Speech 7: The World’s Most Commonly Spoken Language

This speech is about the most spoken language in the world. (I did not include this in the actual speech I presented)

In 1998, I was working the night shift with two other co-workers. As anybody might tell you, the night shift can be a time where employees can find themselves with not too much to do. So conversation, debates, and arguments can arise. This time, my two office mates were arguing about the most spoken language in the world. One was arguing for one, another guy for another. Two people, two opposing points of view. Who decides who wins. Well, I was there, why not ask me? So they came to me and post the question, “Which language is the most spoken language in the world”. They did not want to tell me what either of them chose. I thought for a second and answered. “Chinese”. One guy laughed, another got angry. The angry guy said “It is Spanish, stupid! With an exclamation point. Three guys, three different opinions. So we went our separate ways.

Thinking back, I now wonder what the correct answer should have been? If we had access to all the information now available at our finger-tips, would I have given the same answer?  I did a little research.

I started with a straightforward question on Google. “How many people speak Spanish, Chinese?”

What I found required me to define a few criteria.

  • Do we define the answer based on the number of countries that use the language in an official capacity?
  • Do we define this as the number of people who speak the language?
  • Do we include only native speakers or those who speak this as a second language
  • How about dialects or related languages?

The answer can be influenced by those criteria.

The source of information can also vary the answer. Rather than rely on multiple sources, I’ve stuck to a single source. I looked at Encyclopedia Britannica, Answers.com and newspaper articles. In the end, I decided to use only one. Wikipedia. This way we compare apples to apple.

Question 1. Do we define the answer based on the number of countries that use the language in an official capacity?

Angry-office mate used the number of countries as the reason for his answer. He pointed out that Spanish is spoken in Spain and all the countries in South America at which point I corrected him and said Brazil speaks mostly Portuguese. Wikipedia lists 12 countries that have Spanish as the official language. There are only 3 countries that list Chinese. China, Taiwan, Singapore. I did not include Macau and Hongkong because these are not countries but Special Administrative Region. I do not agree with this definition.

Question 2. Do we define this as the number of people who speak the language?

I’ve answered yes to this as this makes the most sense. Language is spoken by people so the more people who speak that language, the more it is used.

Question 3. How about dialects or related languages?

This is a little more difficult to answer. Spanish and Portuguese are sister language, both evolving from the Romance languages which include French, Italian and Romanian. The Spanish dialects (there are about 10) are mutually intelligible which means a speaker from one region can, mostly, understand a speaker from another region.
Chinese is also made up of different dialects, between 7-13 plus up to 200 more localized, and speakers may not understand each other or are not mutually intelligible.
Because of all this variety, I kept to what I and my office-mates understood things to be. We are comparing with Official Spanish, not French, and Official Chinese.

Question 4. Do we include only native speakers or those who speak this as a second language?

I believe those use the language as a second language should be included.
So based on what has decided above, we get the following answers from Wikipedia:

  • Spanish Speakers, Native and Second – 661 million
  • Chinese Speakers, Native and Second – 1.3 Billion

This isn’t even a close match. But wait, there is something missing in all of this.
What about my other office mate? I never found out what he voted for, but, consider this. I am from the Philippines and I said Chinese, my angry office mate is from South America and he said Spanish. My other office mate is Caucasian, born and raised in Maryland. It is conceivable that he voted for English. So, what about English then? Again, to compare orange with orange, we will rely on information found on Wikipedia. According to this source, there are 1.39 billion people who speak English as either a first or second language. So if my other office mate had said English, then he would have been the winner.

Understand though that if the criteria changes, if we use only the most spoken dialects or just count native speakers, then the numbers change. So why don’t we make this interesting and just consider the native speakers? Can anybody guess what would have the most speakers? Mandarin with about 850 million native speakers would stand way above English at 400 million, and Spanish at 570 million. Hindi which is spoken in India would come out ahead of English with 425 million native speakers.

In conclusion, the most spoken language in the world could be Chinese or English, depending on how you understand the question. My office-mate and I may have been trying to answer the same question but not being native English speakers, we may have understood things differently. And, the answer to any question you have can be answered depending on how the question is phrased, and the criteria you use.

The Evaluation

The reviewer is an experienced speaker and blooming emcee. She found the topic to be entertaining, informative and well done. Using a story, in the beginning, made it more engaging. Hand gestures complemented the speech, especially when I “air-wrote” the exclamation point. There was also good vocal variety. She gave the following suggestions:

Make better use of floor space. And I agree, I stood at the center but I turned and face the audience.

The reviewer is an “A” type personality, and she likes knowing what she is getting into from the beginning. State the purpose of the speech at the beginning. I debated this for a while. I like having the audience guess for a short while but my story at the beginning was a little too long.

© 2018 – 2019, Norman Talon. All rights reserved.

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