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The world's most influential languages (andaman.org)
78 points by jfaucett on Sept 16, 2012 | hide | past | web | favorite | 68 comments

These ranking ignore the fact Spanish and Portuguese are much closer to each other than any other two languages in this top ten listing.

Although Spanish and Portuguese are now two separate unintelligible languages, they were virtually the same 800 years ago. Someone literate in one can easily learn the other; it's probably the same with fluency. Machine translation between them is probably very accurate because of their relative closeness and the huge volume of sample data for both languages. Also... Because of geopolitics, Brazil and the rest of Latin America can easily negotiate compromise agreements where they say "put the administrative center for this in Brazil and make Spanish the official language for it".

So perhaps there's more of a case to consider Spanish and Portuguese to be one language for these rankings, than there is to lump all the unintelligible Arabic dialects (Morrocan, Egyptian, Levantine, Iraqi, and Gulf) into one language, or the unintelligible Chinese dialects (Mandarin, Cantonese, Wu, Minbei, Minnan, Xiang, Gan) into one language.

Yes, as Portuguese I also have an issue with his bias for Brazilian Portuguese, as there are many more countries speaking the language.

- Portugal

- Brazil

- Angola

- Mozambique

- Green Cape

- Saint Thomas and Prince

- Guine-Bissau

- East-Timor

Probably a few others might still use some dialect of the language as well.

Actually Portuguese was the same as Galician not Spanish. Spanish is actually Castilian from Castile region. In 1516 Ferdinand II declared it as the official language of Spain, hence Spanish.

But you're right about the language similarities.

I spoke Brazilian Portuguese and even back then it was relatively hard for me to understand Portuguese the original due to pronounciation/accent differences (by relatively hard I mean I had to focus). I had less problems understanding Spanish, say, in Uruguay. To this day, although I forgot the language, I can easily spot a Brazilian in a crowd of talking people while it takes me a moment to recognize someone speaking European Portuguese.

> many more countries speaking the language.

maybe more, but not with 200 million people

Hah, that's something that always amazed me: I lived in Brazil for 7 years (coming from Argentina) and became fluent in Brazilian Portuguese in the process. Funnily enough, I don't have any problem at all understanding most Portuguese people, whereas my wife wouldn't be able to understand half of what they said. How does that work? :)

Having a few Brazilian friends, I would say they have some hard time getting our pronunciation, whereas foreigners seem to be more open minded, kind of.

I have lived this experience with French. I have less problems to understand French Canadian than my French friends.

American English is also easier to understand for most foreigners than some accents of English (and I mean only the ones from England).

What? The USA doesn't have an official language (like in one recognized by government)?

That's news for me, and it's interesting to think on the implications. I'll point that next time an american complains to me on the web to "speak english".

There have been various attempts to make English the national language of the United States, but they have all failed, due in part to being perceived as vaguely racist or xenophobic. This is especially strange considering that virtually every other country does have an official language (or languages).

That said, you (and your potential interlocutors) will likely benefit from using the lingua franca, which is currently English, whether or not you're exhorted to do so by an American.

> This is especially strange considering that virtually every other country does have an official language (or languages)

My assumption for why it isn't strange is that most countries had an official language (whether at one point it was decreed, or if it just happened naturally) before a huge amount of immigration happened in the way that it has in America, i.e. that now there are huge numbers of Spanish speakers in a number of states.

That there are huge numbers of Spanish speakers in a number of states is not due to immigration. Most of these states spoke Spanish before they had an influx of English-speaking illegal immigrants. The English speakers (helped) split these states off from Mexico and made them join the USA. (Okay, the reason they spoke Spanish is due to the prior illegal immigration of Spanish conquistadors).

Which is why, in Silicon Valley, you have city names like San Jose, Santa Clara, Los Altos, Palo Alto, San Mateo, San Bruno, and San Francisco; and road names like Junipero Serra, San Antonio Road, and El Camino Real.

> That there are huge numbers of Spanish speakers in a number of states is not due to immigration. Most of these states spoke Spanish before they had an influx of English-speaking illegal immigrants. The English speakers (helped) split these states off from Mexico and made them join the USA. (Okay, the reason they spoke Spanish is due to the prior illegal immigration of Spanish conquistadors).

