Which are the most learned languages?

When up-dating the Which language should I learn? page on Omniglot this week I decided to try and find out not only which languages have the most speakers, and also which ones have the most learners.

The top ten languages in terms of overall number of native (L1) and second language (L2) speakers are:

Language L1 speakers L2 speakers Total speakers
Mandarin Chinese 850 million 180 million 1,030 million
English 340 million 510 million 840 million
Arabic 240 million 250 million 490 million
Spanish 400 million 90 million 490 million
Hindi 260 million 120 million 380 million
Russian 150 million 110 million 260 million
Portuguese 215 million 35 million 250 million
French 80 million 140 million 220 million
Bengali 190 million 20 million 210 million
Indonesian/Malay 60 million 140 million 200 million

Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_languages_by_total_number_of_speakers

If you count Hindi and Urdu speakers together, as I’ve done with Indonesian and Malay, the number of L1 speakers is 324 million, L2 speakers number 214 million, and the total number of speakers is 438 million. This doesn’t change the rankings of other languages.

The languages with the most learners are English (600 million), French (100 million), and Spanish (21 million). If you add these figures to the above totals, English moves into first place, French into seventh place, and Spanish into fourth place.

The most popular languages to study in the USA are Spanish, French, American Sign Language (ASL), German, Italian, Japanese, Mandarin Chinese, Arabic, Latin and Russian [source].

In Europe the most studied foreign languages are English, French, German, Spanish, Italian and Russian [source].

I couldn’t find any figures for the number of Chinese learners, but there were 234,275 takers of the Chinese Proficiency Tests in 2012 [source]. I suspect that the total number of people learning Chinese isn’t huge, but it has increased over the past few years.

Do you have details of which languages have most learners in other countries?

Arabic, Chinese, English, French, German, Language, Language learning Leave a comment

La Journée internationale de la Francophonie

Aujourd’hui est la Journée internationale de la Francophonie, une célébration de la langue et culture française dans les 70 États et gouvernements de l’Organisation internationale de la francophonie (OIF).

Today is International Francophonie Day, a celebration of French language and culture in the 70 states and governments of the International Organization of La Francophonie.

Here’s a cartoon provided by frantastique about the challenges faced by Gérard Therrien, the Director of the Agence Intergalactique de la Francophonie (AIGF) – the made-up organisation that features in their French lessons.


– Maurice, I swear …
– It’s not easy being the boss
– We want a raise
– We don’t have any more money
– I’m pregnant
– Where’s my office?
– You see … it’s hell
– Fortunately you’re there, Maurice
– Can I take Monday off?

Language Leave a comment

Language quiz

Language quiz image

Here’s a recording in a mystery language.

Can you identify the language, and do you know where it’s spoken?

Language, Quiz questions 8 Comments

Danish please

The other day I received an email about how you say, or rather don’t say, please in Danish.

The translation I had on my Danish phrases page was Vær så venlig, which apparently is only used to hurry people up, or urge them to do something in a passive-aggressive way.

When making a request, for example, you simply state it, and then say tak (thanks). There’s no need to add an equivalent of please.

It is possible to use phrases like Hvis du vil være så venlig at … (Would you’d be so kind as to …), though only at the beginning of a sentence. For example, Hvis du vil være så venlig, at hjælpe mig? = Would you’d be so kind as to help me? Or Gider du .. (Would you …), as in Gider du hjælpe mig (Would you help me?).

Other ways to ask for help include:

Undskyld mig, men kan du hjælpe mig? = Excuse me, but could you help me? (formal)
Hej, kan jeg lokke dig til at hjælpe mig? = Hi there, Could I lure you into helping me? (informal)

In writing what you do is make a request and then put På forhånd tak (Thanks in advance). Younger generations also use this verbally as a polite way to end a request, and this is the closest equivalent of please.

Another way to make a request is Må jeg bede om… (May I beg for…), which is what Danish children are taught to say. Or you could use Vil du ikke være sød og … (Would you not be sweet and …) – using the negative is considered polite.

More about Danish manners:

How is please or its equivalent used, or not used, elsewhere?

