When the world talks about science, culture, economy or politics, it speaks English. English speakers don’t really need a second language at all. So, what’s the use of a second language when the first one is enough? English speakers can look for luxury items: cultural and linguistic enrichment.
In this article, I will evaluate the world’s major languages for their usefulness, according to three different criteria:
I begin with demographics because this is the criterion that first comes to mind in such a discussion. However, this factor only weighs 40 per cent in the ratings, and certain entries here, such as Italian, Swahili and Turkish, will only become understandable when one sees the tables that follow.
Spanish: Approx. 350 million native speakers, with many second language speakers in the Americas, North Africa and elsewhere. It is the official language of about 20 countries. (6 points). It is an important lingua franca in the Western Hemisphere and the Mediterranean, (3 points). (Total: 9 points).
French: Despite a relatively small native language base of 130 million, French has a major presence internationally, with a large second language population all over the world and official language status in over 25 countries. It is the working language of many international organizations (4 points). It is also the most recognized lingua franca, after English. (4 points). (Total: 8 points).
Arabic: Arabic speakers are hard to quantify. Modern Standard Arabic is the second dialect for 250 million people worldwide, but it is quite differenced from spoken Arabic in each of the 20 countries where it is official. It is an official language of the United Nations and of many international organizations. It is also the language of Islam. (4.5 points). Arabic is a major lingua franca. (2 points). (Total: 6.5 points).
Russian: Estimates are as high as 185 million for the native speaking population, and it is the second language in all the nations of the former Soviet Union (3 points). Russia spent much of the Twentieth Century securing the position of its language as the lingua franca in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, and it continues to serve in that capacity, in a greatly diminished way. (2 points). (Total: 5 points).
Mandarin: It’s the native language of 875 million people, however, they are concentrated in one country, China. It is a second language for the rest of China, Taiwan, and for the Chinese community worldwide. It has little currency beyond its ethnic boundaries and serves as lingua franca only in this context. (Total: 3 points).
German: It has approx. 120 million native speakers and many second language speakers throughout Europe. (2 points). It has had moderate success re-establishing itself as the lingua franca of Central Europe, after the disastrous history of the past century, however, this role has been taken up in the meantime by Russian and English (1 point). (Total: 3 points).
Hindustani: It includes Urdu at one end and Hindi at the other, with approx. 185 million native speakers in India, and 50 million in Pakistan. It is a second language for another 180 million people in these countries. It has not had success as a lingua franca outside of this context, as that purpose is served by English. It has also been burdened by the reluctance of the Dravidian speaking people of South India to adopt it. (Total: 2.5 points).
Swahili: It is spoken natively by 5 million people and by another 50 million as a second language along the East African coast. It’s the official language of Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania (1 point). Swahili is the accepted lingua franca in that area, having achieved nearly neutral “tribal” status on a continent where language is politics, but for dealings with the world beyond, it is normally eclipsed by Arabic, English and French (1.5 points). (Total: 2.5 points).
Portuguese: Spoken by approx. 190 million people, it is the official language of Portugal, Brazil, Mozambique, Angola and other states. It has not as yet been able to establish itself as a widely used lingua franca. (Total: 2 points).
Turkish: It is spoken by 70 million people in Turkey and Cyprus (1 point). It provides an alternative lingua franca throughout the Turkic speaking lands of Central Asia, replacing the more alien Russian (1 point). (Total: 2 points).
Japanese: It is spoken by 125 million people in Japan, but has little currency as a second language or a lingua franca. (Total: 1 point).
Italian: It is spoken by 60 million people in Italy, it is also the official language of the Vatican. It has little or no significance as a second language or a lingua franca. (1 point).
Criterion II: Personal Impact: This is the major consideration for the English speaker. It weighs 40 percent in my ratings.
How will the learning of this language help one’s understanding of English?
How will knowledge of this language open up a portal to other related languages? For the first question, Latin languages hold a distinct advantage, since the prestige, erudite forms of English are all constructed out of a Latin vocabulary. The second question favors languages which are seen as leading languages in particular linguistic families, wherever they may be located in the world.
French: It holds a particular position among Latin languages, in that it has been the major conduit of Latin vocabulary into English for the past one thousand years. Fully 30 percent of English words come from French, (6 points). In cultural terms, the centrality of France to European civilization cannot be overestimated, adding 6 more points. (Total: 12 points)
Spanish: This Latin language has enormous influence on the English of the Americas. It has, in turn, been influenced by Arabic and the indigenous languages of pre-Columbian America, giving insight into those languages. (4 points). Spanish culture continues to move into the forefront of Western civilization, ironically, often because of the patronage of its greatest rival, North American English (4 points). (Total: 8 points).
