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A world language is a language spoken internationally, which is learned by many people as a second language. A world language is not only characterized by the number of its speakers (native or second language speakers), but also by its geographical distribution, and its use in international organizations and in diplomatic relations. In this respect, major world languages are dominated by languages of European origin. The historical reason for this is the period of European colonialism. World languages originating with historical colonial empires include English, Spanish, Portuguese and French. The international prominence of Arabic has its historical reason in the medieval Islamic conquests.

Other major languages are not widely used across several continents, but have an international significance as the lingua franca of a historical empire. These include Mandarin Chinese in the Chinese empire, Russian in the Russian empire, German in the German empire, and Hindi following the British Raj which united India.

The major languages of the Indian subcontinent, Hindustani (including all Hindi dialects and Urdu) and Bengali, have numbers of speakers comparable to those of major world languages primarily due to the extreme population growth in the region in recent decades rather than a super-regional use of these languages. Similarly, Japanese has more speakers than French, but while French is spoken intercontinentally and has a significant portion of second language speakers, the vast majority of Japanese speakers are native Japanese.


The Romance languages bear testimony to the role of Latin as the lingua franca of the Roman 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, Muslim and Turkic expansions. The distribution of the Turkic languages, in turn, are a legacy of the Turkic Khaganate.

Just as all the de facto world languages owe their status to historical 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".[1] A number of international auxiliary languages have been introduced as prospective world languages, the most successful of them being Esperanto, but none of them can claim the status of a de facto world language. Many natural languages have been proffered as candidates for a global lingua franca, including Italian, Dutch, Hungarian, German and Malay.[2]

De facto world languages[]

A de facto world language has the following properties[3]

  • a large number of speakers
  • a substantive fraction of non-native speakers (function as lingua franca)
  • a standard register which is widely taught as a foreign language
  • the linguistic community is not defined along ethnic lines (multiethnic, pluricentric language)
  • official status in several countries
  • use in international trade relations
  • use in international organizations
  • use in the academic community
  • significant body of literature
  • association with linguistic prestige

World languages in this sense are the six official languages of the UN (Chinese, English, French, Russian, Spanish, and Arabic) as well as German, Hindi and Portuguese:

language native speakers total speakers distribution standard register regulator
Mandarin Chinese 1,000 M 1,051 M Greater China Standard Mandarin, Vernacular Chinese National Languages Committee
English 350 M 1,000 M[4] Anglosphere, worldwide Standard English officially none
Hindustani (Hindi+Urdu) 460 M 650 M[5] Indian subcontinent (Hindi belt, Pakistan) Khariboli (Standard Hindi, Urdu) Central Hindi Directorate, National Language Authority of Pakistan
Spanish 400 M 500 M Hispanophone (Hispanidad) Standard Spanish Real Academia Española, Association of Spanish Language Academies
Arabic 200 M 300 M Arab world; Near East, North Africa Standard Arabic Academy of the Arabic Language
Russian 165 M 280 M Russia, Eastern Europe, Russian Far East, former Soviet Union Russian Academy of Sciences
Portuguese 190 M 230 M Lusosphere (Portugal, Brazil, Angola, etc.) International Portuguese Language Institute, Community of Portuguese Language Countries
German 100 M 150 M German-speaking Europe Standard German Rat für deutsche Rechtschreibung
French 65 M[6] to 109 M[7] 115 M to 265 M[8][9][10][11] Francophonie Standard French Académie française, Office québécois de la langue française, Council for the Development of French in Louisiana

All the languages listed have more than 100 million speakers (as of the 2000s, estimates based on SIL Ethnologue). There are two other languages with a number of speakers in excess of 100 million, viz. Bengali and Japanese.[12] Both of these are not considered world languages, because their communities are strongly tied to ethnicity, and are regionally limited sphere of influence;[13]). Of the nine de facto world languages listed, six have a significantly intercontinental sphere of influence, with Chinese, German and Hindi restricted to a more regional Sprachraum, Greater China, Europe and South Asia, respectively, with scattered diaspora communities (Chinese diaspora, German diaspora, Indian diaspora).

Chinese, Arabic, German, Hindi are macrolanguages or pluricentric languages, consisting of dialects of limited mutual comprehensibility (Chinese dialects, Arabic dialects, Hindi dialects, German dialects).

The Nobel Prize in Literature reflects the international reception of a major langauge's literary production. Literary languages with five or more Nobel laureates are:

Laureates %
English 27 25.47
French 13 12.26
German 12 11.32
Spanish 10 9.43
Italian 6 5.67
Swedish 6 5.67
Russian 5 4.72

The distribution, again, betrays an Eurocentric bias, stemming from the age of colonialism, and form the historical origin of the printing press, and consequently of increased literary activity, in Europe. The disproportionate number of prizes going to Swedish language authors (a language with some 10 million speakers) reflects the Nobel prize being a Scandinavian institution, Alfred Nobel having been Swedish.

Other super-regional languages[]

Template:See Other languages of super-regional importance which fail some of the other criteria to be considered de facto world languages include

language native speakers total speakers distribution regulator
Bengali 170 M 210 M Bengal Bangla Academy, Paschimbanga Bangla Akademi
Malay 30 M 200 M Southeast Asia (the "Malay world") Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka
Farsi 70 M 100 M Greater Persia Academy of Persian Language and Literature, Academy of Sciences of Afghanistan
Filipino 25 M 90 M Philippines Komisyon sa Wikang Filipino
Swahili 10 M 80 M East Africa Baraza la Kiswahili la Taifa
Dutch+Afrikaans 30 M 45 M Dutch-speaking world Dutch Language Union
Italian 69 M 74 M Italy and adjacent regions Accademia della Crusca
Hausa 25 M 40 M West Africa none


  1. Pei, p. 105
  2. Pei p. 105
  3. c.f. De Mejía p. 47f.
  4. depending on what constitutes a second language speaker, estimates vary between 0.5 and 1.8 billion.
  5. figures are based on the 1991 census of India. They are highly unreliable due to the huge population growth in the area.
  6. Ethnologue report for language code:fra
  7. Francophonie
  8. Ethnologue report for language code:fra
  9. DGLF - La francophonie en chiffres
  10. Multilingualism on the Web. 2. Multilingualism
  11. Francophonie
  12. depending on classification on its disparate dialects, the Punjabi language may be counted as the 12th language with a total number of speakers just in excess of 100 million
  13. c.f. Pei p. 15


  • Christian Mair (ed.), The Politics of English As a World Language (2003), ISBN 9042008768.
  • Mario Pei, One Language for the World (1958), ISBN 0819602183.
  • Anne-Marie De Mejía, Power, Prestige, and Bilingualism: International Perspectives on Elite Bilingual Education (2002), ISBN 185359590X.
  • David Crystal, English as a Global Language (2003), ISBN 0521530326.
  • Clare Mar-Molinero, The Politics of Language in the Spanish-speaking World (2000), ISBN 0415156556.

See also[]

  • List of languages by number of speakers
  • Ethnologue list of most spoken languages
  • National language
  • Universal language
  • Lingua franca
  • International English
  • World religion
  • World population
  • World economy
  • Intercontinental

External links[]

af:Wêreldtaal de:Weltsprache eo:Mondlingvo nl:Wereldtaal no:Verdensspråk pt:Língua mundial ru:Международный язык sv:Världsspråk