the Spanish language is growing or simply that Spanish speakers are moving from one location to another?
I’m going to pick all of this apart below and look at growing languages from a couple of different perspectives. The aim is, hopefully, to uncover a single winner that we can crown the world’s fastest growing language. Shall we get started?
The Earth’s population is increasing at an annual rate of 1.1%, according to data from the World Bank. It reached 7.8 billion in 2020.
That growth rate has been slowing for many years, declining steadily from 2.1% in 1970 to the current rate of 1.1%. However, the population continues to increase, albeit at a slower pace.
This is one reason why languages are growing. Quite simply, there are more people alive to speak them. In 1970, the global population totalled 3.7 billion; it has more than doubled since then.
An increase of that scale would lead to some fast-growing languages even if every person only spoke one tongue. Yet some 43% of the global population is bilingual (and 13% is trilingual), which further contributes to the rate at which languages are growing.
What this doesn’t mean is that all languages are growing at the same rate. Quite the opposite. Everything from political tensions to religious ideologies to technology can impact the pace at which languages grow. Some are purposefully repressed, while others are simply dying out as the world moves on too fast for us to preserve them.
At the same time, other languages are seeing their speaker numbers increase hugely, as a handful of these ‘major’ tongues grow to provide lingua francas for vast geographic regions.
Before we dive deep into the data to discover the fastest growing language in the world, let’s take a look at a few projections.
What will be the most spoken language in 2050? Or in 2100? Well, we can’t accurately predict what will happen to impact growing languages over the coming decades. There are just too many variables. What we can do, though, is extrapolate some of the data that we’ve already got, from demographics to economic figures.
Doing this using the engco model of language forecasting, results in a prediction that the top five languages in 2050 will be Chinese, Spanish, English, Hindi-Urdu and Arabic.
However, a study by investment bank Natixis in 2014 projected that the world’s most spoken language by 2050 would be French, based largely on its use in Africa.
A 15-year-long study by linguist Ulrich Ammon, meanwhile, suggested that it will be English, Chinese, Spanish and French that bear watching closely over the coming years.
On top of that, the Washington Post’s data analysis indicates that the business world will see Hindi, Bengali, Urdu and Indonesian all increase in importance, along with Spanish, Portuguese, Arabic and Russian.
Looking further ahead, it seems likely – though anything is possible in a span of 79 years, particularly with technology developing at the pace that it is – that those languages that have come to dominate over the past century will continue to play an important role. Fast-forward to 2100 then, and we’re still likely to hear English, Mandarin, Spanish and Hindi being spoken around the globe. As to which of them will be the fastest languages in the world for growth, or even if it will be any of these languages at all, that’s somewhat harder to predict.
So, what does the data say when it comes to working out which are the world’s fastest growing languages? That all depends on how we crunch the numbers. For example, is are the languages growing fastest in the world those that have increased the most in terms of their speaker numbers or those that are growing most rapidly in percentage terms?
Let’s take a look at both calculations.
If we look at increases in speaker numbers, English is the fastest growing language. This is true whether we look over the past decade, the past 50 years or even the past 100 years.
Between 2011 and 2021, the number of English speakers (note that I’m talking about total speaker numbers here, not just native speakers) increased from 1,054,696,408 to 1,300,569,350. That’s a rise of 245,872,942 in a single decade – far more than any other language.
By way of comparison, the next closest contender was Chinese (Mandarin), which increased by 69,877,874 speakers over the same period. Hindi, meanwhile, grew by 64,684,736 speakers.
Looking back over the past 50 years paints a very similar picture. English added 523,019,976 speakers between 1971 and 2021, while Chinese added 276,956,436 and Hindi 187,263,950.
And the same is true of the entire last century. Between 1921 and 2021, English speakers around the world increased by 894,827,855 people, far out-stripping Chinese (which saw an increase of 551,162,240 speakers) and Hindi (which came in third with an increase of 349,660,815).
In terms of speaker numbers, then, it’s clear that English is the fastest growing language over the past 100 years, rising from 405,741,495 in 1921 to 1,300,569,350 a century later.
Did you expect to see Portuguese topping a list of the world’s fastest growing languages? Spoken mainly in Brazil but also in Portugal, Mozambique, Angola and elsewhere, Portuguese has grown from 65,064,027 speakers in 1921 to 258,003,327 today.
That works out as growth of 297% in speaker numbers over the past century. Considered by this metric, Portuguese has grown faster than English, Chinese, Hindi, Spanish, French, Modern Arabic, Bengali and Russian.
Arabic deserves an honourable mention at this point. Though it hasn’t quite kept pace with Portuguese in terms of its growth rate, Modern Arabic has certainly come close. The language has grown from 74,157,626 speakers in 1921 to 279,200,980 a century later. That’s an increase of 276%.
