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What’s the Most Popular Second Language English Speakers Choose to Learn?

What’s the Most Popular Second Language English Speakers Choose to Learn?

A look into the language courses people are searching for online reveals some curious things.

Overture provides a research tool that allows web developers to work out what people have been typing into the search engines over the last month. Being involved in language teaching, I ran a search on the 12 July 2007. This isn’t scientifically well founded research, but it is interesting.

Looking for what language courses people have been searching for, the top search is for English with 2,762 searches. Wow, remember these are searches in an English search engine. You’d have thought if someone spoke Spanish they’d use a Spanish language search engine wouldn’t you? Maybe people just use what comes with their browser. Perhaps what this is saying is that people in English speaking countries want English language courses, so maybe that’s not so surprising.

What comes next is a surprise too: Italian (2,160). There are about 61 million Italian speakers, and not much information on how many speak it as a second language in Wikipedia’s list of languages by number of native speakers. Basically it shows Italian as 19th most popularly spoken language worldwide. So why is it the second most popular search? Perhaps Italian culture is well regarded internationally. Could it be Italian football, Italian restaurants, even The Sopranos that’s driven this so high?

Next up is Spanish (1,266). That seems to make sense. For English speakers, Spanish is the world’s next most popular language that’s close to our own, and many of us holiday in Spanish speaking countries or work with Spanish speaking colleagues.

Quite a few people (792) would like to learn Japanese. The only person I know who learned some Japanese is an academic who, I fear, chose it in a narrow contest over Klingon as a dinner party curiosity.

The results from a search on “learn language” are different. This time it shows 7,788 wanting to learn Spanish, and the second most popular language (3,374) is sign language.

Now, there are lots of sign languages, including English and American which are mutually unintelligable, and very little information on how many ‘speakers’ there are for each, but the British Deaf Association thinks up to 250,000 people use some BSL every day. If Americans do so in the same proportion, that would make 1,238,724 daily ‘speakers’ which makes it slightly more popular worldwide than Bai, spoken in parts of China, and a little less popular than Makonde, spoken by the people of Mozambique and Tanzania. But that’s unfair .. people are much more likely in the UK or America to come across someone who signs than someone who speaks Makonde. All of which makes sign language an interesting alternative second language to Spanish, French, Italian and so on. Just in case it’s not clear, sign language is a proper language.

Another language I was expecting to see people wanting courses in is Chinese, given all the publicity about China being a burgeoning economy and all the trade we are doing with that country, but no-one seemed to want a Chinese language course. However, in the ‘learn language’ search, Chinese came up quite high with 3,374 seekers.

And the wildcard? Korean. 1,360 people a month want to learn the Korean language. I don’t know why.