If any of you have ever tried learning a foreign language you know that the hardest step is often the first – choosing which one. There are over 6,000 languages in use today and roughly 30% are spoken by 1,000 people or less. So, to make your job easier, in this list we are ranking the 10 most influential languages in the world. Keep in mind, however, that some languages with relatively few speakers (like Italian) will outrank languages with hundreds of millions of speakers (like Bengali). This is because the rankings are not just done according to how many people speak the language. Of course this is taken into consideration but so is how many people speak it as a second language, its impact on global commerce and trade, and its lingua franca status around the world.
These sister languages are very closely related and really only differ in their writing system. Urdu, the official language of Pakistan, is written using Arabic script while Hindi, the official language of India, is written in Devanagari script. Although neither has significant influence outside of the Indian Subcontinent, they have a combined total of over 200 million native speakers and hundreds of millions more that speak them as a second language. It should be noted, however, that a multitude of languages are spoken throughout India and although Hindi is the official language, certain regions like the Dravidian south prefer English which is often seen as an “associate official language”.
Spoken by about 120 million people, most of its speakers reside within the borders of Japan. It is a notoriously hard language to learn, which has probably in part contributed to the fact that it hasn’t been picked up in many other countries. Japan is, however, one of the worlds reigning economic powers and as a result its language does hold significant influence in the realms of business and trade.
With about 120 million speakers German has undergone some wild fluctuations over the course of the last century. Typically, it has been the language of science and industry with technically oriented students around the globe having to learn it in order to pursue their careers. Although after the World Wars it inevitably lost influence, as one of the worlds strongest economies Germany still exerts considerable influence.
Spoken by about 200 million people world wide, Portuguese is actually the most popular language in the Southern Hemisphere and along with English, French, and Spanish, it is considered a “world language” due to its global reach. With Brazil emerging as a world power look for Portuguese to come along for the ride.
With around 200 million native speakers, Russian is understood throughout Eastern Europe and Central Asia. The reason we say understood rather than spoken is due to the fact that many former Soviet nations, having a “bad taste” left in their mouth from Soviet occupation, tend to avoid using the language although it is still widely understood. In spite of that, and a vastly decreased global influence, Russian is still a major player in the global arena.
There are two reasons that Mandarin is #5 on this list. First, it has close to a billion native speakers, which is almost three times as much as any other language. The truth is, however, that it really isn’t spoken anywhere beyond Southeast Asia other than in Taiwan or Chinese communities in other parts of the world. So, although at present it is not very influential in a global sense, due to a robust economy it very well may begin to flex its muscles in the near future.
Apart from English and French, Arabic is arguably the most international language largely due to its position as the language of Islam. It can be hard to quantify the exact number of speakers however, because modern standard Arabic, although spoken as a second language by hundreds of million people around the globe, can be very different from the dialects spoken in the roughly twenty countries where it is used as the primary language.
Although no where near English in terms of global influence, Spanish is rapidly gaining on French. It has almost 400 million native speakers, is the lingua franca of close to twenty countries, and is spoken all over the world as a second language. Also, as Latin America comes into its own on the world stage Spanish will inevitably gain influence.
Although it has lost considerable ground to English over the course of the last century, French is still the second most influential language in the world. With official language status in 10 countries it is the most popular lingua franca after English and is used by many international groups and organizations.
Didn’t see this one coming did you? Okay, maybe you did. Although it only has about 500 million native speakers there are almost 2 billion people in the world that communicate in English on a regular basis. And can you guess where most of those English speakers live? Hint – the same country whose primary language is #5