Speaking Around the World in 13 Languages

“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.

6 thoughts on “Speaking Around the World in 13 Languages

  1. English is my second language, and Portuguese (Brazilian) is my first. I understand and can read in Spanish but I won’t be presumptuous to say I can speak it. I know French as well, and now I’m tackling German again. I had one experience of learning four languages simultaneously during undergrad but too many misfortunes happened (with the teachers even) leaving only few words in my memory. Since then, I’ve decided I can’t commit to learning two languages at the same time. How is the process for you?

    • I’m only giving full attention to Ancient Greek at the moment, but have an urge to tackle Arabic next. Years ago I learnt Malay in parallel with French, but spoken at home rather than being taught, so what seemed an easier and more natural process.

  2. I heartily recommend learning multiple new languages in tandem – though this comes from a guy who has dabbled in (but never mastered or become functionally literate in) Chinese, Indonesian, Japanese, French, Italian, and Esperanto. Good luck!

  3. I’ve been learning French casually for about a year and a half. I’ve enrolled in it as an undergrad subject now so definitely need to take it more seriously and hopefully I’ll reach a comfortable, conversational level within the next year or so but they may be overly optimistic. I’d like to maybe pick up Spanish after that.

    I speak English as a first language, and I’m also pretty comfortable with Afrikaans although I don’t speak it too often.

    On a similar note, I came across this the other day. I’ve not yet read it but it’s on my list, hopefully for this year – it seems like it might be something you’d also enjoy:

    • Thanks, Alain. I can’t say I’m remotely an enthusiast for Douglas Hofstadter’s work, quite the opposite in fact, though this book does look very intriguing. Good luck with the French!

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