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300: Language

Episode Script

(May vary slightly from transcript)

First things first – world statistics on this are very, very difficult to find. I did find several pieces of research that had circular citations for a statement that about half of the world’s population is bilingual to some extent. I did also find a citation for a US Census Bureau statistics saying about the same thing. However, finding a good worldwide number would be very difficult for a few reasons. First, because there are many nations where the official language has very little relation to the way its citizens generally communicate. Second, because actually defining what it means to “speak” a language can be tougher than you may think. To be fully conversant in a language is not the same as being able to hold a conversation, which is not the same as being able to get by if you must, which is not the same as “I took it in school about 20 years ago and might be able to remember it.”

That said, there are some interesting statistics out there about those that speak two or more languages to some level. When it comes to languages spoken, nearly two-thirds of the population of the planet speaks one of 12 languages. The combined dialects of Chinese, Hindi-Urdu, English, and Arabic are the four most popular. This includes bilingual or multilingual individuals, in comparison to the CIA’s estimation that 4.85 percent of the population speaks Spanish as a first language.

For second languages, English is by far the most popular language to learn, with one study finding 1.5 billion people studying English as a non-native language, 82 million learning french, and 30 million learning Chinese.

Many nations also have a requirement for second language learning. The Pew research center’s Fact Tank points out in 2015 that more than 20 European countries require at least one year of foreign language, with most of them beginning study between the ages of 6 and 9. Of course, what you count as a second language also varies. For example, Irish students learn both English and Gaelic, but neither one is considered “foreign language.”

There is also the question of what exactly counts as a language. Some American schools include some arts classes or computer classes in their list of what fulfills a language requirement – and there may be some research that backs up that learning code or how to read and write music may have a similar impact on your brain as learning another spoken language — although it is admittedly much less useful when you are lost in a foreign country.

Do you speak a second language (of any type?)

Show notes and links:
The Influence of L2 Transfer on L3 English Written Production in a Bilingual German/Italian Population: A Study of Syntactic Errors Open Journal of Modern Linguistics
The world’s languages, in 7 maps and charts The Washington Post
About One in Four Americans Can Hold a Conversation in a Second Language Gallup Poll
Learning a foreign language a ‘must’ in Europe, not so in America Pew Research Center