How is the world’s language landscape changing

It used to be – and not that very long ago – that the list of most important languages in the world to know would have been quite small. French, English, Spanish, and German would have made the list, plus a handful of others depending on where in Europe and Asia one lived. Accordingly, these were the languages most in demand by students across the world looking to extend their linguistic repertoire beyond their mother tongue either for career or cultural/personal reasons.

But of course, the landscape of global power and business has changed dramatically, with the past decade characterised by the striking ascent of China (and the growing importance of other BRICS countries: Brazil, Russia, India, and South Africa) and the surging youth populations in Africa (e.g., one in four people aged 15–24 will live in the continent by 2030, according to the United Nations) and the Middle East (where the population is expected to double to over 1 billion inhabitants by 2100).

English remains, by far, the world’s most studied language. But these factors have, to say the least, extended the consideration sets of many prospective language learners across the world – and thus increased the range of opportunities for language providers in a growing list of countries.

Asian languages on the rise

The United Nations, meanwhile, charts key languages according to demographic predictions for 2050. According to this chart, knowing at least one South or Southeast Asian language would be an advantage for many students as many Asian economies are strengthening at the same time as their populations expand.

The Washington Post remarks, “Hindi, Bengali, Urdu and Indonesian will dominate much of the business world by 2050, followed by Spanish, Portuguese, Arabic and Russian. If you want to get the most money out of your language course, studying one of the languages listed above is probably a safe bet.”

asian languages on rise
Projected number of native speakers (in millions) in the world’s fastest-growing emerging economies as of 2050. Source: UN World Population Prospects, Washington Post

Language concentrations across the globe

The following chart from the Washington Post shows that English, Arabic, and French are the languages spoken in the greatest number of countries.

language concentrations across the globe
Leading languages in terms of the number of countries in which they are widely spoken. Source: Ethnologue, Washington Post

Education agents’ view

In 2016, the International Association of Language Centres (IALC) released a report based on research from 60 secondary sources, 466 responding agents representing 74 different countries, as well as 21 in-depth interviews with agents. In terms of the motivations for studying a particular language, the IALC report found that:

  • German and English were primarily popular as a basis for current and future studies;
  • Portuguese and Italian were popular for personal reasons (e.g., personal interest, interest in these cultures);
  • Demand for French was motivated by a balanced mix of reasons (i.e., motivated by personal, employment, education-related needs);
  • Russian and Chinese courses were taken mostly with a goal of improving employment prospects.

Source: ICEF Monitor

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