The Spanish influence was largely via the Catholic Church. There's a whole chain of cities about a day's walk apart in CA, each with a mission.

That said, the Spanish weren't the only "invaders" for very long. Folks from other US states started showing up within a couple of decades. Spain made an official land-grab, extending from Mexico, but eventually lost a "war".

Also, even during the "Spanish" days, Spanish was only the language of those cities. The natives didn't switch, and there were a lot more of them (at that time).

>This is especially strange considering that virtually every other country does have an official language (or languages).

Yes, but then again virtually every other country also has a national history that spans more than 400 years, and one or two ethnicities living in it, i.e they are not a synthetic nation made from an influx of immigrants from all over the world.

Have a Today I Found Out story all about it: http://www.todayifoundout.com/index.php/2012/08/the-united-s...

Many of the states don't have official languages either and of those that do several are bi-lingual. I grew up in Maine which doesn't have an official language but has a de-facto standard of English and French. The northern parts of the state have a very heavy french canadian influence and several towns use French more than English in signage as well as orally.

English not being the official language of the US means some certain other countries could more easily accept it as an expedient language for international discourse.

Is this a winner-takes-all, network effects situation? Are we going to see the entire world speaking English as at least a second language in the next 50-100 years?

The research the article talks about was done in 1990, so the dynamics as to the influence of top-spoken languages may well have changed.

Chinese is presently the most spoken language in the world (native and secondary speakers combined), so if you suspect the winner is going to be a winner in some 'network effects' situation, it might be Chinese. [1] Chinese also has a very strong internet presence. [2]

On a slightly unrelated note, what is interesting is that Hindustani, despite being one of the most spoken languages, has such little influence. Unlike for Chinese or Russian, there is relatively little resistance in it being completely dominated by English as the "business language" in the very areas that the language is native to.

[1]: Some schools in African countries, located near areas where there is Chinese involvement, are teaching Chinese: http://igitur-archive.library.uu.nl/student-theses/2012-0601... -- elsewhere in Americas and Europe there has also been a noticeable bump in people trying to pick up Chinese as their second language.

[2]: http://www.internetworldstats.com/stats7.htm

Chinese is presently the most spoken language in the world (native and secondary speakers combined)

It was a claim like this that motivated me to begin studying Chinese back in the 1970s. But if we are talking about one language community, all of whose members can genuinely converse with one another, today English just might have more speakers than (standard) Chinese has. Social science surveys by the Chinese government suggest that only just more than half of China's population is conversant in standard Chinese,


and that squares with the experience of most travelers in China, and most Chinese-speaking people who know a lot of Chinese people outside of China, that there are still quite a few nationals of China who are not readily understood when they attempt to converse with other nationals of China.

Influence of a language depends on a lot more than just raw number of speakers. Sometime way back in the early 1980s, the Xerox company did an estimate of language influence weighted by the per-capita domestic product of persons speaking various languages, which of course boosts the ranking of English (and also of Japanese, at that time) as compared to Chinese.

Looking at what happened to Russian (my apologies to the authors of the first couple comments posted here), I would actually expect the influence of Chinese to decline by 2050, while the influence of English, both from the core strengths of the "inner circle" English-speaking countries (Britain, the United States, Canada, Australia, Ireland, and New Zealand) and the outer circle of countries where English is co-official, and from the unparalleled use of English as a worldwide interlanguage. When someone from Korea meets someone from Japan while both are in Taiwan, either might speak the language of the other, and I have seen that done both ways, but when they want to include a local person in the conversation, unless they really are in Taiwan as students of Chinese, they will likely resort to English to speak to one another. And so it goes with all kinds of unlikely combinations of ethnic groups in all kinds of places all over the world.

I am not at all ethnocentric about my sole native language, General American English, and I am second to none in urging Americans to acquire other languages for additional international understanding, but every mash-up of language groups that happens day by day in today's world is likely to accelerate the spread of English and to increase its influence.

