The World's Most Influential Languages

I've seen languages ranked by many diverse criteria, including number of speakers, economic power of countries where the languages are spoken, and so on. But I've always felt like there were large numbers of people being forgotten and important details being overlooked.

How many people speak the language?

Population figures are relatively easy to find, as are data indicating the official language(s) of each country. However this isn't always a very realistic measure of a language's speakers.

For example, Russian is no longer the official language of many former-Soviet countries, but it is still heavily spoken throughout the FSB. If one were to compile a list correlating populations to official languages, Russian would be extremely under-represented for native speakers... and that's not counting those who speak it as a second language.

When making judgments based on the number of speakers of a language, it is important to use numbers that fairly reflect those speakers, both native speakers and those who speak as a second language, regardless of the government of the country where they live.

How wide-spread is the language

But number of speakers isn't, by itself, a fair measure either. Close to 1 billion people speak Mandarin Chinese, for example — a figure which eclipses English, the next most populous language, by a factor of two — but English is spoken heavily in 33 countrys, and to a lesser extent in another 82, whereas Mandarin is only measurably spoken in 5.

The significance of such figures is that if you learn Mandarin as a second language and then diplomatic relations break down with one of the countries where it is spoken, you've just lost 20% of your potential audience, whereas if you learn English as a second language, losing opportunities in one country only costs you 3% of your audience.

Naturally, 20% and 3% are over-simplifications which assume an equal distribution of speakers in each country, but it's enough to make the point clear: population figures for official speakers isn't enough.

Economic influences?

Other data, such as GDPs of those countries, are interesting predictors of opportunities both for business and tourism, but GDP is necessarily flawed because it is tied to particular countries, so it can't accurately reflect native speakers of non-official language. And it completely ignores second-language speakers.

But more importantly, the choice to use economic data as a criteria makes some rather broad assumptions about the ways in which language is used.

A good example of this is Japanese. Economically, Japan ranks very high. So based on GDP, learning Japanese looks extremely useful. But Japanese is only spoken in Japan, and almost nowhere else on earth, so knowing Japanese would do nothing to increase your tourism prospects (beyond, obviously, travel to Japan).

And worse, it puts all the eggs in one basket, so to speak. If relations with Japan ever broke down (however unlikely that is), there is no fallback use for that language skill.

So any language ranking that's going to be useful needs to fold in all of these considerations. A language shouldn't be ranked too high if it has limited use, but it shouldn't be ranked too low if it has a lot of speakers. And it shouldn't be arbitrarily rated based on the economical conditions of any country where it is spoken.

Good data, if old

Recently, I came upon a post from Christopher Nelson which seemed to address these concerns. When I asked him where he got his data, he pointed me to this web site, which uses data from language surveys from 1997-1999. With the exception of the data being a bit stale, it's the most relevant ranking I've seen so far.

Notably missing are Turkic languages. My assumption is that the fact of being named differently (Turkish, Uzbek, Uyghur, Kazakh, etc) makes it difficult, or at least non-obvious, to combine them statistically. If 10 different Arabic dialects can be combined, it seems to me that Turkic languages should get that advantage as well.

Nonetheless, in spite of that oversight and the age of the data, I think the resulting list is pretty good, and surprisingly close to my expections, based on my complete world-traveler language list from a few months ago.

  • English
  • French
  • Spanish
  • Russian
  • Arabic
  • Chinese
  • German
  • Japanese
  • Portuguese
  • Hindi/Urdu

It is encouraging for me to see German make this list, as its notable absence on my own list drew a lot of comments. Of course my list had a slightly different motivation, including an increased value for keeping the list shorter.

Interestingly, with the exception of Korean (which is missing from this list), this looks a lot like the list of top 10 languages used on the web, which would seem to suggest that any polyglot who spoke these 10 language could effectively have an audience of more than 80% of the entire internet!

