[GV] u/takeasecond’s “Languages by Number of Speakers”

Peter Fortunato, Editor

This bar graph posted on r/dataisbeautiful by u/takeasecond sparks a conversation. Why do some of the most widely spoken languages on Earth have more secondary-language speakers than primary-language speakers? Some languages have no primary speakers at all!

Before we can answer those questions, it’s important to highlight why these questions are demanded to be asked.

First, the horizontal orientation of the bar graph allows for the x-axis data (which is vertical due to the flipped coordinates) to be read off as a list of the 34-most-spoken languages on Earth. Second, the bars are clearly adjacent to each language, with the bar widths occupying the same amount of space as the text. Third, the bars a filled and stacked by colors that respectively indicate the distribution of first- and second-language speakers.

Based on these aesthetic decisions by u/takeasecond, we are able to clearly understand the scale of the most-spoken languages on Earth. English and Mandarin Chinese, are on a completely different level than Hindi and Spanish, and they themselves are far away from the next language French.

But what makes this graph especially powerful is the manner in which it distinguishes primary and secondary language speakers. That reveals how languages like Indonesian have relatively few native speakers, as well as how Standard Arabic and Filipino have none at all.

Standard Arabic has no native speakers because that isn’t the actual language that people in the Arab World speak. Rather, they speak their own local dialect, such as Egyptian Arabic, Levantine Arabic (Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine), and many others. The Arabic Moroccans speak is much different than the Arabic spoken in Oman. “Standard Arabic” refers to the Arabic written in the Quran, and since practicing Muslims must understand how to read the Quran, they all learn this language.

Indonesian has very few native speakers because it is a nationally-unifying language due to the country’s massive size and population. Its sovereignty extends over some 17,500 islands, of which 7,000 are inhabited, spread out over an area of 3,200 miles by 1,100 miles. Indonesia is also the world’s fourth-most populous country. Its 267 million people belong to over 300 different ethnic groups and speak several hundred languages.

The national motto of Indonesia is “Unity in Diversity”, and the purpose of the Indonesian language is to unify the diverse country. According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, “[b]ecause it has no distinctive expressions based on social hierarchy and is not associated with one of the dominant ethnic groups, the Indonesian language has been accepted without serious question.”

Filipino is very similar to Indonesian, in that the Philippines is another large and populous island country with hundreds of ethnic groups and native languages. The need for a unifying language is why there are so few (or none at all) native speakers.

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