Post Tagged with "world languages"

The world’s most difficult languages

Ever wondered which is the most difficult language in the world? Well that depends on what languages you already speak.

It makes sense that languages which are more similar to your own native language are easier to learn. If you’ve ever been in a Spanish class with an Italian, for example, you’ll know what I’m talking about.

Add a different alphabet or writing system and things get even more complicated. When we asked recently if Chinese is difficult the main conclusion was that the characters make things a lot harder.

This diagram gives an idea of which are the most difficult languages for English speakers to learn. It shows the length of US Foreign Service intensive language courses. (source: The Atlantic)

most difficult languages for English speakers

That’s right – it takes more than twice as long to learn Chinese or Arabic as Swahili.

For native English speakers this is not good news – apart from Spanish, the fastest growing languages both spoken and on the internet are some of the most difficult to learn.

Do you agree with this list? And, if English is not your native language which languages are most difficult for you?

Read More:
How difficult is Chinese?
Top 20 Languages of the World
Arabic dialects and their future
‘The awful German language’: experiences of a German student

May 25, 2009 124 comments

Top 10 languages on the internet

Or why you should consider learning a new language / translating your blog.

We recently wrote about the most widely spoken languages in the world. Learning a new language takes a lot of effort so it helps to know which one will get you the most conversation opportunities.

Well, the internet is one of the hottest places to interact with people from different countries so it makes sense to have a look at the top languages used on the Internet as well.

This list is by Internet World Stats, which counts the number of internet users speaking each language. The numbers were last updated in June 2008.

The Top 10 Internet Languages

1. English (431m)
2. Chinese (276m)
3. Spanish (125m)
4. Japanese (94m)
5. French (68m)
6. German (61m)
7. Arabic (60m)
8. Portuguese (58m)
9. Korean (35m)
10. Italian (35m)

So Chinese and English get the top spots, no surprises there.

But number 3 is Spanish, replacing Hindi in the top 3 spoken languages (more on this in a future post).

Chinese is counted as one language here because the different dialects use a common writing system, although their spoken versions (eg Mandarin, Cantonese etc) are quite different.

Languages to watch

In 2020 this ranking could look very different. Chinese now outnumber Americans online, according to a report released this month. How long before Chinese replaces English in the number one spot?

Spanish is also increasing quickly, as is Arabic. With only a small percentage of its native speaker population online, Arabic is likely to rocket up this list in the next few years.

The future of English

As the USA has led the sprint online, English has been the dominant language on the Internet until now. But as online populations grow in the rest of the world, so does the challenge of other languages on the web.

The big question is, will English continue to be used for communication between different cultures, or will the internet split up into self-segregating communities based on preferred language?

In the long term the role of English as a ‘bridge’ language across cultures may give it the upper hand. But this might not help native English speakers – it seems they cannot understand International English as it is spoken by non-native speakers.

Update: Global Culture blog analyses some cultural implications of the increase of Chinese on the web in the post a billion web users.

Read More:
Top 20 Languages of the World
How difficult is Chinese?
Is there an easy way to blog in a different language?

January 26, 2009 5 comments

How to say ‘Hello’ in 20 Languages

On a recent trip to the beautiful Grand Bazaar in Istanbul, Turkey I was impressed to see the stall owners switch effortlessly from one language to another as they greeted customers from different countries. Of course it takes a lot of of practice to get to that level but learning to say ‘Hello’ is a good start.

The languages were chosen based on those known by PocketCultures and our friends, plus some others that came into our heads. They are grouped according to their language families. Obviously the main drawback of this list is that it only has 20 languages, so if yours isn’t there please tell us about it in the comments!

Indo-European Languages

This diverse and widespread language group includes most European languages as well as some from further East.

1. BONJOUR – French

Where to say it:

Apart from France, Belgium and Switzerland this will also be understood in Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria and the sub-Saharan African countries of DR Congo, Côte d’Ivoire, Cameroon, Guinea, Gabon and Mauritius.

2. HOLA – Spanish

Where to say it:

Outside Spain, Spanish, or Castillian as it is sometimes called, is the main language of all Central and South American countries apart from Brazil. It is also the second most common language in the USA, spoken by more than 34m Hispanic Americans.

3. HALLO / GUTEN TAG – German

Where to say it:

Germany, Austria and Switzerland

4. CIAO – Italian

Where to say it:


5. OLÀ – Portuguese

Where to say it:

Portugal and Brazil. Also spoken in former Portuguese colonies of Angola, Mozambique, Cape Verde, São Tomé and Macau.

