how many people speak a second language?

[Update] A Global Perspective on Bilingualism and Bilingual Education, from the Center for Applied Linguistics, reports that “available data indicate that there are many more bilingual or multilingual individuals in the world than there are monolingual.” Experts debate what it means to “speak” a language and even what a language is. For example, most scholars agree that spoken Cantonese and Mandarin are different languages, even though they share identical Chinese writing. However, Cantonese is often referred to as a dialect of Mandarin. Are the 71M Cantonese speakers, the majority of whom also speak Mandarin, multilingual? I believe so, but I don’t think they were included by the sources used for my analysis above.

I was conservative in my analysis, so I do think it is possible that a majority of the world speaks more than one language; however, almost half of the world’s population still lives in rural areas where people are often monolingual, although in China, everyone learns Mandarin, in addition to their local language. Everyone agrees that multilingualism is increasing, but I haven’t seen reports with credible numbers that quantify the trend.

Based on research in the 1990’s George Weber of the Andaman Association wrote an interesting article on the world’s most influential languages.

I found it quite interesting to see the number of secondary speakers, with the largest being french (although there are plenty of folk on the web who argue with his assessment).

It is notable that the margin of error in looking at the number of speakers is quite large, and this study seems to have taken the lowest of each estimate .  According to a summary by M. Turner, the number of second language speakers was 571 Million, which is 8.3% of the world population.

In looking to update this list, I took numbers from Wikipedia and Ethnologue, surveying the largest languages where I could easily find stats of second-language speakers.  Here’s the list I came up with (number in millions):

English 1400
French 500
Mandarin 178
Spanish (100-171) 130
Russian 114
Portuguese 30
German 28
Arabic 21
Japanese 1

*Wikipedia reported 100-171 Million (I took the average)

In summary, 2.4 Billion people would be 35% of the world population; however, the percentage of people should be somewhat less since this rough assessment doesn’t account for people who speak more than 2 languages, but I would also guess that in these stats I would show up only as an English speaker, even though I speak other languages also… how would any statistician even know about me?  So, this summary is far from scientific, but it feels about right that in today’s global economy roughly a third of us are speaking another language.

7 thoughts on “how many people speak a second language?

  1. Steven

    Er .. If you search “multilingualism” on wikipedia it says that multilingual speakers outnumber the monolingual speakers in the world so .. who’s wrong ?

  2. Sarah

    Hi Steven — thanks for pointing out the wikipedia article and reference. I’ve added an update to the article with my thoughts and additional references.

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  4. Seba

    No idea who wrote this entry but I’ve been thinking about this for a while now, but couldnt find anyone/any place that can provide data on the number of second language speakers… even though ones reads everywhere that “most of the world is multilingual/speaks a second language.” I suspect something along the same lines you mentioned here -do you have any updates on this? Thanks!

  5. sarah Post author

    Hi, I’m Sarah Allen, one of the founders of Mightyverse, and I wrote this blog post. I haven’t seen any updated studies, though I did move my update to the top of the post to clarify that, from what I’ve read, I now believe that a majority of the world speaks at least two languages.

  6. Seba

    Hi Sarah, and thanks for your comment! Yes, apparently this might well be true… but I have been trying to get my head around this for a while in terms of how can one know…

    Still, none of the sources mentioned here says much else than that “it so”… Im afraid the Center for Applied Linguistics that you linked doesn’t report on what you quoted, but a Tucker, G. Richard does –though without any sources. Your second and third links takes me to what it looks like a Japanese cell phone shop… Oh well. Thanks anyway! (the closest thing I’ve found is about Europe, and yes, half of them do speak a 2nd language )

  7. Nicholas Miller

    I would say that an important demographic missed out here would be the number of people living in countries made through colonisation. In Paraguay, for example, about 85% of the country speak both Spanish and the indigenous language of Guaraní. This is exceptional in the region, but there are still a significant population who speak indigenous mother tongues and then Spanish or Portuguese (Quechua, the most spoken with about 9 million, itself comes from being the Incan language, where it quite possibly was once a lingua franca). Then there’s Hindi in India, Urdu in Pakistan, multilingualism in Afghanistan, Swahili in Uganda, DRC etc. So maybe it’s all these that bring up the total to past 50%?

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