10 Most Influential Languages in the World

Back in the ’90s, the magazine Language Today published an article by George Weber that analyzed the world’s most influential languages. It was an interesting analysis, because it accounted for “influence” of a language in a number of ways.

For example, Chinese has the most speakers in the world, but it ranks 6 on the list. The formula also takes into account the number of secondary speakers of a language (of which Chinese, a relatively complex language, has few), as well as other factors, such as the economic power of countries that use the language.

Here’s the breakdown:

  1. English
  2. French
  3. Spanish
  4. Russian
  5. Arabic
  6. Chinese
  7. German
  8. Japanese
  9. Brazilian Portuguese
  10. Hindi/Urdu

The article also highlights the societal differences that have influenced these rankings. Weber argues that French is one of the most aggressively promoted languages in the world, and its knowledge often carries a certain prestige (though less so now that English has become the more frequent common denominator in an international setting).

Chinese and Japanese, conversely, are not very common as second languages, due both to the complexity of the language as well as the attitudes of the Chinese and Japanese people. The article states “Chinese is a language whose speakers are noticeably disinterested in spreading its use outside their own people; Not unlike the Japanese, the Chinese prefer to deal with foreigners in English.”

For more information, you can view Weber’s article here.

Being a native English speaker, it’s difficult to look at this list without personal bias, but English’s top spot rings true to me. At ALTA, we work with translators all over the world, and it seems to me that English is most often the common denominator. If a client requests we translate Finnish into Brazilian Portuguese, it’s going to be difficult to find a linguist who is fluent in both of those languages, regardless of where in the world we look. Instead, it’s more likely we would translate from Finnish into English, and from English into Brazilian Portuguese. In our corner of the world, though, French carries far less importance than Spanish. Seeing it ranked 3rd may come as a surprise to anyone living in the United States.

According to the 15th edition of Ethnologue, the top 10 most common languages (primary speakers) in the world are:

  1. Chinese
  2. Spanish
  3. English
  4. Arabic
  5. Hindi
  6. Portuguese
  7. Bengali
  8. Russian
  9. Japanese
  10. German

What’s interesting is the fact that French appears no where on this list (it ranks at 17), but due to its massive number of secondary speakers, it appears as the 2nd most influential in Weber’s article. And Bengali doesn’t even show up in the top 10 most influential languages.

Still, “influential” is a term that carries a lot of subjectivity, not to mention the difficulty of accurately establishing the number of secondary speakers a language has, as well as documenting the prestige a language’s knowledge carries. Anyone out there feeling snubbed by Weber’s assessment?

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Languages include:
Amharic
Arabic
Chinese (Mandarin)
English
Farsi
French
German
Haitian-Creole
Hebrew
Indonesian
Italian
Japanese
Korean
Pashto
Polish
Portuguese
Romanian
Russian
Spanish
Thai
Turkish
Vietnamese

9 Comments
  • Michelle K. Gross
    Posted at 13:32h, 10 September Reply

    Since when are vanilla Arabic and Chinese spoken languages?

    Each has dialects, which are not considered to be mutually intelligible.

    Perhaps the author meant that people speak MSA and Mandarin in the top 10 most common languages. But then why say “primary speaker,” when MSA is not spoken as a native language?

  • Michelle K. Gross
    Posted at 03:39h, 29 September Reply

    Here is a link with Ethnologue break-downs that recognizes the distinction bet dialects of Arabic and dialects of Chinese:
    http://anthro.palomar.edu/language/language_1.htm

  • Ramon
    Posted at 14:57h, 10 February Reply

    “If a client requests we translate Brazilian Portuguese into Japanese, it’s going to be difficult to find a linguist who is fluent in both of those languages, regardless of where in the world we look. Instead, it’s more likely we would translate from Portuguese into English, and from English into Japanese.”

    I just think this is a big mistake from the author. Brazil (specifically the state of São Paulo) has perhaps the largest Japanese descendant population in the world. It’s estimated that in the Metro region of the city of São Paulo itself, there are about 1 million descendants; making it the city with the largest Japanese speakers outside of Japan.

    • Manny
      Posted at 15:02h, 10 February Reply

      Thank you for pointing that out, Ramon. We will surely edit the post to reflect the facts!

  • mark michaud
    Posted at 05:52h, 08 November Reply

    thx !

  • Alex
    Posted at 05:53h, 08 November Reply

    Hello Mark ! I love you !

  • Alex
    Posted at 05:53h, 08 November Reply

    Thanks 😉

  • Andre
    Posted at 21:23h, 04 December Reply

    Thanks for the info. I see on the author’s original page he made a note that the Romans in 100 A.D. thought Latin will forever survive in some part of the world. Looking at the list of languages, it will! English has over 500 Latin words or phrases (mostly via French), French, Spanish and Portuguese are all Romance languages !

  • Er. Sunil Pedgaonkar; Consulting Engineer(India)--CEAI/FIDIC Registered
    Posted at 05:23h, 13 September Reply

    English! Without any doubts;English is No.1 International Language in
    today’s global world & her importance will grow day by day in future.In all fields: Politics;Diplomacy;Trade;Business;Commerce;Education;Internet;

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