Why do so many Australians speak Arabic? – Daily chart

by learn a language journalist

MAPS OF LANGUAGES are often deceptively simple: language X is spoken here, language Y there. But people have a habit of moving around, and brightly coloured maps are not good at showing complicated mixtures of languages. So NeoMam Studios, a British design firm, has broken out the first, second and—most interestingly—third-most-spoken languages in almost every country in the world.

The results can be surprising. Although most people surely know that the second-most spoken languages in Canada and America are French and Spanish, respectively, those ranked third are less easy to guess: Punjabi in Canada and Chinese (including Mandarin and Cantonese) in America. Similarly reflecting a history of immigration, Arabic is the third-most-spoken language in Australia and Samoan the third-most common in New Zealand.

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In some countries the third-ranked language is an indigenous one. In populous places, this can result in an otherwise obscure tongue outperforming better-known counterparts. Marathi, spoken in the Indian state of Maharashtra, has more than 80m native speakers, putting it on par globally with German. Wu, a variety of Chinese spoken in Shanghai and neighbouring Zhejiang and Jiangsu provinces, is listed as China’s third-biggest language. It too has about 80m native speakers.

The case of different forms of Chinese shows just one way in which tabulating such things is messy. How non-native speakers of a language are treated is another problem: English has been taught to hundreds of millions of Chinese and Indians, but the CIA World Factbook, from which NeoMam gets much of its data, does not list English among the top three languages in either country. By one estimate, around 10% of Indians speak English, which would make it the country’s second-biggest language.

NeoMam’s sources, the CIA World Factbook and Ethnologue, a standard reference work on the world’s languages, also treat immigrant languages inconsistently. Turkish, which is almost certainly Germany’s second-most-spoken native language, is absent from NeoMam’s list of the country’s top three languages. Chuck Fennig of Ethnologue explains that the database treats Turkish as an immigrant language in Germany, not a native one.

Perhaps the moral of the story is that, when attempting to add detail to the world’s language map, it is easy to get tongue-tied.

This content was originally published here.

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