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The World's Major Languages: Development & Diffusion

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  • 0:43 Most Widely Spoken Languages
  • 2:45 Language Families
  • 4:47 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christine Serva

Christine is an instructional designer, educator, and writer with a particular interest in the social sciences and American studies.

Can you guess the most widely spoken languages in the world? This lesson will explore the evolution of languages and how linguists aim to understand them.

Not Your Parent's Language

When you speak your native language, do you find that you use different words than your older relatives? Are there certain phrases that you say that they don't understand? Or sometimes, is it the reverse and your family members use words that are no longer used by your generation?

This is an example of a language evolving and changing, even from one generation to another. Yet, you still carry on many of the elements of the language, such as sentence structure and overall vocabulary.

In this lesson, we'll look at the world's major languages and how they spread, change, and develop over time.

Most Widely Spoken Languages

Linguists estimate that the world's languages number somewhere around 6,000 total. Some languages are especially prominent because of how diffused they are throughout the world. According to the United Nations, the most widely spoken languages are Mandarin Chinese, English, and Spanish, as well as Hindi, Arabic, Bengali, Russian, Portuguese, Japanese, German, and French. The people who are counted in this listing include both native speakers of a language and those who speak it as a second language.

So how did these languages become the most commonly spoken?

Mandarin and Hindi are widely spoken in countries that have large populations, like China and India. Non-native speakers may also have an interest in learning the language of countries that are strong economic powers, such as China and the United States.

Sometimes large and even sudden events can cause a language to spread rapidly. For instance, war and invasion, waves of migration, and the spread of religion dramatically influence the diffusion of a language. In particular, the British Empire was responsible for much of the spread of the English language, while Arabic was impacted by the spread of the Muslim religion. Spanish is also spoken in much of the Americas due to invasions and expansion.

Trade among various regions and the sharing of farming practices as humans developed agriculture affected the language spoken in certain regions. A nation will often choose an official language (or more than one) in which to conduct business. This choice of an official language can impact how widespread that language becomes. As schools teach the official language, the next generation learns these standards.

Cultural changes, such as the rise of Hollywood and new technologies, have also impacted how people communicate with one another locally and globally.

Language Families

Linguists use some categorization of languages to help them have meaningful conversations about the origins and evolution of the ways people speak. A term used by some linguists is language family. A language family is a set of languages that share a common ancestry. For instance, English is in the same language family as German and Dutch, as part of the Indo-European family, which includes many other languages as well.

Languages in a language family that have diverged in their development will typically evolve to be more and more different over time. New languages will emerge and some will go extinct. Some languages may also be more likely to change than others, depending on the cultural context of that region.

Languages are always evolving. English, for instance, is not one fixed set of words and sentence structures that have stayed the same throughout time. It has changed to a great degree and is still changing as you watch this lesson. We have standards created for its official use in government and business, such as dictionaries, which aim to describe what words mean and how they are used. Yet, the actual usage of a language can vary from region to region and person to person.

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