I came across an interesting line about language in Jonathan Hickman’s comic The Black Monday Murders.
If you ask any competent linguist what’s the most spoken language on Earth, they will tell you – with some assurance – it is Mandarin, and they would be wrong.
Since we first learned to grunt, man has possessed a universal language, and it remains a language everyone on the planet still speaks.
The character who says this is a professor, although I’m not sure of what subject. History, maybe? The professor is right and wrong with his assessment of the most spoken language on Earth. But there are a few things that make it hard to be so clear cut with such a statement.
According to Ethnologue, Mandarin Chinese is the most spoken first language in the world. Linguists use the term “L1” to refer to a person’s first language. Another way of thinking about it is that Mandarin Chinese has the mot native speakers (although there are problems around the term “native speaker”). Mandarin Chinese has about 920 million first-language speakers.
However, English is the most spoken language on Earth when we consider how many people speak it as a first language, second language, and third and fourth and so on. Linguists use the term “L2” to describe a person’s second language. English is spoken by over 1 billion people in the world, according to Ethnologue. The numbers here get a little tricky because they depend on how exactly we count and who we consider a “speaker” of English.
This is why English is considered a lingua franca: its use is spread out over the world more than other languages. There are other lingua francas, though. In East African countries, the lingua franca is Swahili, in South America it’s Spanish, and in the Middle East it’s Arabic. You can read more about the most spoken languages in the world here.
So if the professor meant that the language with the most L1 speakers is Mandarin Chinese, then he’s right. But he doesn’t say that. And it would appear that he means the language with the most speakers total. And in that case, the answer is English.
And not for nothing, but any competent linguist would tell you that English is the most spoken language on Earth right now.
But there’s another problem behind the professor’s statement – one that competent linguists would be quick to point out. The term “Mandarin Chinese” refers to a collection of varieties (or dialects). This is similar to how a term like “North American English” would include the varieties spoken in the United States and Canada. But unlike the varieties in North American English (or even “English” for that matter), the varieties in Mandarin Chinese may not be as mutually intelligible. That means that speakers of the dialects of Mandarin Chinese may not be able to understand each other as well as speakers of English or German or Finnish. The varieties included in Mandarin Chinese may not be as far apart as English and German, but they are not as close together as a variety of American English and Australian English. Think larger differences in syntax, rather than just pronunciation. The term Mandarin Chinese is in some ways based more in politics than in linguistics.
But really though, what’s with that second claim? How do you speak mathematics? And does anyone really think that humans had mathematics before we had language? What does that mean? Like, Universal Grammar is actually just math. Lol. Take that, Chomsky!