A world language is spoken internationally and is learned and spoken by a large number of people as a second language. A world language is characterized not only by the total number of speakers (native and second language speakers), but also by its geographical distribution, as well as use in international organizations and diplomatic relations. One of the most widely spoken and fastest spreading world languages today is English, which has over 1.1 billion first- and second-language users worldwide.
Arabic gained international prominence because of the medieval Islamic conquests and the subsequent Arabization of the Middle East and North Africa, and it is also a liturgical language amongst Muslim communities outside the Arab World.
Standard Chinese is the direct replacement of Classical Chinese, which was a historical lingua franca in Far East Asia until the early 20th century, and today serves as a common language between speakers of other varieties of Chinese not only within China proper (between the Han Chinese and other unrelated ethnic groups), but in overseas Chinese communities. It is also widely taught as a second language internationally.
The major languages of the Indian subcontinent have numbers of speakers comparable to those of major world languages primarily due to the large population in the region rather than a supra-regional use of these languages, although Hindustani (including all Hindi dialects, and Urdu), Bengali and Tamil may fulfill the criteria in terms of supra-regional usage and international recognition. As an example, the native speaking population of Bengali vastly outnumber those who speak French as a first language, and it is one of the most spoken languages (ranking fifth or sixth) in the world with nearly 230 million total speakers, and is known for its long and rich literary tradition.
In addition to 370 million native speakers, English is estimated to have over 610 million second-language speakers, including anywhere between 200 and 350 million learners/users in China alone, at varying levels of study and proficiency, though this number is difficult to accurately assess. English is also increasingly becoming the dominant language of scientific research and papers worldwide, having even outpaced national languages in Western European countries, including France, where a recent study showed that English has massively displaced French as the language of scientific research in "hard" as well as in applied sciences.
During the 19th and early 20th centuries, French was the language of communication and diplomacy, and the favoured second language among the elite and the educated classes in Europe (including Russia, Romania, Bulgaria, Greece, and Ukraine) - as well as in many Middle East and North African countries such as Syria, Egypt, Ottoman Turkey and Iran. In addition, French enjoyed high status in some southeast Asian countries (Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia), and several South American ones like Argentina, Brazil, Chile, and Uruguay. However, French has declined steadily since World War I, being gradually displaced by English - although in Lebanon, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco, French continues to be the favoured second language, as well as enjoying co-official status in Canada, Switzerland and Belgium. Moreover, French still remains one of the working languages of many international organizations, including the United Nations, NATO, European Union and NAFTA. French is the principal working language of the European Court of Justice. French is also internationally recognized to be of high linguistic prestige, still used in diplomacy and international commerce, as well as having a significant portion of second language speakers throughout the world.
German served as a lingua franca in large portions of Europe for centuries, mainly the Holy Roman Empire and later the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It remains an important second language in much of Central and Eastern Europe, and in the international scientific community. It is the most widely spoken native language in the European Union as well as one of the three "procedural languages" of its institutions alongside English and French. It is the second most commonly used language on websites worldwide after English.
Russian is the largest native language in Europe, the most geographically widespread language in Eurasia, one of the six official languages of the United Nations, one of two official languages aboard the International Space Station and the second most widespread language on the Internet after English.
Russian was used in the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union, and its teaching was made compulsory in the Eastern Bloc countries. However, the use and teaching of Russian has declined sharply in both the former Eastern bloc and the near abroad since the break up of the Soviet Union and Russia’s deputy education minister was quoted as saying in December 2013 that the number of Russian speakers had fallen by 100 million since that date. It is still widely spoken throughout the Caucasus, Central Asia, Eastern Europe and the Baltic states.
Spanish is the world's second-most spoken native language, after Mandarin Chinese. Spanish was used in the Spanish Empire and today is in use in Spain, in Latin American countries (except Brazil, French Guyana, Suriname, Guiana, Haiti and other Caribbean islands), and is spoken in many parts of the United States, particularly in Florida and the states which border Mexico. Indeed, by 2016 Spanish was the most widely taught non-English language in American secondary schools and schools of higher education. It is also an official language of the United Nations. As of December 2017 Spanish had the third largest number of internet users by language (after English and Chinese).
Historical languages which had international significance as the lingua franca of a historical empire include Egyptian in Ancient Egypt; Sumerian, Akkadian and Aramaic in the various Mesopotamian civilizations and empires in the Ancient Near East; Ancient Greek in the Greek colonies in the form of various dialects, evolving to Koine Greek in the Hellenistic world, after the conquests of Alexander the Great and the Macedonian Empire, and subsequently in the eastern part of the Roman Empire and the territories of the Byzantine Empire; Latin in the Roman Empire and presently as the standard liturgical language for the Catholic faithful worldwide; Classical Chinese in East Asia during the Imperial era of Chinese history; Persian during the various succeeding Persian Empires, and once served as the second lingua franca of the Islamic World after Arabic; Sanskrit during the ancient and medieval historical periods of various states in South Asia, Southeast Asia, and Central Asia, and like Latin an important liturgical language of the Vedic religions.