Danish, English, Language 2 Comments


Last week I learnt a useful Czech word – Šup! – which can mean Whoosh!, Go!, Move!, Hurry up! and similar, and Šup šup! means Chop-chop!

A more polite way to say the same thing is pojďme, which literally means “Let’s (do something)”. Here are some examples of usage:

– Pojďme na procházku = Let’s go for a walk
– Pojďme pěšky = Let’s walk
– Pojďme na to / Pojďme to udělat = Let’s do this
– Pojďme se na to podívat = Let’s take a look at it
– Pojďme spolupracovat = Let’s work together
– Pojďme přemýšlet = Let’s think

Sources: bab.la Dictionary and Slovnik.cz

Are there similar expressions in other languages?

Czech, English, Language, Words and phrases 2 Comments

Language quiz

Language quiz image

Here’s a recording in a mystery language.

Can you identify the language, and do you know where it’s spoken?

Language, Quiz questions 6 Comments

Embracing the other

People who enjoy learning languages, travelling, learning about different cultures and/or meeting people from different countries tend to be more open to difference, and more tolerant. At least that is my experience. While other people might be more inclined to fear the different and the foreign.

In UK schools the most widely-taught languages are French, German and Spanish [source]. Other languages, such as Italian, Russian, Mandarin and Japanese are also taught, but they are less common. Many British people go on holiday to France or Spain, so the ability to speak French or Spanish might be useful for a few weeks each year. The rest of the time these languages aren’t all that useful, unless you have lots of French, German or Spanish-speaking friends, or you end up living or spending a lot or time in a country where they’re spoken.

I’m not saying that these languages aren’t worth learning – all languages are worth learning, as far as I’m concerned. However, might it be a good idea if schools started also teaching languages that are actually spoken in their local areas? Languages like Urdu, Punjabi, Bengali, Arabic, Polish, Cantonese and so on. Pupils could use what they’re learning regularly, and maybe by learning more about the communities that speak these language, any fear and suspicion they have of the other and the foreign would diminish.

English, French, German, Language, Language learning, Spanish 3 Comments

Elephant flies

An interesting Dutch idiom I came across today is van een vlieg een olifant maken or “to make an elephant out of a fly”, which is the Dutch equivalent of the English idiom to make a mountain out of a molehill.

This comes from a post on the blog Stuff Dutch People Like.

Other idioms from this post include:

Nu komt de aap uit de mouw (Now the monkey comes out of the sleeve) = To let the cat out of the bag, i.e. to reveal the hidden motive or the truth behind something.

Ben je van de trap gevallen? (Did you fall down the stairs?) = Did you have a fight with a lawn mower? – said to people who’ve had a rather drastic haircut.

Wie boter op zijn hoofd heeft, moet uit de zon blijven (Those with butter on their heads should stay out of the sun) = People in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones, i.e. do not criticize others unless you are without fault.

Are there equivalents of these idioms in other languages?

Dutch, English, Idioms, Language 1 Comment

Language quiz

Language quiz image

Here’s a recording in a mystery language.

Can you identify the language, and do you know where it’s spoken?

Language, Quiz questions 4 Comments

The future of language learning

A new article on Omniglot discusses the future of language learning. The writer (not me) suggests that improvements in technology will soon make it possible to use machine translation in everyday situations and as a result, learning languages will become unnecessary and something people do for mainly as a hobby.

I don’t really agree with the article. Improved machine translation will be very useful for tourists and other short-term visitors to foreign parts, but for people who live abroad or spend a lot of time in foreign lands, learning the local language and about the local culture will always be useful and worthwhile.

Translation, no matter how good, adds an extra step between the speaker and the listener. For those of us who prefer direct interaction with people, and who like to fully understand what other people are talking about, including their idioms, jokes and slang, there’s no substitute for learning their language.

Even if a babel fish or similar device existed, i.e. something that translates whatever language you hear into your own language, and that translate what you say into your conversation partner’s language, it would still be worth learning about other and languages cultures. Or would it?

English, Language, Language learning 7 Comments
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