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Author: Yearlyglot
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  • Randy Yearlyglot

    I found it confusing on the linked to page that he kept switching between 'Chinese' and specifying 'Mandarin Chinese' (What? There's another kind of Mandarin?). I'm assuming that has to do with how his data sources identified it, but it's driving slightly-OCD-me nuts. It was very interesting read; I never realised German was used in 9 countries. Of course, having lived in the German-speaking part of Switzerland, I would argue that it's not so much used there as murdered on a daily basis.

  • Randy Yearlyglot

    Hah! Nice. :)

  • Randy Yearlyglot

    I'd move Portuguese (BR) a bit above on that list. Perhaps under Chinese.French after English? That surely should be Spanish, don't you think?

  • Randy Yearlyglot

    Based on number of native speakers, I would agree with you that Spanish could rank higher. But based on number of countries, French is spoken in more places. It's a tough call. I think they're both pretty close, and regardless of which gets higher billing, I think there's good incentive to just learn both. :)I agree with moving Portuguese aboge Japanese, but only on the fact that there are multiple Portuguese-speaking countries, and just one Japanese-speaking country. But I can't see either of them as higher than German.

  • Randy Yearlyglot

    Interesting topic, great post, unfortunately these days one could pretty much truncate the list behind English. I say this despite being a passionate language learner myself, but in my professional career, English is so dominating even here in China. I don't really know if multi lingualism has a future.

  • Randy Yearlyglot

    I think China is an interesting exception, as far as English is concerned. There appears (to this outsider) to be a push at the government-level for Chinese people to learn English... presumably for the purpose of making China a dominant economic power.I don't think the same is true for the rest of the world. There is no such attraction for countries like Ukraine, or Uzbekistan, or Uruguay (I randomly picked countries with a U, lol!) to push English study, and very little to be gained by the average citizen pursuing such studies on his own.

  • Randy Yearlyglot

    Yay, Hindi made the list! I keep being told that Hindi isn't a useful language to learn because many of the speakers also speak English fluently. I still love the language, though, and I'm tired of hearing that it isn't practical! I'm not learning it for economic benefits, but I still want to feel like it isn't a waste of time.

  • Randy Yearlyglot

    The original list ( is about 15-20 years old. So, Mandarim surely should get some points in for economic power. Also French was already declining, and Spanish going up, so they might be tied nowadays.

  • Randy Yearlyglot

    If what you say about the Ukraine and Uzbekistan is true, I think those would be the exceptions rather than China. Korea and Japan easily share (and quite possibly beat) China's fervor for English, and English is pretty much the second language of choice in all the places I've been in Europe and Latin America as well. I don't think I'd go so far as to question the future of multilingualism just yet, but English as certainly taken its place as the go-to second language when there's not a good reason to choose something else.

  • Randy Yearlyglot

    We know that I'm a proponent of picking a language to study based on economic utility, and GDP figures are a useful gage of that. The GDP data cited in the linked post actually allots the GDP of each country based on who speaks what in that country, which moots the issues you raise about official and non-official languages. That said, the data does not consider second languages, so that remains a valid criticism of that data and such data generally.I'm definitely not sold on factoring in the possibility of a break-down of relations between two countries when considering a language, unless there's some concrete reason to think it would be likely. The possibility is so remote for places like China or Russia that even bringing it up in respect of a place like Japan is pushing against the outer bounds of possibility. Unless there's a high likelihood of such a break-down affecting your ability to use the language (e.g., as a U.S. citizen might face in respect of Farsi), then I'd discount this risk completely.

  • Randy Yearlyglot

    I think that France fights powerfully to mantain some kind of unreal status for its language. In a great number of countries that France consider as Francophonie they aren´t actually french-speaking lands. French is declining in north-Africa with every year and in other parts of Africa the status of french as mother tongue is also vanishing with the rise of native african precolonialism languages. Besides France there´s no other big "french only-speaking" country. In my opinion the position of french in that list as number two is absolutely illogical and Spanish Chinese or even Arabic has more real influence. I also believe that portuguese is much more influential than german or japanese and the article forgets the relationships between languages that improve their mutual stats. For example the tamden of Spanish-Portuguese, almost 100% mutual understanding languages, is the only one in the list and learning one of them makes easier the other.

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