The Romance languages bear testimony to the role of Latin as the lingua franca of the Roman Empire; for example, Italian has always been important in the Mediterranean region, and nowadays it is the most-spoken language among members of the Roman Catholic hierarchy, and it is also used in music (especially Opera) and the fashion industry. Turkish was similarly important as the primary language of the Ottoman Empire. Koine Greek was the "world language" of the Hellenistic period, but its distribution is not reflected in the distribution of Modern Greek due to the linguistic impact of the Slavic, Arabic and Turkic expansions. The distributions of the Arabic and Turkic languages, in turn, are a legacy of the Caliphates and the Turkic Khaganate, respectively.
Just as all the living world languages owe their status to linguistic imperialism, the suggestion of a given language as a world language or "universal language" has strong political implications. Thus, Russian was declared the "world language of internationalism" in Soviet literature, which at the same time denounced French as the "language of fancy courtiers" and English as the "jargon of traders". A number of international auxiliary languages have been introduced as prospective world languages, the most successful of them being Esperanto, but none were learned by as many people as the world languages were. Many natural languages have been proffered as candidates for a global lingua franca.
Living world languages
- a large number of speakers
- a substantial fraction of non-native speakers (function as lingua franca)
- official status in several countries
- use across several regions in the world
- a linguistic community not defined strictly along ethnic lines (multiethnic, pluricentric language)
- one or more standard registers which are widely taught as a foreign language
- association with linguistic prestige
- use in international trade relations
- use in international organizations
- use in the academic community
- significant body of literature
Certain languages with more than 100 million speakers - in particular, Japanese - are not listed. Japanese, although considered to be one of the more significant languages on the globe - does not qualify as a "world language" according to most of the criteria listed above. Japan as a region is nearly homogeneous from ethnic, cultural and linguistic standpoints. Its language has never really served as a lingua franca. Although international interest since the 1980s has prompted many major universities, secondary schools, and even primary schools worldwide to offer courses in the language, Japanese only enjoys a regionally limited sphere of influence.
|Language||Native speakers||Second speakers of the language||Students as a foreign language||Total speakers||Official status distribution||Official status maps|
|English||372 M||611 M||600 M||1500 M||List of territorial entities where English is an official language|
|French||80 M||153 M||62 M||274 M||List of territorial entities where French is an official language|
|Spanish||480 M||91 M||21 M||577 M||List of countries where Spanish is an official language|
Other sources denote the following languages as world languages, whilst stricter sources list them only as supra-regional languages:
|Language||Native speakers||First and second speakers of the language||Official status distribution||Official status maps|
|Mandarin Chinese||896~955 M
(Standard Mandarin only: 150 M)
|1091~1151 M||List of territorial entities where Chinese is an official language|
|Arabic||(n/a)||255~315 M (dialects+standard)||List of countries where Arabic is an official language|
|Hindustani (Hindi Belt, Urdu)||329 M (260M Hindi, 69 Urdu)||697 M (534M Hindi, 163 Urdu)||Official language in: India (Hindi & Urdu), Pakistan (Urdu) & Fiji (Fiji Hindi)
Recognised as minority language in: Mauritius (Hindi) and Surinam (Sarnami Hindustani)
|Portuguese||223 M||237~260 M||List of territorial entities where Portuguese is an official language|
|Russian||154 M||265 M||List of territorial entities where Russian is an official language|
|German||82 Mα (Standard German only: 71 M)||105 M to 132 M||List of territorial entities where German is an official language|
Other supra-regional languages
This section possibly contains original research. (June 2017) (Learn how and when to remove this template message)
Other languages of supra-regional importance which fail some of the other criteria to be considered de facto world languages include:
- ^α In contrast to other pluricentric languages (e.g., Arabic or Malay), Ethnologue only lists "Standard German", thereby excluding Swiss German and numerous other varieties of German. Summing up Standard German as well as all undisputed German dialects/varieties (see ISO-list in infobox at German language) that are not listed under "Standard German" results in ca. 90 M native speakers. Furthermore, Ammon (2014) points out that Ethnologue overestimates L2 speakers, thus underestimating L1 speakers, in Germany by 5M --> 95M L1 speakers.
- Fischer Weltalmanach. S. Fischer Verlag. Archived from the original on September 4, 2009.
- Baker, Colin; Jones, Sylvia Prys (1998). Encyclopedia of Bilingualism and Bilingual Education. Multilingual Matters. ISBN 9781853593628.
- "English". Ethnologue.
- "Summary by country". Ethnologue. Retrieved 2018-09-22.
- Languages Spoken by More Than 10 Million People. Microsoft Encarta 2006. Archived from the original on January 9, 2006. Retrieved 2007-02-18.
- Wei, Rining; Jinzhi Su (2012). "The statistics of English in China". English Today. 28 (3): 10–14. doi:10.1017/s0266078412000235.
- Crystal, David (2006). "9 - English worldwide". In Hogg, Richard; Denison, David (eds.). A History of the English Language. Cambridge University Press. pp. 420–439.
- Héran, François (June 2013). "No English please! Survey on the languages used for research and teaching in France" (PDF). Population & Sociétés (501).
- "Official Languages". United Nations. Retrieved 2016-10-29.
