29 Aug 2017 19:39 IST

Revelations about world languages

The irreversible march of globalisation is evident in the diversity and distribution of languages

Despite Donald Trump, Brexit and the casting spells of Marine Le Pen, the world has so gone global that it is simply not possible to reverse course. Nowhere is this clearer than in the diversity and distribution of the world’s languages.

The most spoken language in the world is Chinese (including all of its dialects such as Mandarin and Wu), because China continues to be the most populous nation. If one were to employ this logic, Hindi ought to be the world’s second most spoken language.

But Hindi is not. The distinction of second place actually goes to Spanish, with nearly 437 million speakers worldwide. This number represents what is called the L1 count: people who speak the language at home, growing up. In India, we call this ‘mother tongue’, a term that is not used much in the politically correct West.

These interesting statistics have just been published by an organisation called Ethnologue, which claims to be the most authoritative resource on the world’s nearly 7,100 languages.

Spanish dominance

How Spanish managed to become one of the world’s most popular languages can be traced to two powerful forces in Spain, going back 500 years. First, the country was a large colonial power in the middle ages, expanding its rule to the Caribbean Islands, half of South America and most of Central and North America.

For more than 400 years, through strife, resistance and war, Spain held a vice-like grip on the territories it ruled. A new human generation is typically created every 20 years, and this 400-year span is the equivalent of 20 human generations. Many generations in Spain’s colonies grew up speaking Spanish as the only language they knew and Spanish became the default language of all these colonies.

The second pillar of Spanish’s strength is rooted in migration. While the indigenous people of the country of Spain do not immigrate to new countries much any more, the people of Latin America do, driven largely by poverty, crime and lack of opportunity.

Cultural shift

The people of Mexico, Guatemala, Costa Rica, Honduras, Panama, Colombia and other Central American countries form some of the largest migrant groups in the world. They travel to the United States and Canada, often illegally, and stay there. President Trump has restricted this flow somewhat but migrations for over 150 years have resulted in a growing Spanish speaking population that has completely reshaped the tenets of American culture.

To be sure, America has always had close relationships with one of these countries, Mexico. For the southern states which border Mexico (Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California) and Florida, living with Mexican culture has always been a part of American life. In some southern border cities like Miami, El Paso, Corpus Christi, Yuma (Arizona) and San Diego, one can get by in day-to-day life without ever having to speak English.

But the depth of Spanish language penetration in mainland US regions is clearly a surprise, extending to states much further north, in areas that have little connection to Central and South America. The New York Times says that the US now has more than 50 million hispanohablantes, a greater number of Spanish speakers than in the country of Spain.

English, Arabic, Hindi

Third on the list of world languages is English, with 372 million people speaking mainly English at home. English is also the most dominant in its spread and reach, extending to over 106 nations. This explains English’s hold as the world’s premier international language — in business, culture and science.

Fourth on the list is Arabic. Spread over 57 countries, Arabic is the primary language of the 22 nations of the Middle East, spoken in all by 295 million people.

Hindi is fifth on the list. In contrast to families which speak Spanish, Hindi speaking families are primarily spread over just 5 countries. The 260 million people who speak Hindi are largely present in India.

Raw numbers and density help create the next entry on the list. Bengali, the primary language in populous Bangladesh and West Bengal, is spoken by a whopping 242 million people, more than the combined global totals of French, German and Italian. The dispersion is so limited that Bengali is spoken in just four countries, while French, German and Italian are spoken in over 100 countries.

Raw numbers, again, bring other Indian languages to the Top 20, including Telugu (#15), Marathi (#16) and Tamil (#20). But again, their dispersion is limited, focused instead just in those Indian States where they are spoken.


So what do these numbers mean?

For one thing, colonialism has always left an indelible mark on language in the territories that were occupied. English would never have been spoken in India were it not for the British Raj. Large parts of West and Central Africa today speak French because of France’s historic crusades in the continent.

In fact, 29 countries give French the distinction of being their official language, making it one of the world’s most dominant languages. The Chairman of the EU, a fluent English, German and French speaker, recently took a dig at Brexit by indicating that the EU’s official language could well revert to French.

But with colonialism dying in the last 70 years, human migration has taken over as the dominant force when it comes to the spread of languages. The opposite is true as well. Japan, a wholly homogeneous society, has nurtured Japanese for hundreds of years. But the language never spread beyond its borders, save for a few colonial pockets in the region.

Finally, when families migrate, they cede control of their “mother tongue” to the language of the destination country, over time. Consider an extended Colombian family which migrates to the US. The grandparents, who do not mingle sufficiently with the locals, will continue speaking only Spanish; the parents, who have to earn a living will be bilingual, forced to speak a little English at work but glad to return to Spanish at home; but first-generation children, born in the US and schooled in English, will mainly speak English, grudgingly speaking Spanish at home, and over time, abandoning Spanish altogether.

The final lesson is this. The forces of external culture are a lot more powerful than those at home. This is a sad fact because globalisation accelerates the trend. If this were not the case, this column would probably have been written in Sanskrit.

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