6. NAMASTE – Hindi

Where to say it:

Northern India and Nepal. Hindi is one of the official languages of India, but is spoken as native language by only 41% of the population. Some people classify Hindi as the same language as Urdu, which is spoken in Pakistan.

7. SALAAM – Persian (Farsi)

Where to say it:

Iran, Afghanistan, Tajikistan. Also parts of Uzbekistan and Bahrain. NB. Persian is sometimes called Farsi. That’s the local name for Persian as it is spoken in Iran.

8. ZDRAS-TVUY-TE – Russian

Where to say it:

Russia, and as a first or second language in the Eastern European, Caucasian and Central Asian countries of the former USSR. Kazakhstan in particular has large numbers of ethnic Russians who speak Russian rather than Kazakh.

Ural-Altaic Languages

A controversial language family. Experts do not agree on which language family Japanese belongs to. We included it here in the Ural-Altaic family, but some linguists think it belongs better in the Austronesian family whilst others think it canot be classified. Likewise, there is some disagreement on whether Turkish and Korean belong to this group as well.


Where to say it:

Japanese is spoken pretty much only in Japan. The greetings above are used in the morning, around midday and in the evening respectively.

10. AHN-YOUNG-HA-SE-YO – Korean

Where to say it:

North and South Korea.

11. MERHABA – Turkish

Where to say it:

Turkish is spoken in Turkey and Cyprus. Also the languages spoken in Azerbeijan and parts of Iran, Georgia and the Balkans are very similar to Turkish.

12. SAIN BAINUU- Mongolian

Where to say it:

Mongolia. Mongolian speakers also live in some parts of Russia, China (Inner Mongolia) and Kyrgyzstan.

13. SALEMETSIZ BE? – Kazakh

Where to say it:

Almost 7 million of the world’s 10 million Kazakh speakers live in Kazakhstan. The rest are divided between Xinxiang province in China, Uzbekistan, Russia, Mongolia, Turkmenistan, Ukraine and Tajikistan. As in Mandarin, the literal translation of this greeting is ‘how are you?’

14. SZIA – Hungarian

Where to say it:

Mostly in Hungary, although parts of Austria and the Balkans have Hungarian speakers.

Afro-Asiatic Languages

These languages are spoken in North Africa and include the Berber languages spoken by desert nomads of the Sahara.

15. MARHABA – Arabic

Where to say it:

Arabic in various dialects is spoken throughout North Africa and the Middle East. It is a main language in the following countries: Algeria, Bahrain, Chad, Egypt, Eritrea, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, Oman, Palestine, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, UAE, Western Sahara, Yemen


Where to say it:

Hausa is the native language of inhabitants of Niger and Northern Nigeria, but it is also used as lingua franca in many countries of West and Central Africa.

Niger-Congo Languages

Most African languages belong to this group, which may be the largest in the world in terms of distinct languages.

17. JAMBO / HABARI – Swahili

Where to say it:

Swahili has between 5 and 10 million native speakers who mainly live in Tanzania, Uganda and Kenya. But it is used as a lingua franca for most of East Africa and second language speakers swell the ranks to a massive 80 million!

Sino Tibetan Languages

Like its name suggests, this family groups the languages of China and Tibet.

18. NI HAU – Mandarin

Where to say it:

Mandarin is the most spoken language in the world – it is spoken by at least 50% of China’s 1.3bn population.

19. NAY HOH – Cantonese (Yue)

Where to say it:

Southern China (especially Guangdong province), Hong Kong and Macau

Austronesian Languages

Mostly spoken on the islands of Southeast Asia and the Pacific, only a few Austronesian languages are spoken on mainland Asia.

20. HALO – Bahasa Indonesia

Where to say it:

Although there are over 300 different dialects spoken in Indonesia, Bahasa Indonesia is spoken by much of the population as a second language. It is also very similar to the Malay language of Malaysia.

So, now you can start a conversation in at least 20 countries! Now all you need is someone to talk to…

Is your language missing? Leave a comment and let us know.

Read More:
More about different world language families
The most difficult languages in the world
The Top 20 Languages of the World

October 30, 2008 37 comments

World Language Families

Did you know that English belongs to the same family of languages as Persian (spoken in Iran and Afghanistan), and Urdu and Hindi (spoken in Pakistan and many parts of India)?

Human Language families from Wikipedia.

