What the World’s Top Ten Languages Say About Us

Tracing History Through Our Tongues

Dravidian. Afro-Asiatic. Uralic-Altaic. Kartvelian. Proto-Indo-European. Nostratic – superfamily or macrofamily. Last glacial period.

Linguistics is not just a subfield of anthropology, it is essential to understanding human nature. Language allows us to communicate and cooperate.

Language makes us humans.

There are about 7,000 languages in the world. Yet, roughly one out of six people speak Chinese.

The United Nations have six official languages in which all documents must be printed: Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian, and Spanish.

Are these the most important languages on the planet? Or the most spoken ones? Their preeminence in the United Nations would make you think so.

Except the statistics show otherwise.

For instance, did you know Portuguese is the most spoken language in the Southern Hemisphere? Indeed it is. Yes, I was shocked myself, I thought it would be Spanish or English.

Or did you know Bengali and Japanese, the official languages of two tiny countries (Bangladesh and Japan) are two of the most spoken languages in the world?

hello in different languages. Image: Phyllisieena Gauci

Furthermore, did you know English used to be the world’s second language but lost its spot to Spanish due to demographics? (You don’t want to know what demographers predict for English giving current trends).

In history and economics, demographics are destiny.

Still, the oldest language in the world is Sanskrit. The oldest written language in history is Summerian.

Nevertheless, anthropologists believe the first human language was the theorized Proto-Afroasiatic.

And yet, Indo-European and Sino-Tibetan family languages dominate the current top ten.

Babylon and Sumer are no longer, and Sanskrit currently has about 14,000 speakers.

Hence, let’s take a look at the world’s top ten languages and see what can we deduct from their statistics.

In effect, we should be able to trace our history through them.

The World’s Top Ten Languages

top languages in the world by native speakers. Pinterest

Languages evolve, they do not stay static.

In fact, if we had a time machine and go back two hundred years, we would have a hard time understanding our ancestors. If we go five centuries further, we would understand even less.

Have you tried reading Don Quijote as it was originally written? Or Beowulf? Or The Canterbury Tales? Hamlet? The further we go back in time, the more unintelligible language becomes.

And yet, languages belong to families, and some languages are related and evolved from languages that are dead.

For instance, modern English evolved from Old English who itself evolved from Ancient Germanic, specifically the dialect of the Angles tribe.

As of 2022, these are the world’s most spoken languages by native speakers:

  1. Mandarin Chinese (920 million speakers)
  2. Castillian Spanish (470 million speakers)
  3. English (370 million speakers)
  4. Hindu-Urdu (340 million speakers)
  5. Standard Arabic (270 million speakers)
  6. Portuguese (250 million speakers)
  7. Bengali (230 million speakers)
  8. Russian (150 million speakers)
  9. Japanese (130 million speakers)
  10. Punjabi (113 million speakers)

Wow, what did you notice?

First, that is 3.243 billion people, or roughly 41 % of the world population.

Second, where is French, one of the six official languages of the United Nations?

Third, six of the top ten languages in the world are Asian languages, seven if we include Russian (and last time I looked at a map, North Asia is just Russia).

Again, what does language distribution say about our history and sociopolitical relationships?

Our Spoken Languages Trace Our Story

European languages family tree, Pinterest

Remember when I argued we need to do better at teaching geography? Likewise, we need to do better at learning second languages.

Anthropologists can trace the history of humankind by the languages we speak. And not just which language evolved from which one, but also, by the words we adopted from different languages.

For instance, English has a lot of words from French, and Spanish has a lot of words from Arabic.

Of course, France and England invaded each other often, and the Moors conquered the Iberian peninsula and stayed for eight centuries.

If Arabic and French are the most spoken languages in the African continent, it is because of colonialism.

If English is the language of business, it is because of the UK/USA military superpower status in the past two centuries.

human language families around the planet. image: WikiCommons

If Japanese is popular around the world, it is because of anime and Japan’s status as a cultural superpower.

If every astronaut that flies to space must learn some Russian, it is because, as of this writing, Russia is the only nation with a space shuttle, the Soyuz.

If not a single native American language is in the top twenty, it is because of colonialism and repression by the Spanish and British (granted, Nahuatl, Quechua, and Guaraní are still thriving in México, Perú, and Paraguay respectively).

The point is, language tells our backstory, and demographics and politics predict our future.

Thus, what language should you learn?

What Language Should You Learn?

language and personality. Image: Taringa

You should learn whichever language you like and excites you. I learned Italian in college and love it despite not being in the top fifteen.

Demographers expect French to become one of the top five, if not the number one, language in the world by 2050 because of Africa’s population triplicating.

With Britain leaving the European Union, France and Germany become the biggest winners, and English influence diminishes.

But before you start learning French, consider the USA is expected by demographers to surpass México as the number country with the most Spanish-speakers.

Or that considering the two countries most likely to start World War III, both nuclear powers, are India and Pakistan, perhaps learning Hindu-Urdu and Punjabi may not be a bad idea.

And since the richest countries in the world, the ones who control the oil reserves, all speak Arabic, learning it is fundamental for business.

speaking activities and communication. Image: Alamy Stock Photos

And with China surpassing the USA as the world’s biggest economy, perhaps we should learn a little Chinese.

And myself? I want to be an astronaut. Of course, I must learn Russian. At least until the USA decides to start flying manned missions to space again.

In conclusion, what do the top ten languages in the world say about us?

That once upon a time, we all spoke the same language, and after centuries of migration and military invasions, our languages fragmented and evolved into different ones, and are still evolving.

Since we do not have time machines, we must follow the money and the demographics.

However, in our increasingly globalized world economy and culture, who is to say, centuries from now, our languages will merge and become one common human language again?

Reader, what is your favorite language? Which language would you like to learn?

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March 2023