So many languages!

If you go into the typical bookstore these days, you’ll get the impression there are about 10 languages, starting with Mandarin, Spanish and French, German and Italian. Oh yes, and there’s Portuguese, Russian and Japanese. These are the only languages represented by more than pocket phrasebooks in the little bookstore I just left. But what are the actual top 10 languages?

Top 10 languages by native speaker

  1. Mandarin
  2. Spanish
  3. English
  4. Hindi
  5. Bengali
  6. Portuguese
  7. Russian
  8. Japanese
  9. Marathi
  10. Western Punjabi

Interestingly, 8 of the 10 are Indo-European. But half of those, 4, are languages spoken in South Asia, and they aren’t represented in most bookstores. I mention this because, as a Language Addict, my thought about languages has always been that I want to know them all. Based on the bookstore I just left, it might just seem doable. But…

Recently, I’ve been listening to John McWhorter’s Language Families of the World from the Great Courses. And it turns out there are a lot of languages, most of which even language geeks haven’t heard. You talk about leveraging families to learn more languages and you think of French, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese; or English, German, Dutch, Danish. But what about Tagalog, Indonesian, Hawaiian, Tahitian and Malagasy? Or Amharic and Tigrinya? Soon, you realize you’re in unfamiliar territory once you leave Europe and East Asia.

For those who love languages, I highly recommend McWhorter’s course. It’s a great introduction to how much language variety there actually is, and how rapidly it’s disappearing. For example, among the Romance languages, most people can come up with Romanian and Catalan if you ask them to go beyond the big 4. But there’s also Franco-Provençal, Piedmontese, Galician, Venetian and more. Many, like Emilian0-Romagnolo and Gallo, are on their last legs. And in Australia, soon they’ll be down to about 12 of the 250 languages that were spoken when European colonists arrived. So how can you be truly international? First of all, you should listen to the course and try to find out more about anything that sounds interesting. But second, you will probably want to check DuoLingo or Memrise to find cheap, easy introductions, if only so you can say, yeah, I learned a few words in that once. A suggested list for DuoLingo:

  • Indo-European: Germanic: English
  • Indo-European: Romance: Spanish
  • Indo-European: Celtic: Welsh
  • Indo-European: Hellenic: Greek
  • Indo-European: Slavic: Russian
  • Indo-European: Indo-Aryan: Hindi
  • Finno-Ugric: Hungarian
  • Turkic: Turkish
  • Afro-Asiatic: Arabic
  • Niger-Congo: Swahili
  • Sino-Tibetan: Chinese
  • Austro-Asiatic: Vietnamese
  • Austronesian: Indonesian
  • Na-Dené: Navajo

Listen to McWhorter, so you know about the language families these all come from, and then you can set yourself to becoming a truly international polyglot next year.

(Usual disclaimer: The Amazon link implies no actual relationship with Amazon beyond the Affiliate program.)

About G Barto

I've been learning languages more than 20 years and teaching them for at least 15. Here I share the joys and frustrations of teaching yourself new languages.
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