What Makes a Language Important Enough to Learn?

My last post about the world’s top 20 languages really got me thinking. I realized that if I spoke the five biggest languages then I could communicate with over fifty percent of the entire world! This thought seemed quite attractive to me. I let the idea roll around in my head a bit and though I was excited at first the conclusion that I arrived at was rather discouraging.

Let’s take a quick look at the top five languages: Mandarin Chinese, English, Hindi, Spanish and Russian. Not one of them is in the same language family. In other words, they all have grammars and pronunciations that are more different than they are alike and, with the exception of English and Spanish, their writing systems are all extremely different. Even in the case of English and Spanish, which share the Latin alphabet, the sounds of many letters do not match up like the /v/ in vaca and the /v/ in very.

The optimist might point out that there are, actually, a few little things in your favor if you want to learn these languages. Spanish is derived from Latin which, hundreds of years ago, had a big influence on both English and Russian so you’ll find some similarities between different words in those languages. The other four languages have borrowed many words from English so there are some words that will seem familiar between all five. These tenuous connections are really as good as it gets.

Not one of these five languages will help you much to learn the others. Fortunately, this is not always the case when you try to learn a second or third foreign language. Let’s say your native language is Italian and you learn to be fluent in German. There are a big number of languages that, belonging to the same linguistic family, share many of the same characteristics, or at least similar ones. Because of this, our Italian friend could then learn to speak good Dutch or Afrikaans while exerting about half the effort that he did to learn German or maybe even less. If our Italian friend learned Hindi it would take a lot of time and effort and then when he began learning, say, Russian he would have to pretty much start all over again.

The difficulty of learning the world’s top five languages got me thinking some more about what the “right” or “best” language combination is. If you are thinking about learning a language then I suggest you take this free online test which I’ve found to be quite helpful. Personally I think there are two general factors related to choosing a language to learn and, interestingly enough, they don’t have much to do with the total number people who speak any given language.

The first one is practicality. I think that most Americans could be bilingual in Spanish and English without too much trouble; the same goes for French and English in Canada. What’s the point of learning Mandarin Chinese if you are a mailman in South Boston? Will Russian be of much use to you as a computer programmer in Mexico City? If you have a lot of opportunities to practice a language and a practical use for it then you will certainly be more likely to learn it and learn it well. A hotel manager in Romania probably doesn’t care that Italian is not one of the world’s top 20 languages because a great deal of his customers are Italians and knowing Italian not only makes his job easier it also makes him a more valuable employee.

The second one, and arguably the more important one, is motivation. When I was a boy I met an old Swiss accordion player who said he spoke seven languages. When he saw the look of surprise on my face he said, “Where I am from if you drive for an hour in most directions you find yourself in a different country. Then the pretty girl across the room doesn’t speak your language and you are going to want to talk to her.” A Chilean from the south of that country may learn Croatian just to be able to read his deceased grandfather’s diary. The fiancée of a nice Cambodian boy whose family immigrated to Canada might want to be able to know what everyone is saying at family dinners at his parents’ house. Then there is the Anime enthusiast who is sick of reading subtitles and learns to read Kanji.

In any case, we are very lucky to be living in a time when so much information is available for free or for relatively cheap. I am looking to move in the near future and want to find new people to speak Portuguese with so I can keep up on that language. Portuguese isn’t a very common language here in the USA but I decided to do a bit of searching anyway. After looking online for only a few minutes I found a group of people, native Portuguese speakers and regular Americans too, who get together frequently to speak Portuguese, cook Brazilian food and dance Samba. I’ll have a two hour drive both ways to get to some of the events but at least I was able to find a fun way to practice a language that I am interested in.

What language combinations are you interested in? What language combinations do you think are best or at least very advantageous? Is this completely personal or are some combinations better than others?

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The World’s Top 20 Languages

I remember once being told by a former boss that if you could speak Mandarin Chinese, Spanish and English then you could communicate with anyone on the planet. That didn’t seem right to me then and it seems even less correct now. English is definitely the world’s current Lingua Franca but will only get you so far; Mandarin Chinese and Spanish also have hundreds of millions of speakers but seem to be limited to only certain places and contexts. This got me thinking about what languages one would need to know in order to speak to just about anyone on the planet. I think a good place to start is finding out the world’s top 20 languages. I got my information from Ethnologue, Encarta and Nicholas Ostler’s Empires of the Word: a Language History of the World.

Mandarin Chinese
Depending on your sources, this language has between 873 million and 1.3 billion native speakers. Because the PRC has been pushing it so much for the past fifty years Mandarin is also becoming the language you hear most in the China towns of every major city of the world. It is also an official or very widely used language in Singapore, Taiwan and Malaysia.

English
As a first language English has between 322 and 358 million speakers in Great Britain, the USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. The location of those countries make English well distributed geographically, however, in terms of numeric size it is still at very distant second place when compared to Mandarin Chinese. This changes a bit when the number of people who speak English as a second language or as a creole (like in Nigeria, India and Jamaica) are added to the total. Then it has anywhere from 500 million to 1.5 billion speakers who live in almost every country in the world.

Hindi
Finding an exact number for Hindi is rather difficult. There are certain dialects of Hindi that are not mutually intelligible with others so even though they count themselves in this group, they probably shouldn’t. Then there is Urdu, which is completely intelligible to the average Hindi speaker, but Urdu speakers don’t like to be grouped with Hindi speakers even though they probably should be. This puts the number of speakers anywhere from 181 million to 422 million native speakers with another 155 million that speak it as a second language. Most of these people live in India and Pakistan.

