There are thousands of living languages in the world today, though many are on the verge of extinction and will be gone in twenty or thirty years. In a previous post, I talked about what the world’s top 20 languages were in terms of sheer number of speakers. Almost everyone in the world speaks at least one of these twenty languages. The interesting thing is there were quite a few languages on that list that are not widely known or learned, like Marathi, Wu and Javanese. Many would argue that, on a global level, these are not very important languages. Did they teach Wu at your high school? How many Marathi classes are taught in the world’s universities? So what makes a language globally important?
This is an important factor, but in and of itself it is quite lacking. The Mongols ruled China but the Chinese retained their language and culture. The Germanic tribes sacked Rome but Italy, most of the Iberian Peninsula, Romania, Sicily and even France (whose very name is Germanic) all continue to speak Latin based languages. The Turkish speaking Ottoman Empire ruled most of the Arabic and Persian speaking world for hundreds of years but these places still speak Arabic and Persian. More recently, Russia forced its language on many places like Hungary, Estonia, Latvia and Bulgaria and the most impact it had was to promote bilingualism.
This factor is very significant but often only creates short lived bilingualism. Egypt and Babylon were both ancient economic powers and yet their languages are now dead. The Turkic traders of the Silk Road were immensely wealthy but they all usually learned the languages of their clients. Japan is the second richest country in the world but you wouldn’t know it by counting the number of people who study Japanese, especially when compared to the number of people who study French, Italian and Spanish which are all languages that are associated with lesser economies.
Number of Speakers!
I’ve already touched on this one but I think this factor is worth mentioning again. Most Indian languages aren’t studied much outside of India. German is definitely an important language with many speakers and a powerful economy behind it but doesn’t really count as a global language since almost all of its speakers are in Germany and Austria. It’s interesting to consider Mandarin since it has many more native speakers than any other language and yet almost all of its speakers live in China and therefore limit the influence the language has on the world as a whole.
Two Factors for Global Languages
The acclaimed linguist Nicholas Ostler says that there are basically two factors that make a language global:
1. Its distribution.
2. Who its speakers are.
Bearing these two general factors in mind we can talk about what the true international languages are. Granted, these are not necessarily the world’s most important languages. What makes a language important is a rather subjective and highly personal matter.
The Original Lingua Franca
Greek, Latin, Chinese, Arabic, Hindi, Swahili and other languages have been used over wide territories for lengthy periods of time but I believe that French was the first language to be used by a huge number of people all over the world. Though WWI and WWII have tired poor France out her language continues to be spoken widely by around 250 million people in Europe, Africa, Canada and many small islands all over the world. French nineteenth century literature is still a must read and Paris is arguably the most popular tourist destination on Earth.
The Colonial Languages of Iberia
Portuguese is not often thought of as a global language yet there are many more native Portuguese speakers than native French speakers. There are millions of them in the Americas, several countries in Africa and even in communities in places like China, India, Japan and East Timor. How is that for distribution? Brazil’s economy is the tenth largest in the world and the Lusophone African country of Angola is rich with diamonds, oil and coffee.
Spanish, or Castilian, was first distributed all over the Americas during the conquests and colonization of the fifteenth through nineteenth centuries. It was reinforced by the immigration of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and is still being distributed today to places like Italy, Japan, Germany, Canada and the USA. Spain’s economy grows every day and the Hispanic population in the USA is an ever increasing economic force. The cheap labor in Latin America also makes knowing Spanish important because many companies choose to move their factories there. Popular Hispanic writers like Pablo Neruda, Gabriel García Márquez and Isabel Allende have helped spread an interest in the language as well as pop artists like Shakira, Paulina Rubio and Juanes.
The Languages of the Cold War
Russian is the main language or a very important language in almost all of the countries that used to be part of the Soviet Union. These countries are in Europe, the Middle East and Asia making Russian well distributed. Russian science and literature keep the language attractive to many people all over the world.
It feels a little obvious mentioning English. With tens of millions of native speakers in three of the four quadrants of the planet and 1.5 billion speakers world wide, counting second language speakers, English is perhaps the most well distributed language ever. Canada, Australia, the USA and the UK are some of the most powerful countries in the world giving people plenty of incentive to learn English for monetary and diplomatic reasons. English language literature and pop culture are also found in just about every book store, library, movie theater, radio station and television station in the world.
I would include Chinese and Arabic in this list if it weren’t for their many mutually unintelligible spoken varieties. A very large percentage of the international Chinese communities do not speak or understand Mandarin. Likewise, a street merchant from Algeria and a street merchant from Jordan will have about as much luck carrying on a conversation as a German and a Dane.
Dutch and Esperanto are also languages that I would like to include for several reasons. They are both very well distributed languages, better than some languages that I included. Esperanto can be used to read literature from dozens of cultures and Dutch is associated with a very decent economic force. I decline to include them in the list of true international languages because of their lack of speakers. Dutch has twenty seven million and Esperanto only one million.
Filed under: Languages