“Knowing just nine of them [vehicular languages] – Chinese (with 1,300 million users), Hindi (800 million), Arabic (530 million), Spanish (350 million), Russian (278 million), Urdu (180 million), French (175 million), Japanese (130 million) and English (somewhere between 800 and 1,800 million) – would permit effective everyday conversation, though probably not detailed negotiation or serious intellectual debate, with at least 4.5 billion and maybe up to 5.5 billion people, that is to say, around 90 per cent of the world’s population. (The startlingly wide range of estimates of the number of people who ‘speak English’ reflects the difficulty we have in saying what ‘speaking English’ means.) Add Indonesian (250 million), German (185 million), Turkish (63 million) and Swahili (50 million) to make a baker’s dozen, and you have at your feet the entire American landmass, most of Europe from the Atlantic to the Urals, the great crescent of Islam from Morocco to Pakistan, a good part of India, a swathe of Africa and most of the densely populated parts of East Asia too.”
This is a fascinating passage from David Bellos’s Is That A Fish in Your Ear: Translation and the meaning of everything (2011), which turns out to be just the book I wanted to read today.
Learning enough of these thirteen languages to make sensible conversation seems a reasonable goal. My daughter and I speak English as a first language, and between us either speak/write or are learning six others (in her case: Ancient Greek, Russian, French and Japanese; in mine: Latin, French and Malay, from which Indonesian is not an unimaginable leap); now just to decide whether to begin a single new language or to tackle two simultaneously.