Italian: It is the direct descendant of Latin. Thus, a knowledge of Italian gives the learner an exceptionally clear idea of the classical language. By the same token, it is the central romance language, and the study of a second or third romance language is greatly facilitated when the first one learned is Italian. (4 points). Italian also opens up a store of cultural knowledge dating back two thousand years, and representing, with the Roman Empire, the Catholic tradition and the Italian Renaissance, some of the very highest achievements of European civilization. (4 points). (Total: 8 points).
German: The linguistic significance for English speakers is great. German provides a clear presentation of the Germanic roots of English, and of the syntactic and grammatical logic of the basic English language. As the major Germanic language, it can also be considered a portal to other Germanic languages such as Dutch and Yiddish. (4 points). German culture is also greatly appreciated in Western culture, and its philosophers and artists are key figures. (2 points). (Total: 6 points).
Arabic: Although the immediate linguistic impact of the study of Arabic may be hard to discern for the English speaker, the benefits of Arabic in the study of other languages is high. Arabic has greatly influenced other languages of the Middle East and the Muslim world in religion, politics, and social life. Also, the study of the Arabic alphabet opens the way for many other languages, such as Persian, Urdu, Kurdish, etc. (3 points). Arabic culture has had a major influence on western civilization but it remains largely unknown in the English speaking world. Knowledge of the language also leads to a greater understanding of Islam. (2 points). (Total: 5 points).
Hindustani: In its Hindi form, it is a window on the origins of the larger Indo-European language family with its Sanskrit vocabulary. As Urdu, it gives a significant introduction to many Persian and Arabic terms. Urdu also uses the Persian form of Arabic script, opening the way to wider studies. It is a starting point for the study of other languages of the subcontinent, an area rich in languages. (3 points). India’s rich culture has become more familiar in the English speaking world, in large part due to India’s ability to project its image through English. However, Hindustani language and Hindi culture are also spread through the Bollywood film industry. Pakistan has yet to make its presence felt, but the potential is there. (2 point). (Total: 5 points).
Russian: It has not had a major influence in the west, given its geographical isolation. It is, however, the major Slavic language, and as such, opens the way to many other Eastern European languages. The Cyrillic alphabet, moreover, is a tremendous asset for reading many of those languages. (2 points). Russian high culture thrived under both tsarism and communism, and it has a significant place in European civilization. (2 points). (Total: 4 points).
Portuguese: As a Latin language, Portuguese has a built-in significance for English speakers, even without a direct relationship with English. (3 points). The cultural significance of Brazil, one of the largest nations of the Americas, is continually growing. (1 point). (Total: 4 points).
Mandarin: The official Chinese language has had very little influence on English. It has influenced other national languages of the areas, such as Korean and Japanese, and the other “dialects” of China. The Chinese written characters are the same for all of these dialects, and many of these characters are used in Japanese as well. (2 points). Chinese culture, with over two thousand years of history, is quite significant, if not directly applicable to English speaking civilization. (1.5 point). (Total: 3.5 points).
Swahili: As the only sub-Saharan language in the group, it serves to introduce the learner to one of the richest linguistic areas of the Earth. It is from the Bantu family of languages, but it incorporates many words from Arabic, Persian, English and French. (1.5 points). It is the language of trade along the East African coast, and as such, is richly descriptive of the culture there. The West African diaspora into the Americas is one of the great mass migrations of the past 500 years, but because of its tragic social dynamics, it has left many millions of people cut off from African culture. Swahili, although it is East African and not West African, can help to fill that gap. (1.5 points). (Total: 3 points).
Turkish: Though it has little direct relationship to English, it is the major language of a family of languages that extend eastward to the Chinese interior. It has been influenced by Persian, Kurdish and Arabic, and thus gives some introduction to those languages. (1.5 points). It also represents the culture of the Ottoman traditions, and of modern Turkey and Central Asian Turkistan. (1 point). (Total: 2.5 points).
Japanese: This language has had little impact on English and it provides little insight into other languages. It does, however, include many words from Chinese, and uses numerous Chinese characters. (0.5 points). This island nation has been one of the most successful exporters of culture of the Far East during the past century. (1.5 points). (Total: 2 points).
Economic Impact. Is this language used in the world of commerce and business?
Certainly English is by far the most useful language for business, but a knowledge of other key languages can be a distinct advantage.
Twenty percent in the ratings:
French: has a long history as a language of commerce and trade. It is extremely important in the developing world, especially Africa. France itself is the world’s sixth largest economy. (4 points).
Spanish: the language of commerce and trade in Latin America. Spain is the world’s ninth largest economy and Mexico is its fourteenth largest. (4 points).
German: often used for business in Central Europe. Germany is the world’s third largest economy. (3 points).
Japanese: can be extremely helpful in dealing with Japanese business. Japan is the world’s second largest economy. (3 points).
Mandarin: China has recently become the world’s fourth largest economy, and it continues to grow. (3 points).
Russian: Used in a part of the world where English is not well-known. Russia is the eleventh largest economy and is moving up in the rankings. (2 points).
