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11 Interesting Facts About World Languages

Paul has spent a lifetime traveling and learning many languages. He is now conversant in Mandarin Chinese, Taiwanese, and Thai.

Read on to learn 11 very interesting facts about world languages. Above, the phrase "I love you" is shown in various languages, including French and Chinese.

Read on to learn 11 very interesting facts about world languages. Above, the phrase "I love you" is shown in various languages, including French and Chinese.

Interesting Facts About World Languages

I have been fascinated by world languages all my life. This has resulted in a great passion for studying and learning languages. My interest in languages began when I studied Latin and Spanish in high school. Later, I took German and French classes in college. After joining the Navy, I learned Chinese Mandarin. Additional Mandarin and the study of Chinese dialects and Thai language kept me busy while working for the federal government. Currently, I am learning new languages using online sites such as Memrise and Duolingo.

Learning new languages is highly beneficial for a few key reasons, including improved cognitive capacities like better attention and stronger brain function in old age. Further, there is evidence that learning at least a second language broadens your cultural horizons and appreciation and even makes your brain larger.

In this article, I discuss the following 11 interesting facts about world languages that I have learned through the course of my studies.

11 World Language Facts

  1. 7,151 languages are spoken in the world today
  2. English is the most widely spoken language in the world today
  3. Eight alphabet groups are in use today
  4. The Khmer alphabet has the most letters
  5. The Rotokas alphabet has the fewest letters
  6. English has the most words
  7. Papa New Guinea is the most multilingual country
  8. Tamil is the oldest language still in use
  9. Eight major varieties of English are spoken in the world
  10. The Sumerian language is the oldest written language
  11. The Chinese language has 10 major varieties

1. 7,151 Languages Are Spoken in the World Today

Based on Ethnologue statistics, 7,151 languages are spoken in the world today. 40% of these languages are endangered, with less than 1,000 speakers. Surprisingly, only 23 languages account for more than one-half of the world's population.

These books represent a fraction of some of the languages spoken in the world today.

These books represent a fraction of some of the languages spoken in the world today.

2. English Is the Most Widely Spoken Language in the World Today

According to a September 2021 Berlitz article, English is the most spoken language in the world. English is closely followed by Chinese Mandarin, and then Hindi, Spanish, and French. Specific statistics of language speakers follow.

English: 1.132 billion speakers

  • 379 million native speakers (NS)
  • 753 million non-native speakers (NNS)

Mandarin: 1.117 billion speakers

  • 919 million NS
  • 199 million NNS

Hindi: 615 million speakers

  • 341 million NS
  • 274 million NNS

Spanish: 534 million speakers

  • 460 million NS
  • 74 million NNS

French: 280 million speakers

  • 77 million NS
  • 203 million NNS
An English language student proudly showing his results on the International English Language Testing System (IELTS).

An English language student proudly showing his results on the International English Language Testing System (IELTS).

3. Eight Alphabet Groups Are in Use Today

According to an article on WorldFactsInc. and Encyclopedia Britannica, eight alphabet groups are in use today in the world. An alphabet must have consonants and vowels to make words.

These eight alphabet groups have evolved from the ancient Phoenician alphabet. Phoenician was spoken from the 3rd to 10th century CE in North Africa and Eastern Mediterranean coastal regions.

The eight alphabet groups are:

  • Arabic
  • Hebrew/Aramaic
  • Armenian
  • Brahmi
  • Cyrillic
  • Georgian
  • Greek
  • Latin

The modern Hebrew alphabet is Aramaic. It is used in Israel.

The Armenian alphabet is used in Armenia.

Brahmic alphabets are found in the Khmer, Myanmar (Burmese,) and Thai alphabets, and were the progenitor of Sanskrit in India.

The Georgian alphabet can be found in Georgia in Asia.

Cyrillic is found in the Russian alphabet.

The Greek alphabet is used in the Greek language.

The Latin alphabet is used in English, Spanish, and most European countries.

The Phoenician alphabet. Note that ’ and ‘ were originally full consonants in the Phoenician language. Several of the letters were ambiguous when the Phoenician alphabet was borrowed to write Old Aramaic and Biblical Hebrew.

The Phoenician alphabet. Note that ’ and ‘ were originally full consonants in the Phoenician language. Several of the letters were ambiguous when the Phoenician alphabet was borrowed to write Old Aramaic and Biblical Hebrew.

4.The Khmer Alphabet Has the Most Letters

According to the Guinness World Records, the Khmer (or Cambodian) alphabet—with a total of 74 letters—has the most letters of any alphabet. Unlike the English alphabet, the Khmer and also Thai alphabets are abugida (or alphasyllabic). This is a writing system in which letters represent consonants with diacritical marks used for vowels.

An example of Khmer script.

An example of Khmer script.

5. The Rotokas Alphabet Has the Fewest Letters

Stuart Robinson, a psycholinguist, reveals that Rotokas is the shortest alphabet with 12 letters. It is spoken in Papua New Guinea.

