April 07, 2015

The most spoken language in any country is often obvious; usually, it’s the official language of the country. However, you can learn a lot about a country by analyzing its second most spoken language.

More than 60 million Americans speak a language at home other than English, of the majority of these Americans reported to the U.S. Census Bureau that they spoke English “very well.” Throughout the United States, Spanish is the most common second language; however, in states like Louisiana, Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont, French is the most commonly spoken second language, a reflection of their individual state histories. To accommodate students who speak a language other than English at home, English as a second language (or ESL) programs have become more prevalent as essential school programs.

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While many people would guess that English is the second most commonly spoken language in a majority of countries, that’s only true for some areas. For example, despite its proximity to North America, the only Central American countries to list English as their second most spoken language are Costa Rica and Panama. Similarly, in South America, Chile is the only country to have English as its second most spoken language, which just over 10% of the population claims to speak as a primary language. Throughout the rest of South America, regional indigenous languages are commonly the second most spoken, replacing English as a second language.

In Europe, a continent known for its diverse languages where people are often multilingual, the second most spoken language varies greatly among countries. From Gaelic to Catalan, Finnish to Slovak, and Hungarian to Belarusian, Europe boasts several different second most spoken languages, showcasing its cosmopolitan residents and their wide-ranging backgrounds. 

In some countries, the second most spoken language is used predominantly by the educated classes and/or in major cities. For example, in Libya, English is the second most spoken language, and it is commonly understood among the educated classes. Similarly, in Jordan, English is the most commonly spoken second language and is widely understood among educated upper and middle class people.

Other countries use the second most commonly spoken language as a “lingua franca,” or a bridge language shared by persons who don’t share a native language. This often occurs when the lingua franca is a third language, separate from native languages, and these languages are commonly used for commercial, diplomatic, and administrative languages. For example, in Algeria, Tanzania, Tunisia, and Morocco, French is the second most spoken language, and it’s used by many as the lingua franca; in Pakistan, English is the lingua franca among educated classes.

Interestingly, the area of the world where English is the second most commonly spoken language is Asia, especially Southeast Asia. Countries such as Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, Nepal, and India are becoming increasingly common, especially as speakers of various ethnic languages and dialect use English as a common language. Many schools in Japan and South Korea also teach English from a very early age, increasing its prevalence throughout the country.

As the world continues to become more connected thanks to technology, it becomes even more crucial to be able to understand each other. No matter where you are, even if you don’t speak the official language, there’s a high chance that you’ll be able to communicate with others using the second most spoken languages or a lingua franca.