For comparison terms, English speakers have increased by 221% over the same period, Hindi speakers by 118%, German speakers by 115%, French speakers by 113%, Bengali speakers by 110% and Chinese speakers by 96%.
When viewed in terms of its rate of increase, the fastest growing language over the past 50 years turns up a different result: Urdu.
Urdu speaker numbers have risen from 112,717,278 people in 1971 to 219,737,807 people in 2021. That’s an increase of 95% – a growth rate which eclipses that of English, Chinese, Hindi, Spanish, French, Modern Arabic, Bengali, Russian, Portuguese, Indonesian, German and Japanese.
Looked at over just the last decade, Urdu also emerges as the fastest growing language in the world. Its total speaker numbers increased by 39% between 2011 and 2021.
Called Bahasa Indonesia locally, Indonesian has also been one of the fastest growing languages in the world over the past 50 years. It has increased from 127,635,615 speakers in 1971 to 228,241,973 in 2021. That’s a growth rate of 79%, which makes Indonesian second only to Urdu in terms of the pace of its growth over the past half-century.
The same is true over the past ten years. While Urdu grew by 39% in the decade to 2021, Indonesian came in second, with growth of 25%.
English aside, which language has grown fastest over the past 10, 50 and 100 years in terms of speaker numbers? The answer for all three periods is Mandarin Chinese. It saw the second largest increase in speaker numbers (after English) between 2011 and 2021, with numbers growing by 69,877,874 people in a single decade – impressive stuff.
Over the past 50 years, that figure rises to 276,956,436 speakers, while the past century has seen the number of Chinese speakers increase by 551,162,240, from 577,002,424 in 1921 to 1,128,164,664 in 2021.
I feel that Hindi deserves a special mention here too, in terms of its growth over the last decade. In terms of speaker numbers, Hindi came very close to matching Chinese’s increase over the past then years. While the number of Chinese speakers increased by 69,877,874 between 2011 and 2021, the number of Hindi speakers increased by 64,684,736.
In percentage terms, that means that Hindi grew faster than Chinese in the decade to 2021, at 11% and 7% respectively – though neither language came close to Urdu’s stellar 39% increase.
Another interesting contender for the title of fastest growing language is Korean. I’m including this for two reasons. Firstly, Duolingo’s first Global Language Report, covering the period from October 2019 to September 2020, reported that the fastest growing languages around the globe, based on its user data, were all Asian languages. Hindi, Korean and Japanese all featured strongly.
The second reason for including Korean is its huge growth on the popular culture scene. K-pop has built up a following around the globe – and continues to do so at an astonishing pace. It is a driving factor behind the rapid growth of Korean language learning, as identified by the Duolingo news.
It’s no coincidence that I flagged up Korean last year, as well, in my article on the 15 best languages to learn. If you didn’t catch it at the time, you can click the link below to read it now.
Read more: 15 Best Languages to Learn in 2020
There are also plenty of fast-growing languages to be found at a regional level. Looking at the fastest growing languages in the US, for example, immediately puts Spanish in the spotlight.
Spanish is increasingly important in the United States because Hispanics are the country’s fastest-growing demographic. Between 1980 and 2015, the number of Spanish speakers in the US nearly quadrupled, increasing from 11 million people to more than 41 million, and speaker numbers continue to rise.
In percentage terms, the proportion of the US population that speaks Spanish has grown from 5% to 13% over the same period – hence it being crowned the fastest growing language in the US.
For growing languages at a regional level, French also deserves a mention. The language landscape of Africa is shifting to include an increasing number of French speakers. At present, around 44% of the world’s total French-speaking population lives in sub-Saharan Africa. However, that figure is set to rise significantly over the coming years, with some estimates projecting it will reach 85% by 2050.
The Duolingo report I mentioned above also looked at the growth of French at a regional level, noting a significant increase in the number of French learners based in Canada over the past year.
The pace of change in the global language landscape has plenty of relevance. Businesses need to understand which languages to build their strategies around and why. They need to use translation services to get an international audience or localization services to tap into new markets in order to take advantage of all that globalization has to offer but before they can do so, they need to know which languages they will need.
And while businesses are building up new audiences, individual learners are also being impacted by the shifting linguistic landscape. The growth of the English language, along with other ‘major’ languages and lingua francas across the world, means that many other languages are seeing their speaker numbers dwindle dangerously low. Some estimates point to as many as half of the world’s 7,000 or so currently spoken languages becoming extinct by 2100.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this look at the world’s fastest growing languages. While the growth of English is widely acknowledged, I suspect that some of the languages that I’ve covered may have surprised you.
To sum up, I’ve looked at:
• The fastest growing languages by number of speakers over the past 10, 50 and 100 years
• Growing languages in percentage terms over the same timeframes
• The fastest growing languages by learner numbers
• Some of the fastest languages expanding at a regional level
Was your language included in this top 10? Or are you learning one of these fast-growing languages? Leave a comment below to share your thoughts.
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