Studied vs. spoken languages: what are the differences?

You might think that the most widely studied languages in the world are also the most spoken. Or that they are the most represented in schools. This is not always the case.

The figures are startling: consider that 80% of people speak just 80 languages. At the same time, 40% of the world’s languages are spoken by fewer than 1,000 people. 

Today, the most common mother tongue in the world is Chinese. There are almost 1.2 billion native speakers in the world, which is nearly 1 in 7 people. However, Chinese is not the most studied language. In most of the rankings of the most widely taught languages in the world, it is only in fifth place, far behind languages with 2, 3 or even 18 times fewer native speakers (such as Italian or French). This despite China’s rapid economic expansion, which at first glance would suggest growing interest from the business community. 

The reverse is also true. Take Italian: with fewer than 65 million speakers, the language Dante does not even appear in the top ten most spoken languages in the world, but it somehow maintains 4th place in the ranking of most-taught languages, ahead of Chinese. 

We often talk about “mother tongues”, but let’s not forget that speakers of a language are not always native. As mentioned above, many countries recognize several official and shared languages. This is where the notion of the “function” of a language becomes important. In India, there are two official languages: Hindi and English. Although people speak Hindi on a daily basis, the majority use English exclusively when they are communicating online and for commercial purposes. This means that English likely has a significant gap in its number of native speakers versus the general number of English speakers in the world. This might explain why English, rather than Chinese, now tops the list of the world’s most widely spoken languages. 

It would seem that there is no correlation between the number of speakers of a language and the interest in learning it. In other words, one does not learn a language for anything other than practical reasons. 

So what are the triggers for learning a language? Some insights in our white paper!

Download our white paper on the “languages in the world”

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