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What Is a World Language?

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  • Written By: Daniel Liden
  • Edited By: Angela B.
  • Last Modified Date: 15 September 2016
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A world language is a language that is spoken by a relatively large number of people in countries around the world. In general, such languages are used over large geographic areas and in international business exchanges. The geographic distribution of speakers of a given language is at least as important as overall number of speakers of that language when deciding whether to designate it as a world language. Some languages are spoken by many people in an area of high language density but they are not widely spoken internationally. Languages that are considered world languages change over time as different countries become prominent in international business, politics or other concerns.

The classification of a language as a world language depends largely on where it is spoken, not just on how many people speak it. Both the context and the geographic distribution of speakers of a given language can influence its international status. Languages commonly used in international business are usually considered to be world languages. A language also may become a world language if it is associated with a large body of literature or is otherwise widely used in academic settings. Such a language does not even need to be used by modern speakers to be considered a world language.

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At some point in his education, a person is likely to study — if not completely learn — a world language aside from his native language. Many people begin to receive foreign language instruction as early as elementary school and take additional classes in the same language or different ones through high school and into college. Others choose to learn a language later in life, usually because it has some specific application in their professional lives. Many people whose first language is considered a world language choose not to learn a second language because their first language is already spoken in much of the world. Those whose first language is not so widely spoken may learn a second language because, though their first may have cultural significance, it has little use overall outside of one's home country.

A given language may become a world language for a variety of reasons. It may gain wide international use, for instance, because of colonization or through extensive involvement in international business. A language also may lose international popularity as the nations containing the most speakers of that language lose wealth, power and influence for various reasons.

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myharley
Post 5

I only remember a few key words and phrases from my Spanish foreign language classes. I am amazed at people who can fluently speak more than one language.

I think learning a second language would be easier the younger you are. As you get older it becomes harder to learn and remember something as difficult as a language that is completely foreign to you.

I know some missionary families who have become quite fluent in the language where they are living and serving.

It would be much easier in a situation like that where you are living among the people and have opportunities everyday to practice and speak the language.

sunshined
Post 4

Other than a couple French classes in high school, I have never learned any other language other than English.

There is a large portion of the world that speaks English so I am able to travel outside the United States to other countries without learning another language.

When I graduated from high school and college, there were no requirements for a foreign language class. This is not the case today as most high schools and colleges require more than one year of foreign language.

One of my friends has a son who has taken five years of Chinese. What is really sad is that he never has a chance to use it, so after a few years has forgotten a large part of the language he spent so long to learn.

I think that would be the same thing for any language you learn if you do not use it on a regular basis.

robbie21
Post 3

I think the term "world language" is also often used to refer to any foreign language, not just the most widely spoken ones. So in the United States, a "world language" is really anything but English; that is, a language spoken elsewhere in the world.

It seems that the word "foreign" is now considered vaguely offensive because of its "us" and "them" mentality. "International," "world," and other less negatively charges words are preferred now.

So for instance, a lot of high schools now have a "world languages" department instead of calling it "foreign language," and it might include Spanish, French, German, Latin, and maybe more specialized options than Japanese. Or a bookstore or library might have a section called "world languages."

The languages represented there do tend to be widely spoken (people wouldn't bother with them otherwise), but not necessarily world languages in the sense of a language spoken worldwide (at least in the tourist industry).

JaneAir
Post 2

@Monika - That's a pretty interesting point. Most people in this country don't know two languages, but a lot of people in other countries do. With the way the Hispanic population is increasing in this country, it might not be a bad idea for more of us to learn Spanish!

Also, perhaps Mandarin Chinese. China's economic power is only increasing and their population is huge! China is already a world language, although I don't know of many people outside of China who know the language.

Monika
Post 1

I think English is definitely a world language, for right now at least. That's probably why so many people in this country choose not to learn another language. Case in point: I only speak English.

However, I have a cousin from Austria who speaks several languages. Austria isn't exactly a world language, so I can see why. She speaks Austrian, German, English, French, and some Spanish. Makes me almost feel ashamed of myself!

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