Just for funsies, I started wondering how many languages you’d have to know to be able to converse with half of the humans in the world. (This is a playdream. Proceed with carelessness, and don’t get super hung up on numbers, mk?) I’m lucky enough to natively speak the most widely-spoken language in the world (a language of the UN, of science, of the Olypmics, and so on), but I wondered what it would take to be able to speak with half of all humans in their own native languages. Turns out, not too much:
That’s it. So if I spoke a dozen more language, that would cover 50% of the world’s population (at least per 2010 numbers). I speak (and you’re reading) #3. Mandarin and Spanish are the first two, and luckily enough, they’re also in the UN 6 languages (Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian and Spanish). And I mean… if I learned half of the UN languages—which is to say, finished learning Spanish and then learned Chinese—how could I resist learning the other three?
Let’s visualize a moment what it would take to know a language someone—let’s say at least 50% of the people you’d see just walking down the road—has a chance at knowing. Here, I’ve tossed together a super rough overlay of where you could go and feel mostly certain you could speak to someone with just English, Russian, Arabic, Spanish, and French:
Although Mandarin, Hindi (which I’ve learned is actually a couple of languages sort of tossed into a single bucket by maybe my Wiki resources), and Bengali top the chart in terms of how many people speak the language, they simply aren’t as widespread geographically as the other languages, so I left them off my little GIF.
And look at how much of the world that opens up: 67%.
Being able to walk around 2/3rd of the Earth’s land masses and speak to just about everyone who lives there? Wow!
And then if I knew the six UN languages, I’m already up to being able to speak with more than 1 in 3 humans (by native speakers), so maybe it’s not too far of a leap to assume a lot more than that speak one of those 6 languages as a second language. Maybe you could converse with almost half the planet with only that handful of languages. And imagine what you could learn by talking with half the planet. Literally, speaking to 1 out of every 2 people you could ever possibly meet. This phrase seems appropriate here, with all sorts of good connotations: “Oh the humanity!”
I think I need to do this.
And here’s where those map images and keys come from: