Learners versus speakers: languages around the world

September 7, 2016
Learners versus speakers: languages around the world

Many of those working in the professional translation industry are familiar with the statistics regarding the world’s most spoken languages. But do those figures match the rates at which languages are being learned? Let’s take a look. 

The world’s most spoken languages

According to a study published by the South China Morning Post, the world’s most spoken languages are Chinese (with 1,197 million speakers), Spanish (399 million speakers), English (335 million), Hindi (260 million), Arabic (242 million) and Portuguese (203 million). 

The study looked at the languages spoken by 6.3 billion people, out of the world’s total population of 7.2 billion. It found that 4.1 billion people spoke one of the 23 most spoken languages as their native tongue. 

The world’s most studied languages

While many of these figures are familiar to us, at least in terms of the most spoken languages, what is interesting is the comparison with languages being learned. There is a large mismatch between the most commonly spoken languages and the most commonly studied ones. 

English is by far the most popular language when it comes to those learning it, with a total of 1,500 million learners spread around the world. The figures for all other languages being learned lagged way behind this impressive number: there are 82 million people learning French, 30 million learning Chinese, 14.5 million learning each of Spanish and German and 8 million learning Italian. 

Speakers versus learners

So why is there such a disparity between the most commonly spoken languages and the most commonly learned ones? 

The answer lies in a combination of historic reasons and modern influences. The rise of the British Empire between the 16th and 18th centuries spread the use of English around the world, covering some 458 million people by 1922 (one fifth of the world’s total population at that time). While the last of that empire was dissolved in 1997, the linguistic influence of it remained. Today, English is still spoken in 110 countries around the world. To put that in perspective, the next most spoken language by number of countries is Arabic, which is spoken in 60 countries. 

In more modern terms, the widespread use of English around the world has meant that it has become a global lingua franca, allowing individuals who do not speak each other’s languages to opt for English as their means of communication. As such, the use of English is important for trade purposes, diplomatic reasons, administrative ease and a host of other reasons. Pilots, for example, communicate in English and have to complete an English Proficiency test as part of obtaining their licence to fly. This applies to communication between pilots themselves and with air traffic control staff. While the use of local language is allowed in some circumstances, the moment a pilot checks in using English, all communication has to switch to that language. 

The internet is another key driver for the widespread learning of English around the world. According to Wikipedia, 53.6% of website content is in English. This is followed by Russian (6.4%), German (5.6%), Japanese (5.1%) and Spanish (4.9%). This means that those who don’t speak English are restricted to just a small proportion of the information available online, while those who do can comfortably access more than half of the world’s total online data. 

Final thoughts

With so many historic and modern reasons for the use of English around the world, it seems that learners will continue to prioritise it above the studying of other languages for the foreseeable future. 

Can you see a reason that any other languages will have cause to rival the number of English learners around the world anytime soon? Leave a comment to let us know your thoughts. 

By Ofer Tirosh

Ofer Tirosh is the founder and CEO of Tomedes, a language technology and translation company that supports business growth through a range of innovative localization strategies. He has been helping companies reach their global goals since 2007.



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