Which language has the most non-native speakers and why?

The distribution of non-native language (L2) speakers around the world reflects a very interesting mix of history, politics and economics.

It common knowledge that English and Chinese stand out with regard to the total number of speakers – these two language are the only ones that break the 1 billion people barrier (see the chart below). But the breakdown in native verses non-native speakers is very different for these two languages. And most other language have interesting stories behind their shares of native verses non-native speakers.

In the case of English, a massive three quarters of all speakers are non-native speakers, reflecting the language’s role as the modern day global linga franca and language of business. This is undoubted due to the dominant global roles once played by Great Britain (“the empire on which the sun never sets”) and currently played by the United States (think Hollywood and Coca-Cola). English remains the language most commonly learned as a second language, with French as distant second.

On the other hand, Mandarin Chinese is the mother tongue of the vast majority of its one billion plus speakers with only 18% being non-native speakers. And unlike English whose non-native speakers are scattered around the global, non-native speakers of Mandarin are mostly geographically confined to China itself and are typically non-Han Chinese minorities within China who are required to learn Mandarin at school as the national language.

Indonesian (Bahasa Indonesia) with a non-native speaker share of 78%, is both similar to China and different. Bahasa Indonesia is the official of the Republic of Indonesia, which itself is an ethnically and linguistically diverse archipelago of 270 million people. It is estimated that in the region there are more than 700 indigenous languages and Bahasa had been used as the lingua franca in the region for centuries. The striking difference to China, where Mandarin is the language of the dominate Han Chinese, Bahasa Indonesia is based on Old Malay which is not originally from Indonesia at all but from Malaysia, and was spread by colonisers and foreign traders arriving from the west via the Malacca Straits . Interesting Dutch, which was spoken widely during the colonial period, disappeared quickly with Indonesia’s independence and the formal adoption of Bahasa Indonesia as the national language.

Hindi, for which L2 speaker make up 45%, is also similar to Indonesia and Chinese in that it serves as the national language of India, a country that remains extremely linguistically diverse. A legacy of her colonial past, English remains an important language in India where it is estimated that there are 125 million speakers, over ten percent of the country’s population and accounting for close to one quarter of all non-native English speakers in the world.

Urdu, with a non-native speaker share of over 60%, is very similar to Hindi – that is the national language of Pakistan – a very ethnically and linguistically diverse post-colonial nation.

Spanish and Portuguese both have large numbers of speakers, but relatively low shares of non-native speakers. As with the case of the colonial legacy of Great Britain and the English language in places like the United States, Canada and Australia, Spain and Portugal also “exported” their languages to large land masses where their languages swamped the indigenous languages.

Arabic also in part owes it prominence to conquest – in this case the Muslim armies that swept across the Middle East and North Africa starting in the 7th century. Its popularity as a second language now days is a consequence of the importance that the Arabic language holds in the religion of Islam and its holy book – learning Arabic so as to be able to read the Quran in it’s original language is a goal of many Muslims around the world, and this in part accounts of languages relatively high share of L2 speakers at 37%.

The French language’s very high non-native speaker share of 73%, is also a story of colonialism. Rather than large sparsely populated land masses as in the case of Spanish and Portugal, France’s principle colonies were in a patchwork inAfrica where French became the administrative language and lingua franca amongst the diverse local ethnic tapestry. France continues to strongly promote the use of language across its francophone ex-colonies (La Francophonie).

Swahili is also notable with an L2 speaker share of 84% among its 84 million speakers. It is spoken in a swath of countries down the eastern coast of Africa and is the official language of several countries including Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda. Modern Swahili is based on a tribal Bantu language which rose to prominence when the colonial powers that ruled on the coast of East Africa, including the Arabs, Portuguese and Germans, used the language as a lingua franca across the region. The first written form of Swahili used the Arabic script and indeed Swahili played a major role in spreading both Christianity and Islam across East Africa.

Thai is the final language on our list with the large non-native speaker share of the total number of speakers, at 66%. This reflects the political hegemony of the Kingdom of Thailand over an ethnic and linguistically diverse country.

Both Japanese and Korean have effectively a zero non-native speaker share reflecting the ethnic homogeneity of their homelands and the failure to establish colonies long term. Japanese did colonise Korea for several decades around the turn of the 20th century and during that time tried to suppress Korean in favour of Japanese.


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