A world language is spoken internationally and is learned and spoken by a large number of people as a second language. A world language is characterized not only by the total number of speakers (native and second language speakers), but also by its geographical distribution, as well as use in international organizations and diplomatic relations. One of the most widely spoken and fastest spreading world languages today is English, which has over 980,000,000 first- and second-language users worldwide.
Arabic gained international prominence because of the medieval Islamic conquests and the subsequent Arabization of the Middle East and North Africa, and it is also a liturgical language amongst Muslim communities outside the Arab World.
Standard Chinese is the direct replacement of Classical Chinese, which was a historical lingua franca in Far East Asia until the early 20th century, and today serves as a common language between speakers of other varieties of Chinese not only within China proper (between the Han Chinese and other unrelated ethnic groups), but in overseas Chinese communities. It is also widely taught as a second language internationally.
The major languages of the Indian subcontinent have numbers of speakers comparable to those of major world languages primarily due to the large population in the region rather than a supra-regional use of these languages, although Hindustani (including all Hindi dialects, and Urdu), Bengali and Tamil may fulfill the criteria in terms of supra-regional usage and international recognition. As an example, the native speaking population of Bengali vastly outnumber those who speak French as a first language, and it is one of the most spoken languages (ranking fifth or sixth) in the world with nearly 230 million total speakers, and is known for its long and rich literary tradition.
In addition to 370 million native speakers, English is estimated to have over 610 million second-language speakers, including anywhere between 200 and 350 million learners/users in China alone, at varying levels of study and proficiency, though this number is difficult to accurately assess. English is also increasingly becoming the dominant language of scientific research and papers worldwide, having even outpaced national languages in Western European countries, including France, where a recent study showed that English has massively displaced French as the language of scientific research in "hard" as well as in applied sciences.
During the 19th and early 20th centuries, French was the language of communication and diplomacy, and the favoured second language among the elite and the educated classes in Europe (including Russia, Romania, Bulgaria, Greece, and Ukraine) - as well as in many Middle East and North African countries such as Syria, Egypt, Ottoman Turkey and Iran. In addition, French enjoyed high status in some southeast Asian countries (Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia), and several South American ones like Argentina, Brazil, Chile, and Uruguay. However, French has declined steadily since World War I, being gradually displaced by English - although in Lebanon, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco, French continues to be the favoured second language, as well as enjoying co-official status in Canada, Switzerland and Belgium. Moreover, French still remains one of the working languages of many international organizations, including the United Nations, NATO, European Union and NAFTA. French is the principal working language of the European Court of Justice. French is also internationally recognized to be of high linguistic prestige, still used in diplomacy and international commerce, as well as having a significant portion of second language speakers throughout the world.
German served as a lingua franca in large portions of Europe for centuries, mainly the Holy Roman Empire and later the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It remains an important second language in much of Central and Eastern Europe, and in the international scientific community. It is the most widely spoken native language in the European Union as well as one of the three "procedural languages" of its institutions alongside English and French. It is the second most commonly used language on websites worldwide after English.
Russian is the largest native language in Europe, the most geographically widespread language in Eurasia, one of the six official languages of the United Nations, one of two official languages aboard the International Space Station and the second most widespread language on the Internet after English.
Russian was used in the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union, and its teaching was made compulsory in the Eastern Bloc countries. However, the use and teaching of Russian has declined sharply in both the former Eastern bloc and the near abroad since the break up of the Soviet Union and Russia’s deputy education minister was quoted as saying in December 2013 that the number of Russian speakers had fallen by 100 million since that date. It is still widely spoken throughout the Caucasus, Central Asia, Eastern Europe and the Baltic states.
Spanish is the world's second-most spoken native language, after Mandarin Chinese. Spanish was used in the Spanish Empire and today is in use in Spain, in Latin American countries (except Brazil, French Guyana, Suriname, Guiana, Haiti and other Caribbean islands), and is spoken in many parts of the United States, particularly in Florida and the states which border Mexico. Indeed, by 2013 Spanish was the most widely taught non-English language in American secondary schools and schools of higher education. It is also an official language of the United Nations. As of December 2017 Spanish had the third largest number of internet users by language (after English and Chinese).
Historical languages which had international significance as the lingua franca of a historical empire include Egyptian in Ancient Egypt; Sumerian, Akkadian and Aramaic in the various Mesopotamian civilizations and empires in the Ancient Near East; Ancient Greek in the Greek colonies in the form of various dialects, evolving to Koine Greek in the Hellenistic world, after the conquests of Alexander the Great and the Macedonian Empire, and subsequently in the eastern part of the Roman Empire and the territories of the Byzantine Empire; Latin in the Roman Empire and presently as the standard liturgical language for the Catholic faithful worldwide; Classical Chinese in East Asia during the Imperial era of Chinese history; Persian during the various succeeding Persian Empires, and once served as the second lingua franca of the Islamic World after Arabic; Sanskrit during the ancient and medieval historical periods of various states in South Asia, Southeast Asia, and Central Asia, and like Latin an important liturgical language of the Vedic religions.