> It was a claim like this that motivated me to begin studying Chinese back in the 1970s.

Back in 1970s, interesting! Some questions, if you don't mind:

1) The Chinese language seems to be the odd duck in that it demands significantly more time to get a good grip of it. I've read a number of blogs where the language-learner in the end regrets having spent time learning Chinese[1], (something I seldom see for other languages). My question for you: if you had to decide at this point, in this day and age, would you go ahead and spend the time learning Chinese?

2) What interesting employment opportunity can be expected do you think, after having learned Chinese? I've read over and over again that every big Chinese company has strong ties to the Chinese gov't, and that no foreigner has ever been able to successfully pull it off (a good example is Zuckerburg -- even though the guy himself speaks a bit of Mandarin and has a Chinese girlfriend). Does that pretty much rule out entrepreneurial success in China for foreigners?

[1]: http://thelinguafranca.wordpress.com/2008/05/27/why-you-shou...

"Chinese is presently the most spoken language in the world (native and secondary speakers combined), so if you suspect the winner is going to be a winner in some 'network effects' situation, it might be Chinese. [1] Chinese also has a very strong internet presence. [2]"

Counting the total number of speakers is not a very smart way of thinking about "network effects" of languages. You should count the number of speakers among knowledge and media creators. People will have to learn those languages to gain that knowledge and understand that media.

It's not the '60s - 90's anymore, when US had the stronghold on global cultural creation/consumption. There are many signs that this is starting to fade, and for huge masses of people it was never true in the first place. E.g Chinese people could not care less about english media and knowledge. But people wanting work in China/Asia might very well care about learning english.

Movies and TV shows will be the least of English hegemony. Science, Tech, and Business is where it rules and it will never be displaced by any language currently on earth. A future constructed language may have a chance though.

> Movies and TV shows will be the least of English hegemony.

I disagree. Movies, TV, and Music are a powerful way to spread a language because it is a great content is the best way to learn a language, and pop culture attracts young people to the language at an age when it is realistic to learn another language.

Scandinavians tend to be excellent English speakers. One possible reason is that they don't dub TV there. Young people want to know English so they can talk about the cool tv shows and music, and they also get a ton of practice because they watch so much English TV.

>Science, Tech, and Business is where it rules and it will never be displaced by any language currently on earth.

Never? The language of science, tech and business has already been displaced several times. It's far easier than you think. At some point it was Greek. Then Latin. Then French. Then English.

The Chinese, for one, could not care less about english content. They have their own "Google", their own forums, music, etc. One can imagine a near future where people from the west learn Chinese to communicate for trade and business and not the opposite. For example, language lessons from non existent and unimaginable in my (European) country, are all the vogue the last 3-4 years. And there is increased demand all over Europe and in the US too for Chinese language courses. From Wikipedia:

= = = = =

In 2010, 750,000 people (670,000 from overseas) took the Chinese Proficiency Test. For comparison, in 2005, 117,660 non-native speakers took the test, an increase of 26.52% from 2004. From 2000 to 2004, the number of students in England, Wales and Northern Ireland taking Advanced Level exams in Chinese increased by 57%. An independent school in the UK made Chinese one of their compulsory subjects for study in 2006. Chinese language study is also rising in the United States. The USC U.S.-China Institute cited a report that 51,582 students were studying the language in US colleges and universities. While far behind the more than 800,000 students who study Spanish, the number is more than three times higher than in 1986.

= = = = =

How will that play in 15-30 years?

No, downvoting won't change the future.

Arguing against my position might work better...

That certainly seems plausible. In some fields, such as aviation, English is mandated by international agreements.

In others, such as much of the sciences, it is a de facto standard. Almost all high impact science journals are in English, for instance.

I suspect that what we'll eventually end up with is that most people will speak TWO languages as their native language. It's just so damned easy for kids to pick up two languages if they are exposed to both of them early.

We'll first go through a stage where English is widespread as a second language, learned in elementary school or high school. Arguably, we are getting close to that now in many countries, such as most of Western Europe and Scandinavia.

