More thoughts on languages

I’m super fascinated right now with languages: how many people speak more than one? Which ones? What would it take to be able to speak with 50% of the world’s population? 80%? Are there any speakers that are so staunchly monolingual that getting closer to 100% would require learning those languages?

I’ve started trying to answer some of these questions, cobbling together data from a few disparate sources.

This WaPo article starts to answer a few of the questions, but I’m not sure about their methodology. Do I really care? Meh. But here’s what grabbed me: “two-thirds of the world’s population share only 12 native languages“. Dannnnng. I had calculated it at 13, but for only 50% of the world. So ok, what are those 12 special languages one must know?


The Darling Dozen are Chinese (unfortunately they lump all dialects, which I think is short-sighted), Hindi-Urdu (which are separate in my calculations), Arabic, English, Spanish, Bengali, Russian, Portuguese, German, Japanese, French, and Italian.

This is mind-blowing to me. 66% speak a common 12 languages? Natively?? Dang. That seems like a home run. However, looking more closely, there are lots of nuances that need to be delved into there, like that Chinese isn’t a single language and, from what I understand, isn’t mutually intelligible from language to language. However, using Wikipedia’s 2010 numbers, Mandarin is 955M, Wu is 80M, Yue 59M, Jin 48M, and Southern Min 47M. I can live with that inconsistency of only about 200M. I don’t have a single clue about the differences between Urdu and Hindi, but at least Wikipedia says they’re mutually intelligible.

In fact, even over at Mentalfloss, they’ve got a different number: “more than half of the world’s population speaks one of just 23 languages”. This is far more languages than I’d calculated, but again, I’m using old 2007 numbers as from Wikipedia. Still, they found a cool graphic from a dude on the South China Morning Post:


I think the number of languages you’d need to speak with half of the world natively is somewhere in between those two figures, perhaps even back at my original guesstimate of 13. So much guesswork, though.

Ethnologue, which I would trust much further than Wikipedia or WaPo—or my own guesswork, has this as the breakdown, which includes Javanese in the top 12 languages, well above Italian. Here’s a snippet of their chart, with the final column on the right being speakers in millions:


Well, I suppose if the goal is to travel a lot and speak with as many people when you get there, a traveler should live in the Venn diagram overlap between most-spoken native languages and most-learned second languages. Here’s the second language learners, again from that WaPo article:


So if you’re aiming to strike up a conversation anywhere in the world and have a good chance to find someone who can bend your ear too, aim for English, Mandarin, Spanish, Hindi or Urdu, Arabic, and French.

Just the other day a friend told me he was nearing fluency with his Chinese (Mandarin), and already spoke Spanish pretty well. We had our conversation in English, and some quick math shows he can already speak with basically 1 in 5 people on the planet, in their native tongue. If we add in second language or learners to that, he’s looking at about 42% of the world’s population, or 2 in 5. Just one more language for him (the Hindi-Urdu two step) and he’s up to 49.88%. Wow!!

I wonder what one could do with this information…


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