This map found on Wikipedia divides the world’s major languages into 19 families and shows areas where they are spoken as a majority language.

(In fact there are many more than 19 groups – for a more complete index of world language families see this list from Ethnologue)

The most widely spoken language group is Indo-European (light green), a diverse group which besides English and most other European languages includes Persian, Hindi and Urdu.

Other widely spoken language families are:

Afro-Asiatic (yellow), which includes Arabic;

Niger-Congo (orange) languages of sub-saharan Africa;

Altaic (khaki), which includes Turkish and other Turkic languages spoken in Central Asia.

Sino-Tibetan languages are shown in red and from the map it seems that while Chinese is the most spoken language in the world, its strength comes (so far) from the size and growth of its domestic population rather than from its spread around the world.

Update: This post from Siberian Light examines European Languages in more detail, with emphasis on languages spoken in Russia.

Read More:
Dedicated follower of Chinglish: interview with a Chinglish spotter
Top 20 languages of the World: What are the most widely spoken languages in the world?
Top 10 languages on the Internet: the top languages on the internet are changing quickly

October 17, 2008 Comments disabled

(Ch)Inglish gets a life of its own

As the use of English as language of global communication is on the rise, an increasing number of conversations in English happen between non-native speakers.

English is the second most spoken language in the world, and it is estimated that by 2020 native speakers will make up only 15% of those using or learning the language.

Photo: The Chinglish Files by olr

According to Wired magazine the massive numbers of Chinese speakers using English in daily life is leading to an English of the future which will take on more and more aspects of Chinese translation quirks. Others believe that Chinglish’s days are numbered.

With increasing use of English as lingua franca between different nationalities (as opposed to conversations with at least one native speaker), it was inevitable that the ‘international English’ used would evolve into a pared down, simplified version of the language. And a native speaker in a room of non-native speakers has to adapt or risk not being understood by the rest of the group.

It remains to be seen whether Chinglish will grow in strength or blend into other versions of ‘international English’ as China-based English speakers come into contact more and more with the outside world.

Read more:
Next week we will be posting an interview with Oliver Lutz Radtke, author of the book Chinglish: Found in Translation. (Read the interview here)

June 25, 2008 3 comments

Top 20 Languages of the World

language.gifWhat are the most widely spoken languages in the world? Or, if you are contemplating learning a second language, which will get you the most new conversation opportunities for your effort?

The following list shows number of people speaking a language either as their first or second language. It is taken from Nicholas Ostler’s ‘Empires of the Word’, a detailed (and long!) history of the main world languages.

1. Mandarin Chinese (1,052m)
2. English (508m)
3. Hindi (487m)
4. Spanish (417m)
5. Russian (277m)
6. Bengali (211m)
7. Portugese (191m)
8. German (128m)
9. French (128m)
10. Japanese (126m)
11. Urdu (104m)
12. Korean (78m)
13. Wu Chinese (77m)
14. Javanese (76m)
15. Telugu (75m)
16. Tamil (74m)
17. Yue Chinese / Cantonese (71m)
18. Marathi (71m)
19. Vietnamese (68m)
20. Turkish (61m)

It would be interesting to know how the popularity of these languages is evolving. These figures are nearly 10 years old so in that time the Chinese speaking population has probably increased by around 40 million, for example. Rate of population increase must be the strongest factor in determining whether a language is currently moving up or down this list.

e_winner.gifI suspect this list may under-estimate the power of English by not counting those who speak English very competently and use it on a regular basis, but have learnt it as their third or even fourth language. That may sound improbable if you are a native English speaker, but for some it is a necessity. As one example, This post on A Wide Angle View of India blog explains that in many parts of India children grow up learning three languages, of which one is English.

English is currently the most popular choice as language of international communication, but will there come a point where another language becomes so widely spoken that it overtakes English as second language of choice? It may happen sooner than you think.

Update: compiling a list like this involves difficult decisions. The most obvious question is ‘why is Arabic not on this list?’. If included it would come around 5th place. See Ostler’s remarks in the comments below on why he considered Arabic dialects as separate languages. As an alternative view, this post from The Linguist Blogger incorporates different sources of information as well as Ostler’s list.

Read more:
Dedicated follower of Chinglish: interview with a Chinglish spotter
Is Chinglish the future of English?: most English conversations do not involve a native speaker
How to say Hello in 20 languages
Top 10 Languages on the Internet

June 9, 2008 69 comments