Many of those people will use English enough at home, either on purpose for their children's benefit or because of the large amount of English content on the internet, for their children to grow up bilingual speaking both English and their parent's native language.

There is a natural monopoly in a lingua franca, or common tongue. The original lingua franca was a Mediterranean trading language that drew principally on Italian [1]; with modern communications and media linking the world, this monopoly is now global, and the monopolist is English. This became particularly clear to me last year as I traveled the world on a circumnavigation. In Thailand, the signs are in Thai and English. In Singapore, they are in Chinese and English. In the United Arab Emirates, they are in Arabic and English. In Ireland, they are in Irish and English.

English owes its status principally to the political dominance of English-speaking nations—roughly speaking, Britain ruled the world in the 19th century, and America ruled it in the 20th—but it's not a bad choice as languages go. It has a rich technical vocabulary, relatively simple grammar and syntax, and an alphabetic writing system based on the widely supported Roman alphabet. Its only plausible competition is Chinese, due mainly to the massive number of native Chinese speakers, but Chinese writing is so difficult [2] that it's hard to imagine it ever competing successfully with English: although the latter's idiosyncratic spelling is legendary [3], even a mediocre alphabetic system is still much easier than Chinese.

Some people worry that advocating the use of English is an act of cultural imperialism [4], but this issue arises only because for English speakers the native tongue and the lingua franca happen to coincide [5]. It's easy to see the fallacy if you consider the possibility of a different lingua franca; for example, if Swahili were the lingua franca, I would advocate its use, and would strive to master it myself. As luck would have it, I get to be lazy and coast on my native tongue, but if you haven't yet mastered English, it would be much to your benefit to do so.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mediterranean_Lingua_Franca

[2] http://www.pinyin.info/readings/texts/moser.html

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ghoti

[4] http://www.catb.org/~esr/faqs/hacker-howto.html

[5] In physics, we would call this a degeneracy.

Indonesian/Malay is spoken by around 268 million people. It is sometimes rated as the sixth most widely spoken language in the world, yet George Weber barely mentions it.

Indonesia itself has 237 million people, of which almost 100% speak Indonesian/Malay.

The Indonesian/Malay language is a huge gaping hole in George Weber's research.


Спасибо за статью. Печально, что русский язык не входит в десятку наиболее используемых языков в Internet.

The article is old, if you open the link they refer to, you will see that the Russian is there:


When measured how?

Data in a table at the bottom of the article is extremely stale - 2007! Russia now boasts the biggest Internet audience of all European countries. Add to that a formidable number of Russian speakers in other countries, and Russian surely outgrosses Korean and Italian on the Internet.

(I am not sure that number of speakers online is the one and only measurement of "language usage on the Internet")

You seem to be talking about a "potential" audience. Statistics for actual usage is quite different.

Nope. It's actual monthly audience.

Got any (recent) data?

When of the other guys posted some stats in their post: http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=4531152

Просто начните холодная война снова :D

Sorry to ruin a joke, but this sentence is not valid.

Google Translate again: "Just start a cold war again: D"

(Google Translate doesn't quite 'get' smilies, apparently.)

Let's see what Google Translate makes of this:

"Thank you for the article. It is sad that the Russian language is not included in the top ten most used language on the Internet."

Fig. 3 lowest estimate for # of English speakers is < 300M? What?

Current population of the Anglosphere (Australia / Canada / New Zealand / United Kingdom / United States) = 435M; I'll eat my hat if <75% of the population of these countries speak English. That's saying nothing of all the other Europeans, Indians, Chinese, Africans, and Latinos that speak English. Like the Dutch don't also speak English!?

What the hell was that estimator smoking?

Hell, the max estimate there (~500M) is probably closer to a reasonable minimum.

The figures in the article are from 20 years ago. Back then, populations were smaller and many countries were just ramping-up English education for students.

I didn't catch that, thanks. Curiosity killed the cat, so:

Population of Anglosphere in 1992: 364M... <300M speakers still seems very low even 20 years ago.

"It should be a sobering thought, however, to any triumphalist impulse that in 100 AD Latin looked set to dominate its slice of the world forever."

