Languages of the world - Interesting facts about languages

Facts about world languages

Languages of the world

A guide to which languages are most widely spoken, hardest to learn and other revealing facts.

1. How many languages are there?

It’s estimated that up to 7,000 different languages are spoken around the world. 90% of these languages are used by less than 100,000 people. Over a million people converse in 150-200 languages and 46 languages have just a single speaker!

Languages are grouped into families that share a common ancestry. For example, English is related to German and Dutch, and they are all part of the Indo-European family of languages. These also include Romance languages, such as French, Spanish and Italian, which come from Latin.

2,200 of the world’s languages can be found in Asia, while Europe has a mere 260.

Nearly every language uses a similar grammatical structure, even though they may not be linked in vocabulary or origin. Communities which are usually isolated from each other because of mountainous geography may have developed multiple languages. Papua New Guinea for instance, boasts no less than 832 different languages!

2. What are the world’s most spoken languages?

The world's most widely spoken languages by number of native speakers and as a second language, according to figures from UNESCO (The United Nations’ Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization), are: Mandarin Chinese, English, Spanish, Hindi, Arabic, Bengali, Russian, Portuguese, Japanese, German and French.

3. Which are the hardest languages to learn?

The ease or difficulty of learning another language can depend on your mother tongue. In general, the closer the second language is to the learner's native tongue and culture in terms of vocabulary, sounds or sentence structure, the easier acquisition will be.

So, a Polish speaker will find it easier to learn another Slavic language like Czech than an Asian language such as Japanese, while linguistic similarities mean that a Japanese speaker would find it easier to learn Mandarin Chinese than Polish.

Dutch is said to be the easiest language for native English speakers to pick up, while research shows that for those native English speakers who already know another language, the five most difficult languages to get your head around are Arabic, Cantonese, Mandarin Chinese, Japanese and Korean.

4. Endangered languages

Globalisation and cultural homogenisation mean that many of the world’s languages are in danger of vanishing. UNESCO has identified 2,500 languages which it claims are at risk of extinction.

One quarter of the world’s languages are spoken by fewer than 1,000 people and if these are not passed down to the next generation, they will be gone forever.

Language experts discuss saving endangered languages

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  • Arrow In September 2010, delegates at the Trinity College Carmarthen conference in Wales focused on how to stop endangered languages becoming extinct. Nine different languages are used in this clip to explain the current crisis, including Irish Gaelic, Maori, Berber, Guernesiais, Welsh, Scots Gaelic and Manx.

  • Arrow Read the whole article from the BBC News Magazine on Dying Languages

5. Alphabets from A to Z

The Latin, or Roman, alphabet is the most widely used writing system in the world. Its roots go back to an alphabet used in Phoenicia, in the Eastern Mediterranean, around 1100 BC. This was adapted by the Greeks, whose alphabet was in turn adapted by the Romans.

Here are the world’s most widely-used alphabets (or scripts) which are still in use today (in alphabetical order): Amharic, Arabic, Armenian, Bengali, Burmese, Chinese script, Cyrillic, Devanagari, Georgian, Greek, Hebrew, Japanese script, Khmer, Korean, Lao, Latin, Sinhala, Thai and Tibetan.

6. Why learn another language?

Around 75% of the world's population don’t speak a word of English and a grasp of a different language improves your abilities to use your first language and explore other cultures more successfully.

According to research, on average, people who use languages in their jobs earn around 8% more!

Many scientists also believe that knowledge of another language can boost your brainpower. A study of monolingual and bilingual speakers suggests speaking two languages can help slow down the brain's decline with age. And to quote Nelson Mandela, "If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart."

The advantages of learning a second language

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  • Arrow The Head of the European Commission Office in Wales, Andy Klom, discusses the advantages of a second language and says "Learning another language is a matter of confidence, learning and hard effort."

  • Arrow Read the whole interview of Andy Klom on learning other languages

7. Languages in the world

When NASA launched the 'Voyager 1 & 2' spacecraft in 1977, they put on board golden discs containing the sights and sounds of Earth, including greetings in 55 of the world’s most widely understood languages. These are currently travelling through space!

The United Nations uses six official languages to conduct business: English, French, Spanish, Chinese, Russian and Arabic.

Under the Romans, Latin became the lingua franca across Europe. As of 2010 the European Union has 23 official and working languages: Bulgarian, Czech, Danish, Dutch, English, Estonian, Finnish, French, German, Greek, Hungarian, Irish, Italian, Latvian, Lithuanian, Maltese, Polish, Portuguese, Romanian, Slovak, Slovene, Spanish and Swedish.

8. "Ouch!", "Mama?" The origins of language

Some of the oldest languages known include Sanskrit, Sumerian, Hebrew and Basque.

A study of macaque monkeys suggests that languages may have evolved to replace grooming as a better way of forging social ties amongst our ancestors.

Another theory is that our ancient predecessors imitated natural sounds: e.g. the bird that made a "caw caw" sound became a 'cuckoo'in a similar way to today’s children calling things by the sound that they make: "Look, there's a moo, baa, choo-choo!".

Human communication might have been sparked by involuntary sounds such as "ouch" or "eek" or by communal activities such as heaving or carrying heavy objects, coordinated by shouts of "yo-he-ho", etc.

Another theory proposes that language evolved from the communication between mother and baby, with the mother repeating the baby's babbling and giving it a meaning. Indeed, in most languages "mama" or similar "ma"-sounds actually mean 'mother'.

9. Artificial languages

Around 200 artificial languages have been created since the 17th century. The first were invented by scholars for communication among philosophers. Later ones were developed by less scholarly men for trade, commerce and international communication. They include 'Interlingua' (a mixture of Latin and Romance with Chinese-like sentence structure), 'Ido', 'Tutonish' (a simplified blend of Anglo-Saxon English and German) and the more commonly-known 'Esperanto', invented by Ludwig Zamenhof, a Jewish ophthalmologist from Poland, in 1887.

Esperanto is a spoken and written blend of Latin, English, German and Romance elements and literally means "one who hopes". Today, Esperanto is widely spoken by approximately 2 million people across the world.

10. The best way to learn a language

The first language you learn, your mother tongue, usually comes with little conscious effort. If you're lucky, you might even acquire more than one language in the so-called 'critical period' of language learning, believed to end sometime between ages 4-12. After that, it doesn’t come so easy, as you might have found out at school.

Something that might help is finding out about your learning style: are you a visual, auditory or kinaesthetic learner?

  • Arrow The visual learner might benefit from writing down words and phrases over and over again.

  • Arrow The auditory learner could gain from reading out loud or recording their own vocabulary lists and listen back to them.

  • Arrow The kinaesthetic learner may enjoy learning in a group or using flash cards or anything else that satisfies their hunger for 'experience'.


Finding what works for you could speed up your language acquisition - or at least make it more enjoyable!

How to learn languages

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  • Arrow The Outreach and Information Officer at the European Commission office in Wales, Leri Davies, discusses the benefits of a second language. She also explains what helped her learn different languages.

  • Arrow Read the whole interview of Leri Davies on learning other languages

A guide to languages

A Guide to Languages

Facts, key phrases and the alphabet in many world languages

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