Spanish
Thanks to the Spanish conquerors of the 1500’s and mass immigration in the 20th century you can find Spanish speakers just about anywhere in the Americas and Western Europe. There are between 322 and 400 million native speakers with another 100 million that speak it as a second language.

Russian
Russian would be down farther on this list, with 144 million native speakers, if it hadn’t been for the USSR. With its second language speakers found all over the Ukraine, Kazakhstan and other places, Russian has somewhere between 255 and 277 million speakers.

Portuguese
This is a remarkable language considering its humble origins. Over 500 years ago tiny Portugal set off to get rich in the spice trade and extended its influence all over the world. Today there are between 190 and 230 million speakers of this language in South America, Africa, Western Europe and even in some small communities of the South Pacific and Far East.

Arabic
This is another tricky one. Arabic is a wide spread language that varies greatly from place to place. There are about 25 main groups of Arabic dialects. Not all dialects are mutually intelligible so Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) acts as a sort of artificial but standardized way of writing and speaking among educated Arab countries. The problem is that a huge percentage of Arabic speakers have a limited understanding of MSA. If you only count the mutually intelligible dialects then there could be as few as 45 million Arabic speakers. If all dialects are counted together and supposedly unified by MSA then there are as many as 323 million speakers.

French
I bet you thought that you’d see this language higher up on the list didn’t you? This is the original Lingua Franca, in fact, Lingua Franca literally means French Language! French has only 64 to 65 million native speakers but counting the people that speak it as a second language all over the world the number can be as big as 250 million.

Bengali
This language is spoken in Western India and, of course, Bangladesh as well as in many Indian communities in Great Britain, the USA and Canada. There are between 171 and 211 million Bengali speakers. For as many speakers as it has it’s a wonder to me that it’s not more commonly known.

German
It is amazing to me that this language is not more influential than it is. The Germanic tribes sacked Rome and took over most of Western Europe but left very little linguistic impact on most of these places. Although this is also a language with quite a bit of dialectal variation it is also spoken by a people who are generally well educated and are proficient in the standard way of speaking. There are between 100 and 128 million native German speakers, mostly in Germany and Austria.

Japanese
In spite of Japan’s many attempts to conquer neighboring countries, the Japanese language was never in any place outside of Japan for very long. The fact that Japan has intentionally closed itself off from the world for centuries at a time doesn’t help much either. With between 122 and 126 million speakers to date Japanese has a good chance to grow in the future due to its cartoons and economic influence.

Wu Chinese
This is one of those pesky Chinese dialects that refuses to go away. Most of the 77 million Wu speakers live in and around the area of Shanghai China and from what I’ve heard (i.e. not a scientific observation) most of the Wu speakers that are younger than 50 also speak very fluent Mandarin.

Korean
This is another one of those little languages that just refused to give up. In spite of centuries of being occupied by foreign powers this language isolate (i.e. nothing like any other language) is alive and strong. With between 71 and 78 million speakers and a robust economy, Korean could very possibly go on to be one of the more important world languages.

Javanese
Java-what? No it is not the language of coffee brewers but the biggest language in Indonesia. There are between 75 and 76 million Javanese speakers.

Telugu
Thousands of years ago the invading Aryans conquered the native Dravidians of India. Hindi is one of the descendents of the Aryan Indo-European languages that they brought with them. Southern India has kept a many of their original Dravidian languages and Telugu is one of them. These 75 million Telugu speakers might learn English or Hindi to do business or communicate with outsiders but it is unlikely that they will ever give up the language of their ancestors.

Tamil
Close behind Telugu, with 74 million speakers, Tamil is the language of the southern tip of the Indian subcontinent and parts of Sri Lanka and Singapore. Tamil is also a classical Dravidian language that resisted being replaced by Aryan Indo-European (and therefore Sanskrit and Hindi) and English.

Marathi
With India being the second most populated country in the world and having a very high birth rate it is no wonder that it is also home to several of the world’s biggest languages. Spoken commonly in Western India, Marathi is a distant cousin of Hindi and a descendant of the conquering Aryans referred to earlier in this post. There are around 71 million native Marathi speakers and another 20 million who speak it as a second language.

Cantonese (Yue Chinese)
Spoken in Guangdong Province China and many other places world wide, Cantonese has more tones than any other variety of Chinese. It has nine in case you were wondering. The native language of movie stars like Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan and Stephen Chow and 71 million other people, Cantonese is unlikely to be replaced by Mandarin anytime soon.

Vietnamese
One of the few Asian languages to adopt a western alphabet, Vietnamese is spoken by between 64 and 70 million people in Australia, Canada, the USA, Cambodia and Vietnam.

Turkish
Last in this list, but definitely not least of all languages, the language of the Ottomans is spoken by 58 to 61 million people, mainly in Turkey and the Balkans but also in many communities all over the world.

Well, there they are: the world’s top 20 languages. It was difficult ranking them. One could argue that English should be placed first and not Mandarin. One could also argue that English, Hindi and Spanish are all contenders for second place after Mandarin. There were other spots that were tricky but I ranked them as best I could. Assuming you didn’t already know which of these languages were in this list, is your view of the importance of different languages now changed after reading it? Notice that important languages like Hebrew, Farsi and Italian are not on this list. Does the number of its speakers determine how important a language is; does it have any influence at all?