6. English Has the Most Words

If we measure the number of words found in various language dictionaries, English has more words than any other language. The second edition of the Oxford English Dictionary lists over 171,476 words currently in use. When added to the additional lists of obsolete words, combinations, derivatives, and phrases, there is an astounding 600,000+ word-forms in English.

The English language evolved from German and later borrowed words from French, Greek, and Latin. English has also borrowed words from such languages as Chinese, Japanese, and Arabic.

7. Papua New Guinea is the Most Multilingual Country

According to Ethnologue's 2022 rankings of the number of languages spoken as a first language, Papua New Guinea has more than 840 living languages.

The ten most multilingual countries with the number of first languages are as follow:

  1. Papua New Guinea – 840
  2. Indonesia – 715
  3. Nigeria – 527
  4. India – 456
  5. The United States – 337
  6. Australia – 317
  7. China – 307
  8. Mexico – 301
  9. Cameroon – 277
  10. Brazil – 238

8. Tamil Is the Oldest Language Still in Use

According to the editors of Day Translations, Tamil is the oldest language still in use today. It is over 5,000 years old and dates back to 2500 BCE. Spoken by 78 million people, Tamil is an official language in Sri Lanka and Singapore. It is also the most widely spoken language in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu and one of the official languages of India.

An example of the Tamil language.

An example of the Tamil language.

9. Eight Major Varieties of English Are Spoken in the World

Grammarist.com reports that eight major varieties of English are spoken in the world today. They are as follows:

  1. British English
  2. American English
  3. Canadian English
  4. Australian English
  5. New Zealand English
  6. South African English
  7. Indian English
  8. World English

British English is the oldest variety. It has 60 million native speakers and is spoken in the United Kingdom.

American English has 225 million native speakers.

10. The Sumerian Language Is the Oldest Written Language

According to the editors of Encyclopedia Britannica, Sumerian is the oldest written language. The first evidence of this language was found about 3100 BCE in Southern Mesopotamia. Sumerian was prevalent during the 3rd millennium BCE. Around 2000 BCE, it was replaced by Semitic Assyro-Babylonian but continued in written usage almost to the beginning of the Christian era.

11. The Chinese Language Has 10 Major Varieties

Studycli.org reveals that the Chinese language has 10 major varieties. They include:

  1. Standard Mandarin
  2. Min Chinese
  3. Wu Chinese
  4. Cantonese (Yue)
  5. Jin Chinese
  6. Gan Chinese
  7. Hakka (Kejia) Chinese
  8. Xiang Chinese
  9. Hui Zhou Chinese
  10. Pinghua Chinese and other unclassified dialects
A linguistic map of China

A linguistic map of China

10 Languages That Will Be Highly Valuable in the Future

Sources and Further Reading

Gelb, Ignace J. "Sumerian language." Encyclopedia Britannica, 20 Mar 2019, https://www.britannica.com/topic/Sumerian-language. Accessed 12 June 2022.

"How many languages are there in the world?" Ethnologue, 2022, https://www.ethnologue.com/guides/how-many-languages. Accessed 12 June 2022.

Marian, Viorica, and Anthony Shook. "The Cognitive Benefits of Being Bilingual." Dana Foundation, https://dana.org/article/the-cognitive-benefits-of-being-bilingual/. Accessed 12 June 2022.

Mårtensson, Johan, et al. "Growth of language-related brain areas after foreign language learning." NeuroImage, vol. 63, no. 1, 2012, pp. 240-44, https://linkinghub.elsevier.com/retrieve/pii/S1053811912006581. Accessed 12 June 2022.

Meredith, Anne. "What Languages Are Spoken in China?" Chinese Language Institute, 12 Feb 2022, https://studycli.org/learn-chinese/languages-in-china/. Accessed 12 June 2022.

"The most spoken languages in the world." Berlitz, 2 Sept. 2021, https://www.berlitz.com/blog/most-spoken-languages-world. Accessed 12 June 2022.

Nguyen,Hanh Thi and Guy Kellogg. "'I Had a Stereotype That American Were Fat': Becoming a Speaker of Culture in a Second Language." The Modern Language Journal, vol. 94, no. 1., 2010, pp.56-73, https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/j.1540-4781.2009.00983.x. Accessed 12 June 2022.

"Non Latin Script Languages of the World." WorldFactsInc, https://sites.google.com/site/worldfactsinc/Non-Latin-Script-Languages-Of-The-World. Accessed 12 June 2022.

Olson, David R. "Major alphabets of the world." Encyclopedia Britannica, 4 June 2021, https://www.britannica.com/topic/alphabet-writing/Arabic-alphabet#ref53647. Accessed 12 June 2022.

Robinson, Stuart. "The Phoneme Inventory of the Aita Dialect of Rotokas." Oceanic Linguistics, vol. 45, no. 1, 2006, pp. 206-209, https://muse.jhu.edu/article/201327/pdf. Accessed 12 June 2022.

"What countries have the most languages?" Ethnologue, 2022, https://www.ethnologue.com/guides/countries-most-languages. Accessed 12 June 2022.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Paul Richard Kuehn