Facts About the Most Important Languages in the World
English is spoken by some 380 million people as their first language, including 231 million in the US and about 60 million in the UK. As many as 1 billion people use it as a second language. While English is only the 3rd largest language by the number of native speakers (after Mandarin Chinese and Spanish), it is the #1 spoken language worldwide when including both native and non-native speakers. Arguably the world language, it is the language of globalization, international business, politics, diplomacy, IT and pop culture. The most commonly spoken language in 67 countries, English is the most widely taught second language, and an official language of 27 non-sovereign entities including the UN, the EU, the IOC, NATO, ASEAN, NAFTA, and the Commonwealth of Nations.
French is the 2nd most spoken language in the EU today, and the 9th most spoken language in the entire world with 220 million French speakers worldwide. French, which is the official language of 29 countries, is the only language with English that is spoken and taught on all 5 continents. It is spoken in 30 of the 54 countries in Africa, which has more French speakers than does France. French is the official or preferred language of many international organizations since France is one of the four largest industrial economies in the world and the second largest agricultural producer.
The 2nd most used language in science and the 3rd most used language on websites, German is spoken by 88 million people as their first language and around 10 million as a second language. Today, 1 in every 10 books published worldwide is in German. As the 21st century unfolds, German is used not only in Germany, the EU’s economic engine, but also wherever international business or scientific research is conducted.
Spanish is spoken by half a billion people in the world, including native and non-native speakers, including 37.6 million people in the US alone, where the Latino population is expected to reach almost 130 million by 2060. Spanish is an official language in 20 countries and several important international organizations such as the UN, the EU, the African Union, the Organization of American States, and Mercosur.
Portuguese is spoken by approximately 250 million people worldwide. It is the sole official language of not only Portugal and Brazil, but also Cape Verde, Guinea-Bissau, Mozambique, and São Tomé and Príncipe. Portuguese is the 5th most spoken native language in the world and the 3rd most spoken native European language. It is also the 2nd most spoken language in Latin America (after Spanish), and an official language of the EU, the African Union, the Organization of American States and Mercosur.
Italian today is spoken worldwide by around 85 million people, including by 59 million people as a native language in the EU, and as a 2nd language by 14 million, including in non-EU countries such as Switzerland and Albania, but also in Argentina and Malta. Italian is also the 5th most taught foreign language in the world (after English, French, German, and Spanish). Italian was an official language in Somalia during the Colonial period, and it is still a major language in fashion, art, sports, and opera.
Russian is spoken by around 260 million native speakers – not only in Russia, but also in Eastern Europe, the Balkans, Western Europe, the United States and Israel (by Jewish immigrants from the former USSR). Russian is the official language of close to 40 territories and the 6th largest language in the world. It is one of the official languages of the UN (including UNESCO and WHO), ISO, and ICAO.
Arabic is the official language of the 22 countries of the Arab League and one of the six languages of the UN. A Semitic language, it is spoken as a native language by over 200 million people, and used as a liturgical language by 1.6 billion Muslims. It is the 5th most commonly spoken language in the world. While there are significant regional variations in terms of dialects, Arabic speakers from different countries can communicate via Modern Standard Arabic or Literary Arabic, the only official form of Arabic, which is used worldwide in the media and government and the official language of 26 countries.
While English will continue to be the main language of global business, Mandarin Chinese is clearly on the rise around the world as China continues to gain traction as an emerging superpower with Chinese being spoken by over 1 billion people. Since China has opened up more to a free market economy with designated free market zones, the energy and dynamism of its people and civilization has been galvanized and Chinese businesses are proliferating across the globe. China is investing in Africa and Chinese consumers are buying more products from every part of the world. The business person of the 21st century will need to possess fluency or at least more than a passing familiarity of Mandarin Chinese. As to Cantonese, it is also spoken in at least two other very important Chinese destinations: Hong Kong and Macau.
Japan is considered to be one of the world’s main economic powers. Japanese is spoken as a native language by 140 million people in Japan itself. It has an interesting writing system with three different distinct types of writing: the Kanji writing system uses Chinese characters, which means that a Chinese speaker could read Japanese when written in Kanji. Its two other more modern writing systems, Hiragana and Katakana, are based on the 46 syllables used in Japanese. These are flexible systems allowing the sounds of Japanese and foreign words to be represented in writing. Spoken Japanese has several levels of formality which must be well-understood to avoid linguistic snafus. Knowing Japanese on a business level can help ensure successful professional relationships with Japanese clients and colleagues.
Korean is spoken by 80 million people worldwide. There are significant populations of Korean speakers in Brazil, Canada, Japan, Russia, the former USSR, and the US, and Korean is even one of the two official languages in China’s Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture. Korean is written in Hangul, a simple syllabary system that is unique to the language. The separation of the two Korean nations in 1953 has resulted in increasing differences among the several dialects of the Korean language that have emerged over time, with North Koreans borrowing Russian terms while South Koreans borrow extensively from English.