The winner of the "Top Language of 100 AD" should go to Chinese circa 100 A.D.


The following languages are heavily influenced by written chinese:

Korean http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hanja

Japanese http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kanji

Vietnamese http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vietnamese_language

As well as a variety of other languages (though the regions where they are from are now considered part of China):


Moderately influenced:

Mongolian http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mongolian_language

Thai http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thai_language

Here is a picture of Han China and Roman Empire circa 100 A.D.


Written Chinese still dominate its slice of the world.

While not all chinese are conversant with Standard Mandarin, (I am not), almost all of them can read and write chinese.

You can make a similar list for Latin though; the Romance languages are (by definition) descended from it; that's Spanish, French, Italian and Portugese, and English and German are heavily influenced by it. That's a significant majority of the score of the top ten languages from the article, so you can argue that by their standards Latin is more significant, even though it's no longer really a living language in its own right.

Good point; I thought the article missed out on analysis about indirect influence by a language through influencing neighbouring languages. Would've been nice have read about Latin's influence on other languages rather than have it being a mere footnote.

It really depends on how you define a language and a speaker. I have heard estimates that English is currently the most spoken language of all time. (at least on earth). With over half of the worlds population being familiar with at least a few words, 1.8 billion people with basic competency, and a steady trend of English words being adopted into most other living languages.

I wonder about the credibility of this article given that it talks about "Chinese" as if it were a single language. There are many spoken languages in China (most notably Mandarin and Cantonese). They share a common written form but if you're talking about the "most influential language" surely the spoken languages should count for something.

Where do you draw the line? Is Latin American Spanish separate enough from Spain's Spanish? Is French different from Canadian French? American vs British English?

Even southern US English vs northern US English? Being from the north and visiting the south regularly I can attest that its very difficult to understand the 'deep locals', granted its sort of a French-English creole.

Northern German vs Southern German? I was in Munich for Oktoberfest 4 years ago and I was surprised to find Bavarians speaking to northern Germans in English most of the time. They told me they couldn't understand each other and hated each others accents so using English was easier.

It seems extremely difficult to determine and relatively arbitrary where the distinction between 'explicit' languages is made.

The various languages in China do not begin to even approach anything like mutual intelligibility. They are not dialects but separate languages, much in the way Spanish and Romanian are different languages even though they both started as Latin.

Mandarin and Cantonese are different languages, not dialects of the same language.

Strange that they didn't include quantity and quality of media available in a given language, unless it's somehow covered under "Socio-literary prestige" (which is never precisely defined). This metric may be English's biggest source of influence.

Looking at the advances in machine translation and speech recognition in the last 10 years, how long before fluency in English becomes irrelevant?

If any English that you hear, see, or read is instantly and perfectly translated to your native language, and vice versa, then all languages get equal footing. (Except perhaps for some primitive languages.)

Perfect translation is going to be hard. For an everyday most common 5,000 words that may be ok but anything outside of that would require the invention of many new words when English likely already has them. They don't really mean anything in English either - for example "quantum mechanics" are just two words, and have to be learned even for English speakers. When coming from another language you may as well use whatever words others are already using. You can see that happening when other language speakers adopt English words.

There are other factors - English speakers readily adopt words from other languages as needed. This makes it a lot easier to expand. Compare with the Académie française: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Acad%C3%A9mie_fran%C3%A7aise

Look at what people all over the world are constantly bombarded with - Hollywood's output is shown (and popular) everywhere. As are words like Coca-Cola, McDonalds, Nike and Apple. Even Bollywood is including increasing amounts of English in its output. Popular entertainers in various countries have also taken to singing some or all of their songs in English.

Look at generating input. There is a bias to a reasonably small number of symbols. A 500 key keyboard isn't practical (although variations exist). Having many modes and switching amongst them isn't that pleasant either. We already see people dropping case from English where is it mostly cosmetic. (Of course voice recognition is always around the corner but isn't practical in many environments and has always been around the corner.)

It is acceptable to speak English "badly" - did I tell you about the time that: the mat cat sat upon? I've heard from speakers of other languages that just getting the gender wrong in a sentence is enough to make it extremely hard to understand.