Portuguese: Brazil is the tenth largest economy, and continues to grow. (2 points).
Arabic: the language of commerce and trade for the Middle East and the Persian Gulf. (2 points).
Hindustani: is used in the world’s twelfth largest economy, however, English is often the language of business in this area. (2 points).
Italian: is the language of commerce in Italy, the world’s seventh largest economy. (1.5 points).
Swahili: is the language of business along the east coast of Africa. (1 point).
Turkish: is used in the world’s seventeenth largest economy, and to some extent in Central Asia. (1 point).
By these criteria we can come up with a ranking of the 12 most useful languages for an English speaker to learn:
French: 24 points
Spanish: 21 points
Arabic: 13.5 points
German: 12 points
Russian: 11 points
Italian: 10.5 points
Hindustani 9.5 points
Mandarin: 9.5 points
Portuguese: 8 points
Swahili: 6.5 points
Japanese: 5.5 points
Turkish: 5.5 points
Some readers may be familiar with George Weber’s well-known piece entitled, Top Languages, which first appeared in the journal Languages Today in 1997. His study rated languages according to their influence in world affairs and world culture. It is interesting, at this point to compare them. Here are Weber’s results:
English: 37 points
Hindi/Urdu: 9 pts.
The rankings are similar, with some major differences. My criteria are based on tangible and intangible benefits for the English speaker which are not heavily weighed in Weber’s paradigm. Thus, this subjective focus skewers my results in favour of European languages due to the cultural affinity of English for the languages of Western civilization.
Heritage Languages: The most striking example of a difference is my ranking of Italian as number 6, whereas it does not figure in Weber’s top ten. My justification for Italian is the phenomenon of the “heritage language”, i.e., a language that has usefulness in our understanding and appreciation of the past, rather than in the future. Italian is the vehicle for our understanding of ancient history, the development of Latin languages, Renaissance Art and classical music. It is also the ancestral language of over 100 million people strategically placed in both North and South America. For these reasons, it is the heritage language par excellence. Other languages that benefit from this heritage factor in my listings are German and Swahili.
Point values for English? French, with 24 points, is number one in my listing. Where does English stand in relation? If rating it for usefulness for speakers of other languages, I would give it 10 points in each category, for a total of 50 points. I think that the extraordinary position of English in today’s world is indisputable, and considering it to be twice as useful as its closest competition, French, is not a great stretch of the imagination.
The only English point assignment that may require explanation is ten points for linguistic value. The value of English in this area for world speakers is quite a wide-reaching and significant. English is the vehicle for the spread of the classical Latin vocabulary for abstract concepts, for the Greco-Roman terms for a government, science, philosophy, etc.
It absorbs world vocabulary without major spelling changes, effectively spreading new terminology from a variety of sources. As the official language of international organizations, it serves as a showplace for each nation and organization to present itself to the world.
Like the other “empire” languages of Western Europe, French and Spanish, English is propagated by native speakers worldwide with no ethnic, social or political relationship to its motherland. But English goes one step further, English is capable of evolving and developing completely independently of its native speakers. Second language users of English drive the introduction of new words like “informatics” and “ufology” which gain currency first among these speakers.
Foreign governments keep close control of their English language nomenclature, and make changes through the United Nations and non-government organizations. These changes are therefore immediate in English, with no consultation with native speakers necessary.
While some European languages are still calling the capital of China “Peking”, English made the switch to “Beijing” during the late 1980s (for proof, look at contemporary reports regarding the Tian an Men Square events of June, 1989). Recently, the switch from Bombay to Mumbai has happened before most English speakers have even noticed.
Top 10 languages Most widely spoken native languages globally:
Source: McClatchy Washington
A group of languages that descend from a common ancestor is known as a language family.
The Indo-European family is the most widely spoken:
The Sino- Tibetan family
The Afro- Asiatic family:
Conclusion – The status of English in world affairs puts its native speakers in a unique position. We have the opportunity of living in a provincial English-only environment in which the world comes to us, or we can take advantage of this favoured position to become acquainted with other cultures right within our own language. So, is any second language really useful for English speakers? No study can ever really measure the personal importance of second language learning. That is something we have to discover for ourselves. The fact is that every language is well worth the effort to learn, as every language is a complete way of describing the universe of human achievement, and thus it’s significance is as wide and as deep as we personally make it.
Note on Statistics: The statistics that I have used (population, economic ranking, etc.) come from diverse sources: world almanacs, encyclopedias, US government studies. I make no claims about their accuracy, as they are general estimates. Their importance is in relationship to each other.
Dominic Ambrose has taught languages for over twenty years, from Middle School to Community College, from adult ed to ESL to TOEFL training. He has also travelled as a teacher educator to many Eastern European countries as well as South America, including three years with the Romanian Ministry of Education. Presently, he lives in Paris writing full time, mostly about films and fiction, but he is still fascinated by languages.