Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Do numbers really matter?

What criteria do you take into account when choosing a new language to learn? Do you check the number of its speakers? I guess some of you do. Once I also thought it to be a good strategy. What else would you want? To learn a language and to be able to talk with hundreds of millions of people - as for example is the case with Chinese and Bengali. Then… a reflection came to me: it’s not that easy as it seems. Where else could I use Bengali aside from Bangladesh?


The following table shows the languages with the highest numbers of speakers, according to Ethnologue: Languages of the World (accessed on Feb 11, 2014) at www.ethnologue.com

Rank
Language
Number of speakers
1
Chinese
1,197,000,000
2
English
406,000,000
3
Spanish
335,000,000
4
Hindi
260,000,000
5
Arabic
223,000,000
6
Portuguese
202,000,000
7
Bangla (Bengali)
193,000,000
8
Russian
162,000,000
9
Japanese
122,000,000
10
Javanese
84,300,000

So if you think about the speakers you want to communicate around the world don’t look only at the numbers of its speakers. If you choose Bengali, you might think: wow! 193 million speakers! Or if you think Hindi, once again wow! 260 million speakers! But where else aside from India would you be able to use it? Well, it’s true that there are some Indian communities around the world but will you really meet them while traveling? Wouldn’t they speak English, German, Spanish or any other language, given a country they live in?

So if you really focus on communication around the world, like it or not, you should choose English, then Spanish and Portuguese. It’s not that easy with Arabic. The number given in a table shows all the speakers without differentiating between various varieties of the Arabic spoken and so-called Modern Standard Arabic. That makes a question even more difficult. I wrote more about it in some of the post dealing with learning Arabic.

If learning languages is your passion and you want to be a polyglot, you could make a list of the languages shown in the table and learn them one after another or several at a time, in any given order. Then you would have a right to boost: I speak all the major languages of the world!

Do you choose a language to study looking at the number of its speakers?
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