My prediction is that the number of speakers of English as a second language will continue to climb since it is the most friction free way of communicating in many circumstances, and that will rapidly lead to their kids adopting it as a first language. Heck all the people I know who have a non-English language as their first language have their kids speaking English as their first language.

TLDR: English makes a very good lowest common denominator

There needs to be an international version of English designed so that it is simple to learn. For instance: one sound = one letter and all verbs conjugate the same.

You would enjoy Bill Bryson's book Mother Tongue. At one point (several hundred years ago) English was going through a period of simplification and rationalization but it was also during that period that dictionaries, newspapers etc become popular. Consequently some words had already become consistent and some hadn't and we are somewhat stuck with poor timing. http://www.amazon.com/The-Mother-Tongue-English-That/dp/0380...

Esperanto is an attempt at a equal international language for all. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Esperanto

Because English and English speakers are happy to adapt and change, the simplification is happening. Look at text messaging where superfluous extra words and letters get dropped, as does case. Even Hollywood is careful to keep language simple in their popular movies aimed at a worldwide audience.

Thank you for the recommendations. How do you think English speaker would respond to a version of English which had changes like: Each sound had its own letter and all spelling was phonetic?

There have been lots of attempts to reform English. There is also Simple English Wikipedia which just simplifies structure not pronounciation https://simple.wikipedia.org/wiki/Main_Page

The idea is glorious but if you skim random pages ("Show any page"), most of pages are neigher complete nor about important topics nor written in simple language.

An incompatible variant of English would have none of the network advantages, at which point you might as well use a fully designed conlang like lojban.

An alternative, phonemic alphabet for foreigners might have more hope, though even then the use case is narrow.

I was thinking it could be designed initially to be 80% compatible with English, in order to gain a high rate of adoption. then introduce changes every 5 years.

> did I tell you about the time that: the mat cat sat upon?

I'm not getting it. What was the bad English speaker trying to say?

I'm not sure if Google Translate is cutting edge but I would imagine it's pretty close to that. For Finnish atleast it's not really any better than BabelFish was 10 years ago. You can get the gist of things most of the time but there are still huge errors and misunderstandings in anything that's not super-basic.

Although much changes with technology, much remains the same. People have had the technological ability to communicate solely through telephone/computer for many years which easily beats face to face communication in terms of efficiency in a geographically diverse group, but people are still shelling out money for plane tickets. There is something to be said for the ability to chat to someone about a ball game without speaking and hearing through a machine.

Although I'd say human to human and human to computer communication are very different, I'd agree with you that some languages are objectively better. There are ancient tribes that don't have words for numbers above two. Esperanto seems to be one of the easier languages to learn, at least for those already fluent in european languages. But when it comes to adoption, culture and ubiquity seem to be the most important factors.

>If any English that you hear, see, or read is instantly and perfectly translated to your native language, and vice versa, then all languages get equal footing. (Except perhaps for some primitive languages.)

Well, not only that. English usage will also drop because of long term economic and cultural effects. English had commerce, hollywood and popular music going for it.

But billions of people in emerging middle classes now, e.g in China and India, get their own "hollywoods" and music on, and they also get at least equal footing in the world trade-ways (commerce).

With a large cultural industry and commercial opportunities, they'll be just like Americans that could not care less about non-english speaking content (movies, books, series, webpages, songs, etc).

> ... get their own "hollywoods" and music on, and they also get at least equal footing in the world trade-ways (commerce).

And the way they do that is by including English. For example see the second paragraph of http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bollywood or consider the recent Korean pop success "Gangnam Style".

I foresee a world where everyone speaks English, but with a regional accent.

Less and less as their regional and peripheral economies take the lead.

The english are a byproduct of the American cultural dominance in the pop field that is slowly corroded.

The "cultural" enterprises will segment and diversify, but business, tech, and science will all converge on English. Anyone from those other "hollywoods" will have to use English to reach a global audience.

I find Fig. 13. (Rise and fall of major languages: the historical dimension) quite interesting.

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