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The Most Common Second Languages Spoken Around the World

Move Hub recently published a map showing each continent’s most widely spoken second languages. They based their findings on the CIA’s published figures.

These languages have been colour-coded to show their language ancestry. This, providing a look into the history of the development of languages globally.

Language Development

There are many stories as to how we came to speak different languages. The most famous is probably the Tower of Babel. The story goes that God created man to speak only one language. When we tried to build a tower to heaven, the Tower of Babel, God got angry and made humans speak different languages and scattered them across the world. Other similar stories exist, and each culture may likely have it’s own.

But what caused us all to speak different languages depending on geographical location? Linguists have identified three primary factors: time, distance and, processes of language change.

Take Latin as an example. When speakers of Latin began travelling and settled in different European countries, the language became French, Spanish, Italian, or Portuguese. This change occurred gradually over time.

Invasions are heavily responsible for language development as well. For example, English was born out of the invasion of Britain by Germanic tribes, and the dialects they spoke allowed for English to develop.

Another factor that contributes to language changes and developments is cultural identity. To differentiate ourselves culturally, humans have, over time, developed and changed some aspects of their language, which has helped separate those who speak the same language but do not share the same cultural identity. Take American and British English, for example. British English says lift, pavement, and hoover. While at the same time American English says elevator, sidewalk, and vacuum cleaner. You can find further differences in Australian English as well.

A final factor that has impacted the development of language, and especially the promulgation of English globally in the early years of development, is the assignment of words for unknown objects, places and things. When English settlers arrived in Australia, they did not have words for some of the things they saw. What did they do? They borrowed and stole from indigenous languages. They used already existing words in English that could help them describe the landscape of Australia, their new home.

Move Hub’s Infographic

The image below shows the results of Move Hub’s research. Head over to their website for the full infographic.

Unsurprisingly, English remains the most widely spoken second language, and the internet is bursting with online English language courses. English as a Lingua Franca began with British colonisation in Asia and Africa in the 16th century. Will English continue in its popularity as a global language? While there is no doubt that English will continue to be used by businesses in some areas, the demand for multilingualism in business is growing as other global superpowers begin to emerge. The effects of Brexit on English as the official language in the EU are yet to be seen. But commentary around the issue suggests that French will take over as the dominant language.

French is currently the second most spoken second language in 14 different countries. Its popularity in parts of Africa can be attributed to colonialism. It wasn’t until the 1950s and 60s that France and Belgium lost control of these colonies, and this has resulting in many of those countries continuing to use French as an official language.

Russian is next on our list, with 13 countries using it as an official second language. The use of Russian stems from the history of the Soviet states. If you find yourself anywhere in Eastern Europe, a little Russian will get you a long way. Its use in other parts of the world can be traced back to immigration patterns and politics.

Surprisingly, Spanish is number 4 on the list and is spoken by 75 million people as a second language in 13 different countries. Spanish, like French, Italian and Portuguese, is categorised as a romance language and has roots in Latin. Romance languages act as a gateway to each other due to their lexical and grammatical similarities.  Despite English not being a romance language, it also shares Latin roots, and you can find many similarities in this Indo-European language family.

Portuguese and Italian are 8th and 9th most widely spoken second languages globally. Portuguese is primarily spoken in Portugal and Brazil. But it can also be found as a second language in parts of Africa and China. Portuguese has not been able to compete with the popularity of Spanish, so far. But as Brazil’s economy continues to grow and the number of Portuguese speakers increases, so does the demand for it as a second language.

The Creole language is a language born out of the mixing of 2 languages. Louisiana Creole rose out of the interactions between enslaved Africans and French colonisers. However, the language was never able to compete with English in terms of usage. Louisiana Creole is still spoken as a second language in parts of North, South, and Central America.

Modern Standard Arabic is the 6th most widely spoken second language and is the Lingua Franca in the Arab world. Arabic was used widely in the Mediterranean in science, mathematics and philosophy during the early Middle Ages. As a result, many European languages, Spanish especially, have “borrowed” words from Arabic and assimilated them into the language. Arabic is also the liturgical language for 1.9 billion Muslims around the globe.

Kurdish can be broken down into two main dialects: Kurmanji (Northern Kurdish) and Sorani (Central Kurdish). Southern Kurdish is spoken in parts of Iraq and Iran and can be broken down into nine sub-dialects. Unfortunately, northern Kurdish was banned in Turkey for around 70 years, so the number of speakers and resources for learning are limited.

Today, Spanish dominates, and Quechua is now spoken predominantly as a second language in Peru, Ecuador, and Bolivia.

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