The Romance languages bear testimony to the role of Latin as the lingua franca of the Roman Empire; for example, Italian has always been important in the Merranean region, and nowadays it is the most-spoken language among members of the Roman catholic hierarchy and it is also used in music (especially Opera) and the fashion industry. Turkish was similarly important as the primary language of the Ottoman Empire. Koine Greek was the "world language" of the Hellenistic period, but its distribution is not reflected in the distribution of Modern Greek due to the linguistic impact of the Slavic, Arabic and Turkic expansions. The distribution of the Arabic and Turkic languages, in turn, are a legacy of the Caliphates and the Turkic Khaganate, respectively.
Just as all the living world languages owe their status to linguistic imperialism, the suggestion of a given language as a world language or "universal language" has strong political implications. Thus, Russian was declared the "world language of internationalism" in Soviet literature, which at the same time denounced French as the "language of fancy courtiers" and English as the "jargon of traders". A number of international auxiliary languages have been introduced as prospective world languages, the most successful of them being Esperanto, but none were learned by as many people as the world languages were. Many natural languages have been proffered as candidates for a global lingua franca.
Certain languages with greater than 100 million speakers, such as Japanese, are not listed. Japanese, although considered to be one of the most significant languages internationally, along with the listed world languages, it is not considered a world language per se. Japan as a region is nearly homogeneous from ethnic, cultural and linguistic standpoints. Thus Japanese has little history as a lingua franca amongst communities who do not share a mother tongue or first language; their overseas communities are strongly tied to ethnicity. While international interest since the 1980s has prompted many major universities, secondary schools, and even primary schools worldwide to offer courses in the language, Japanese only exerts a regionally limited sphere of influence.
|Language||Native speakers||Second speakers of the language||Students as a foreign language||Total speakers||Official status distribution||Official status maps|
|English||372 M||611 M||600 M||1500 M||List of territorial entities where English is an official language|
|Spanish||480 M||91 M||21 M||577 M||List of countries where Spanish is an official language|
|French||80 M||153 M||62 M||274 M||List of territorial entities where French is an official language|
Other sources denote the following languages as world languages, whilst stricter sources list them as supra-regional languages:
|Language||Native speakers||First and second speakers of the language||Official status distribution||Official status maps|
|Mandarin Chinese||896~955 M
(Standard Mandarin only: 150 M)
|1091~1151 M||List of territorial entities where Chinese is an official language|
|Arabic||255~313 M (dialects+standard)||List of countries where Arabic is an official language|
|Hindustani (Hindi Belt, Urdu)||329 M (260M Hindi, 69 Urdu)||697 M (534M Hindi, 163 Urdu)||Official language in: India (Hindi & Urdu), Pakistan (Urdu) & Fiji (Fiji Hindi)
Recognised as minority language in: Mauritius (Hindi) and Surinam (Sarnami Hindustani)
|Portuguese||223 M||237~260 M||List of territorial entities where Portuguese is an official language|
|Russian||154 M||265 M||List of territorial entities where Russian is an official language|
|German||82 Mα (Standard German only: 71 M)||105 M to 132 M||List of territorial entities where German is an official language|
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Other languages of supra-regional importance which fail some of the other criteria to be considered de facto world languages include:
|Language||Native speakers||Total speakers||Official status distribution||Official status maps|
|Dutch and Afrikaans||29 M||30 M||List of territorial entities where Afrikaans and Dutch are official languages|
|Bengali||243 M||262 M||Official language in: India (in West Bengal, Tripura and Assam) and Bangladesh|
|Malay and Indonesian||39 M||218 M||List of territorial entities where Malay is an official language|
|Swahili||16 M||98 M
[not in citation given]
[not in citation given]
|Official language in:Tanzania, Kenya, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda, Uganda, African Union and East African Community|
|Persian and Dari||58 to 60 M||61 M to 110 M||Official language in: Iran, Afghanistan (as Dari) and Tajikistan (as Tajik)|
|Turkish||74 M||79 M to 100 M[page needed]
[not in citation given]
|Official language in: Turkey, Cyprus, Northern Cyprus
Recognized minority language in: Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia, Romania, Iraq, Greece, Republic of Kosovo
|Italian||65 M||68 M to 85 M||Official language in: Italy, Switzerland, San Marino, Sovereign Military Order of Malta, Vatican City. Italian is relevant in countries affected by the Italian diaspora and in former colonies and occupied territories of the Italian Empire.|
|Tamil||67 M||75 M||List of territorial entities where Tamil is an official language|