The world’s languages, in 7 maps and charts – The Washington Post

This series of graphs, maps, and charts from the The Washington Post illustrates some fascinating information about the world’s languages. It’s not surprising that English is the most studied language in the world:

But I did find this chart illustrating how many countries a given language is spoken in to be worth thinking more deeply about:

The reach of English is due, of course, first to British colonialism and imperialism and, second, to the dominance of the United States, but it’s interesting to set English’s reach in comparison to these other languages next to the numbers of people who speak each language:

Just putting these numbers up against each other, of course, doesn’t tell us very much, but it does provide an interesting starting point for thinking about how the politics of language shape the world we live in.

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4 Responses to The world’s languages, in 7 maps and charts – The Washington Post

  1. 1
    Pesho says:

    I would like to point out that a Bulgarian and a Russian have a far better chance of understanding each other if they stick to their native languages than my friend from Chad and my wife’s Lebanon friends. As a matter of fact, I hang out with quite a few people who speak Arabic, and not one can understand Ahmat’s Arabic as spoken in Chad.

    Far from every Arabic speaker can speak Standard Arabic, and even those who claim to do so have two separate versions they insist are the real thing, although they do understand each other, at least.

    I know a lot less Arabic than I’d like to, and it was my bad luck that I picked up some Moroccan dialect from a friend before I knew how much it would harm any further learning. Now I know I sound really uneducated to most Arabs, so I hardly ever speak it.

    So I think that it is a bit strange to lump all Chinese and all Arabic and say that all native speakers speak the same language. In writing, sure. But as anyone who has seen a Cantonese speaker hearing Mandarin for the first time knows, it takes a lot of effort to communicate across dialect lines. I live in California, where many first generation immigrants speak only one Chinese dialect, and they would use shaky English rather than writing in Chinese, and forget about taking the time to communicate verbally in their respective dialects.

    Compare this to Russians/Ukranians, Bulgarians/Macedonians and Serbs/Bosnians who can communicate just fine while being ready to punch your lights out if you suggest that they are speaking the same language. As a matter of fact, I can understand all of the above, and the only languages I can tell apart are the ones I speak perfectly… if I hear someone speak for a minute or two and nothing strikes me as wrong, I know that he is speaking Bulgarian or Russian. If something does strike me as wrong, then I may have a guess, but I would never venture it unless I offend the speaker.

    All of this is to say that no, the groups of people lumped in the article are NOT speaking the same Native language.

  2. 2
    Eva says:

    Thanks for the post. I am hoping to teach English as a second language in the next year (I have to take the summer program to learn how to do this before anything else happens). But it’s good to have some context for teaching a language so many people around the world want to learn, especially in China. Cheers!

  3. As Pesho pointed out, there’s a certain amount of politics that goes into what is classified a language and what a dialect. To my knowledge, there’s no international agreement on this point; it’s all self-declared. It’s disingenuous to cluster Chinese (all dialects) or Arabic without similarly clustering French, Spanish, and Italian as a single blob.

  4. 4
    Grace Annam says:

    There’s an aphorism, in linguistics, that a language is a dialect with an army.