- "European Commission - PRESS RELEASES - Press release - Frequently asked questions on languages in Europe". europa.eu. Retrieved 2017-03-11.
- "Usage Statistics of Content Languages for Websites". Retrieved August 6, 2018.
- "Russian: Eurasia's Most Geographically Widespread Language". Day Translations Blog. 4 August 2014.
- "Usage Statistics and Market Share of Content Languages for Websites". w3techs.com. Retrieved 2018-09-21.
- Blank, Stephen (9 January 2015). "Russia's Waning Soft Power in Central Asia". The Diplomat.
- "Kyrgyzstan's Russian-Language Teaching Getting Squeezed Out". Eurasianet. 15 December 2014.
- Brooke, James (17 October 2012). "English Replaces Russian as Top Foreign Language of Study in Ex-Soviet Georgia". VOA News.
- Goldberg, David; Looney, Dennis; Lusin, Natalia (February 2019), Enrollments in Languages Other Than En glish in United States Institutions of Higher Education, Summer 2016 and Fall 2016: Preliminary Report (PDF), Modern Language Association of America, retrieved March 4, 2019
- "Number of Internet Users by Language". Internet World Stats. Retrieved 2018-09-22.
- Nasr, Seyyed Hossein (2003). Islam: Religion, History, and Civilization. HarperCollins.
- Pei, p. 105
- "What Is a World Language? (with pictures)". wisegeek.com.
- Wallraff, Barbara. "What Global Language?".
- "These are the most powerful languages in the world".
- cf. Pei p. 15
- Ammon, Ulrich (1989). Status and Function of Languages and Language Varieties. W. de Gruyter. ISBN 9780899253565.
- Mazrui, Ali AlʼAmin (1976). A World Federation of Cultures: An African Perspective. Free Press.
- "Summary by language size".
- "English". Ethnologue.
- "Le français, une langue mondiale" [La lengua francesa en el mundo 2014] (PDF) (in French). French Ministry of Foreign and European Affairs. 2014. Retrieved 2017-03-15.
- 2014 "The French language worldwide" report unveiled by Organisation de la Francophonie
- "Archived copy" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 2016-01-12. Retrieved 2015-11-02.CS1 maint: Archived copy as title (link)
- "https://www.cervantes.es/sobre_instituto_cervantes/prensa/2018/noticias/np_presentacion-anuario.htm", Instituto Cervantes (in Spanish), 2018 External link in
- "Chinese, Mandarin". Archived from the original on 2016-09-26. Retrieved 2018-08-08.
- Mikael Parkvall (2010). "Världens 100 största språk 2010" [The World's 100 Largest Languages in 2010]. Nationalencyklopedin. Archived from the original on 2012-11-11. Retrieved 2018-08-08.
- Luo, Chris (23 September 2014). "One-third of Chinese do not speak Putonghua, says Education Ministry". South China Morning Post. Retrieved 24 March 2017.
- "The 30 Most Spoken Languages of the World". KryssTal. 2010. Retrieved 2018-08-08.
- "Arabic". Ethnologue.
- "Português - Língua global não quer ser ignorada". Instituto Internacional da Língua Portuguesa (in Portuguese). Archived from the original on 2011-06-16. Retrieved 2010-08-04.
- Arefyev 2012, cited in Lewis, M. Paul; Simons, Gary F.; Fennig, Charles D., eds. (2016). "Russian language". Ethnologue. Retrieved 8 August 2018.
- "German, Swiss".
- Ammon, Ulrich - Die Stellung der deutschen Sprache in der Welt (de Gruyter Mouton; ISBN 978-3-11-019298-8)
- "German, Standard".
- "Dutch". Ethnologue.
- "Afrikaans". Ethnologue.
- "Swahili". Ethnologue.
- Abiola Irele; Biodun Jeyifo (2010). The Oxford Encyclopedia of African Thought. Oxford University Press. p. 362. ISBN 978-0-19-533473-9.[not in citation given]
- Swahili language (Stanford website)[not in citation given]
- "Persian, Iranian".
- Windfuhr, Gernot, ed. (2009). The Iranian Languages. London: Routledge. p. 418.
- "Dari". Ethnologue.
- "Turkish". Ethnologue.
- Katzner[page needed]
- "Europeans and their Languages" (PDF). ec.europa.eu. European Commission.[not in citation given]
- "Italian". Ethnologue.
- "Italian". University of Leicester. Retrieved 2018-09-21.
- "Tamil". Ethnologue.
- Christian Mair (ed.), The Politics of English As a World Language (2003), ISBN 978-90-420-0876-2.
- Mario Pei, One Language for the World (1958), ISBN 978-0-8196-0218-3.
- Anne-Marie De Mejía, Power, Prestige, and Bilingualism: International Perspectives on Elite Bilingual Education (2002), ISBN 978-1-85359-590-5.
- David Crystal, English as a Global Language (2003), ISBN 978-0-521-53032-3.
- Clare Mar-Molinero, The Politics of Language in the Spanish-speaking World (2000), ISBN 978-0-415-15655-4.
- George Weber, The World's 10 most influential Languages