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World language

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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.[1][2] By these criteria, the major world languages are of Western European origin. The historical reason for this is the period of European exploration and colonialism.

The world's most widely used language is English, which has over 1.8 billion users worldwide.[3] 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 near abroad and former Eastern 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, in Latin American countries (except Brazil, French Guyana, Haiti and other Caribbean islands), and is widely understood and spoken throughout the United States, particularly in 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;[4] 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[5] or sixth[6]) 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 not much influence outside of its regionally limited sprachraum or language space.[citation needed]


Historical world languages include Sumerian, Akkadian, Old Aramaic, Koine Greek, Latin, Arabic, Sanskrit, Chinese, Spanish, French, Russian and English.[1]

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".[7] 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.[7]

Living world languages

Some sources[which?] define a living world language as having the following properties:

Languages which are often considered world languages include:[1][8][9]

Language Native speakers[10] First and second speakers of the language[10] Students as a foreign language Total speakers Official Status Distribution Official Status Maps
English 430 M[11] 950 M[12] 750 M[13] 2130 M[13][not in citation given][citation needed] Anglophone Anglospeak.svg
Spanish 406 M 466 M 20 M[14] 528 M[15] Hispanophone Countries with Spanish as an official language.svg
French 78.6 M 118.5 M 100 M[16] 230 M[17] Francophone New-Map-Francophone World.PNG

Other sources denote the following languages as world languages, whilst stricter sources list them as supra-regional languages:[2]

Language Native speakers[10] Total speakers[10] Official Status Distribution Official Status Maps
Mandarin Chinese 848 M 1026 M Sinophone world Map-Sinophone World.png
Hindustani (Standard Hindi, Urdu) 323.4 M (260M Hindi, 63.4 Urdu) 484 M (380M Hindi, 104 Urdu) Indian subcontinent Map-Hindustani World.png
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)
Arab world

Arabic speaking world.svg

Russian 162 M 272 M Russophone RussianLanguageMap.png
Portuguese 220 M 260 M[19] Lusophone Map-Lusophone World-en.png
Persian 70 M 144 M Greater Iran Persian Language Location Map1.png
German 83.8 M 111.8 M German-speaking Europe DeutschsprachigeWelt.png
Turkish 83 M 100 M[20][21] 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
Map of Turkish Language.png
Italian 60 M 85 M[22] 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. Map Italophone World - updated.png
Dutch and Afrikaans 28 M 46 M Dutch-speaking world Map Dutch World scris.png

Other supra-regional languages

Further information: Lingua franca

Other languages of supra-regional importance which fail some of the other criteria to be considered de facto world languages include:

Language Native speakers[10] Total speakers Official Status Distribution Official Status Maps
Bengali 220 M 300 M India, Bangladesh, Sierra Leone,[23][24][25] Karachi, Pakistan (as a recognized secondary language)[26][27][28][29] Bengali-world.png
Malay 60 M 176–250 M Maritime Southeast Asia Maylay Language Map.svg
Swahili 5–10 M 100 M[30] East Africa Maeneo penye wasemaji wa Kiswahili.png
Tamil 68 M 77 M India, Sri Lanka, Singapore TamilPopulation-World.png

The Japanese language, with a number of speakers in excess of 100 million is not listed. Although considered to be one of the most significant languages internationally, along with the listed world languages,[31] it is not considered a world language per se. Japan for example is ethnically, culturally and linguistically almost homogeneous, thus Japanese has little 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. However, at least in the present, Japanese only exert a regionally limited sphere of influence.[32]

See also


  1. ^ a b c Fischer Verlag Weltalmanach stichwort_weltsprachen[dead link]
  2. ^ a b Baker & Jones Encyclopedia of bilingualism and bilingual education
  3. ^ "Summary by language size". Ethnologue. 1999-02-19. Retrieved 2013-12-23. 
  4. ^ Dr Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Islam: Religion, History, and Civilization, HarperCollins,Published 2003
  5. ^ "Statistical Summaries". Ethnologue. 2005. Retrieved 2007-03-03. 
  6. ^ Languages Spoken by More Than 10 Million People. Microsoft Encarta 2006. Retrieved 2007-02-18. [dead link]
  7. ^ a b Pei, p. 105
  8. ^ Ulrich Ammon Status and function of languages and language varieties
  9. ^ Ali Mazrui A world federation of cultures: an African perspective
  10. ^ a b c d e Ethnologue: Statistical Summaries
  11. ^ "English The World Language". Graphs. January 21, 2013. Retrieved June 3, 2014. 
  12. ^ "English The World Language". Graphs. January 21, 2014. Retrieved June 3, 2014. 
  13. ^ a b
  14. ^ Instituto Cervantes (page 12)
  15. ^, 5th International Congress on Spanish Language (,, Antonio Molina, director of the Instituto Cervantes in 2006 (,,[dead link]), Luis María Anson of the Real Academia Española (,International Congress about Spanish, 2008, Mario Melgar of the México University (, Enrique Díaz de Liaño Argüelles, director of Celer Solutions multilingual translation network ([1]) ,Feu Rosa - Spanish in Mercosur (,,,[2],
  16. ^
  17. ^
  18. ^
  19. ^ Instituto Internacional da Língua Portuguesa
  20. ^ Katzner
  21. ^
  22. ^ Italian language University of Leicester
  23. ^ "Daily Times - Leading News Resource of Pakistan". Retrieved 14 January 2014. 
  24. ^ "Sierra Leone makes Bengali official language". Retrieved 29 December 2002. 
  25. ^ Zahurul Alam (27 December 2002). "Bangla Made One of The Official Languages of Sierra Leone". 
  26. ^ Syed Yasir Kazmi (October 16, 2009). "Pakistani Bengalis". DEMOTIX. Retrieved April 2, 2013. 
  27. ^ "کراچی کے 'بنگالی پاکستانی'(Urdu)". محمد عثمان جامعی. 17 November 2003. Retrieved April 2, 2013. 
  28. ^ "The Language Movement : An Outline". Retrieved April 2, 2013. 
  29. ^ "Karachi Department of Bengali". Retrieved April 2, 2013. 
  30. ^ Abiola Irele; Biodun Jeyifo (2010). The Oxford Encyclopedia of African Thought. Oxford University Press. p. 362. ISBN 978-0-19-533473-9. 
  31. ^ The World's 10 most influential Languages
  32. ^ c.f. Pei p. 15


External links