||The neutrality of this article is disputed. (November 2014)|
A world language is a language spoken internationally and which is learned by many 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, and use in international organizations and diplomatic relations. By these criteria, the major world languages are of Western European origin. The historical reason for this is the period of expansionist European imperialism and colonialism.
The world's most widely used language is English, which has over 1.8 billion users worldwide. French is the traditional language of diplomacy, and remains one of the working languages of many international organizations. Arabic gained international prominence because of the medieval Islamic conquests and the subsequent Arabization of the Middle East and North Africa, and is also a liturgical language amongst Muslim communities outside of 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 provides 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. Russian was used in the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union, and today is in use and widely understood in areas of Central and Eastern Europe, and Northern and Central Asia now in the near abroad, or of the former Soviet Bloc. It remains the lingua franca in the Commonwealth of Independent States. Spanish was used in the Spanish Empire and today is in use in Spain and in Latin American countries (except Brazil) and widely understood in some of the southern United States. 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. Italian has always been relevant in the mediterranean region, nowadays it is the most spoken and known language among members of the Roman catholic hierarchy and is also used in music (especially Opera) and fashion industry.
Other major languages are not widely used across several continents, but have had an international significance as the lingua franca of a historical empire. These include Greek in the Hellenistic world after the conquests of Alexander the Great, and in the territories of the Byzantine Empire; Latin in the Roman Empire and 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. Turkish was similarly important as the language of the Ottoman Empire.
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 to a lesser extent 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. However, while French is spoken intercontinentally, is internationally recognized to be of high linguistic prestige and used in diplomacy and international commerce, as well as having a significant portion of second language speakers throughout the world, the overwhelming majority of Bengali speakers are native Bengali people, with little to no influence outside of its regionally limited sprachraum or language space.
The Romance languages bear testimony to the role of Latin as the lingua franca of the Roman 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 distribution 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, including Dutch, German, Hungarian, Italian and Malay.
Living world languages
Some sources[which?] define a living world language as having the following properties:
- 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
|Language||Native speakers||First and second speakers of the language||Students as a foreign language||Total speakers||Official Status Distribution||Official Status Maps|
|English||430 M||950 M||750 M||2130 M[not in citation given]||Anglophone|
|Spanish||406 M||466 M||20 M||528 M||Hispanophone|
|French||78.6 M||118.5 M||100 M||230 M||Francophone|
Other sources denote the following languages as world languages, whilst stricter sources list them as supra-regional languages:
|Language||Native speakers||Total speakers||Official Status Distribution||Official Status Maps|
|Mandarin Chinese||848 M||1026 M||Sinophone world|
|Hindustani (Standard Hindi, Urdu)||323.4 M (260M Hindi, 63.4 Urdu)||484 M (380M Hindi, 104 Urdu)||Indian subcontinent|
|Arabic||353.5 M (206 million native speakers of all Arabic varieties +
246 million Arabic speakers as a second language of all Arabic varieties -
100,5 million not well-educated and have not adequate proficiency in Standard Arabic)
|Russian||162 M||272 M||Russophone|
|Portuguese||220 M||260 M||Lusophone|
|German||83.8 M||111.8 M||German-speaking Europe|
Other supra-regional languages
Other languages of supra-regional importance which fail some of the other criteria to be considered de facto world languages include:
|Language||Native speakers||Total speakers||Official Status Distribution||Official Status Maps|
|Malay||60 M||176–250 M||Maritime Southeast Asia|
|Turkish||83 M||100 M||Official Language in: Turkey, Cyprus, Northern Cyprus
Recognised minority language in: Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia, Romania, Iraq, Greece, Republic of Kosovo
Large diaspora in: Germany, France, United Kingdom, Netherlands, Austria, United States
|Persian||70 M||144 M||Greater Iran|
|Swahili||5–10 M||100 M||East Africa|
|Bengali||220 M||300 M||India, Bangladesh, Sierra Leone|
|Italian||60 M||85 M||Official language in: Italy, Switzerland , San Marino, Sovereign Order of Malta, Vatican City. Italian Language is relevant in countries impacted by the Italian diaspora and in former colonies and occupied territories of the Italian Empire.|
|Tamil||68 M||77 M||India, Sri Lanka, Singapore|
|Dutch and Afrikaans||28 M||46 M||Dutch-speaking world|
The Japanese language, with a number of speakers in excess of 100 million is not listed. Although considered to be one of the most internationally significant language along with the listed world languages, it is not considered a world language per se – Japan for example is almost ethnically, culturally and linguistically homogeneous, thus Japanese does not have much history as a lingua franca amongst communities who do not share a mother tongue or first language; their overseas communities are strongly tied to ethnicity. The Bengali language also is not as widely taught as a foreign language as Japanese, where international interest since the 1980s has prompted many major universities as well as a number of secondary and even primary schools worldwide to offer courses in the language. At least in the present, Japanese exert a regionally limited sphere of influence.
- List of languages by number of speakers
- National language
- Universal language
- Lingua franca
- International English
- World religion
- World population
- World economy
- World Englishes
- International auxiliary language
- Global language system
- List of languages by number of native speakers
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- Instituto Internacional da Língua Portuguesa
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- Italian language University of Leicester
- The World's 10 most influential Languages
- c.f. Pei p. 15
- 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.
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- George Weber, The World's 10 most influential Languages