A world language is one that is spoken internationally and learned and spoken by numerous 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 geographical distribution and its use in international organizations and diplomatic relations.
The most widely spoken (and likely the fastest spreading) world language today is English, with over 1.1 billion native and second-language users worldwide. On similar grounds, French and Spanish are also commonly categorized as world languages. Other possible world languages include Arabic, Mandarin Chinese, Russian and Portuguese.
Historically, Egyptian, Ancient Greek, Latin, Classical Chinese, Persian, Sanskrit, and Classical Arabic have also functioned as world languages due to their previous standings as lingua francas over large parts of the world.
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 East Asia, also referred to academically as the East Asian cultural sphere in terms of culture, 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.
Persian, a South-Western Iranian language, used to be lingua franca of non-Arabic parts of the Islamic world (Greater Iran, Anatolia and the Indian subcontinent in particular) during the medieval and early modern periods. Persian served as the official language of the empires, from the Delhi in India to Constantinople in 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 Tamil may fulfill the criteria in terms of supra-regional usage and international recognition. Tamil is spoken widely in Southern India. Tamil is an official language in Sri Lanka and Singapore. Tamil is recognized as a minority language in the constitution of South Africa . Tamil is used in the currency of Mauritius . Tamil is one of the three recognized languages of education in Malaysia. The Canadian government recognized the month of January as the Tamil heritage of month. 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. English is the most common of the languages used on the Internet. As of 2019[update], according to one survey, English is used by 54.0% of the world's top 10 million websites, and according to another survey, 25.5% of all Internet users are English speakers.
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, and Greece) — 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 its colony in Indochina, and in 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, although it had many different dialects which formed a language continuum from Holland and Flanders in the northwest, through Schleswig in the north across to East Prussia in the northeast, down to Styria and Lower Austria in the southeast and Bern and South Tyrol in the south, served as a lingua franca in large portions of Europe for centuries, mainly within the Holy Roman Empire and the eastern areas of the Kingdom of Prussia (which later included additional areas of previously Polish territory), and later within the Austro-Hungarian Empire and other areas where Germans settled, such as the Baltic States and Transylvania. 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. As of 2019[update], it is the third most commonly used language for website content, with 5.8% of the world's top 10 million websites using it, and 2.1% of all Internet users are German speakers.
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, and one of two official languages aboard the International Space Station. As of 2019[update], it is the second most commonly used language for website content, with 5.9% of the world's top 10 million websites using it, and 2.5% of all Internet users are Russian speakers.
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 Guiana and Haiti), and is widely spoken in many parts of the United States, particularly in Florida and the states which border Mexico. By 2011, around 13% of the US population fluently speaks Spanish. 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 2019[update], Spanish had the third-largest number of internet users by language with 7.9%, after English with 25.2% and Chinese with 19.3%.
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 First 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
- numerous 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 in the world, 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||Family||Branch||First language (L1)||Second language (L2)||Total
|Official status distribution||Global distribution map|
|English||Indo-European||Germanic||369.7 million||898.4 million||1.268 billion||List of territorial entities where English is an official language|
|French||Indo-European||Romance||77.3 million||199.3 million||276.6 million||List of territorial entities where French is an official language|
|Spanish||Indo-European||Romance||463.0 million||74.9 million||537.9 million||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||Family||Branch||First language (L1)||Second language (L2)||Total
|Official status distribution||Global distribution map|
|Chinese||Sino-Tibetan||Sinitic||—||—||1.324 billion||List of territorial entities where Chinese is an official language|
|Arabic||Afro-Asiatic||Semitic||—||—||335.2 million||List of countries where Arabic is an official language|
|Portuguese||Indo-European||Romance||227.9 million||24.2 million||252.2 million||List of territorial entities where Portuguese is an official language|
|Russian||Indo-European||Slavic||153.6 million||104.3 million||258.0 million||List of territorial entities where Russian is an official language|
|Standard German||Indo-European||Germanic||75.5 million||56.1 million||131.6 million||List of territorial entities where German is an official language|
Other supra-regional languages
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Other languages of supra-regional importance which fail some of the other criteria to be considered de facto world languages include:
- Global language system
- International auxiliary language
- International English
- Lingua franca
- List of languages by number of native speakers
- List of languages by total number of speakers
- National language
- Universal language
- World economy
- World Englishes
- World population
- World religion
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