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Home » Cartography, GeoNotes, Linguistic Geography, World

Mapping International Languages

Submitted by on July 11, 2012 – 5:04 pm 15 Comments |  
As noted in a previous GeoCurrents post, mapping individual languages is a trickier exercise than it might seem. Most such attempts actually produce political-linguistic maps, delineating the languages officially used by different countries on an ad hoc basis. The alternative map offered here is also both political and linguistic, depicting not the distribution of languages per se but rather the use of official languages (whether de jure or de facto) by internationally recognized states. Unlike most maps in this genre, however, it portrays such languages in a relatively rigorous manner.

As a fundamentally political map, the present attempt selects languages not on the basis of their number of speakers, but rather on that of their official status. Only international languages are selected, defined here as languages with an official status in at least three internationally recognized sovereign states, with at least 100,000 inhabitants, provided that it is the sole official language in at least one of those states. As a result, a number of international languages are not depicted. Swahili, for example, has official status in Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda, but all three also use English. Italian has official standing in Italy, Switzerland, San Marino, and the Vatican, but the latter two states have too few inhabitants to merit inclusion. Several languages occupy an ambiguous position vis a vis such criteria. Mandarin Chinese (Putonghua), for example, is mapped because it has official status in China, Taiwan, and Singapore, and is the sole national language in the former two countries. But Taiwan is by no means a fully internationally recognized state, making the inclusion of Mandarin a problematic gesture. Serbian occupies a similar position, as it has official status in Serbia, Bosnia & Herzegovina, and the incompletely recognized state of Kosovo—yet it is not mapped. Serbian is ignored, however, because its international standing is minimal; not only is Kosovo’s sovereignty disputed (most vehemently by Serbia), but Bosnia and Herzegovina barely functions as an actual state despite its international recognition.

Another problem concerns the mapping of states with more than one official language on the list of “international languages.” There are more of these states than one might think. In three countries, three of these languages have official status: Belgium (French, Dutch, and German), Equatorial Guinea (Spanish, Portuguese, and French), and Singapore (English, Mandarin Chinese, and Malay). In such cases, I have tried to map the most commonly used language, although such a determination is often no easy manner. For Djibouti, for example, I picked French over Arabic, as French is used more extensively in the country’s educational system, whereas for Chad I picked Arabic over French, because Chadian Arabic is widely used as the country’s lingua franca. I selected English over French in Vanuatu because the main spoken language of the islands, Bislama, is an English-based Creole. I welcome readers’ corrections if I have erred in any of these selections.

The map uses color intensity to try to convey the international significance of these languages. English is thus in the darkest shade, reflecting the fact that it has official standing in more countries than any other language. Arabic, French, and Spanish are depicted with a somewhat lighter hue, and Portuguese lighter still. The lightest color is used for Dutch (depicting the Netherlands, Belgium, and Suriname), which barely makes the list.

The data on which the map is based are derived from the Wikipedia table posted here. I should also note that countries are not divided: Puerto Rico, a U.S. dependency, is thus mapped as English speaking despite the fact that Spanish is the more widely spoken official language on the island.

It is of note that most countries use one of these eleven international languages at an official level. The main areas of exception are eastern and northern Europe, Central Asia, and mainland Southeast Asia.


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  • Fedor Manin

    The official language of Tajikistan is Tajik.  If Tajikistan is labelled as Persian-speaking, establishing that we’re talking about linguistic rather than political definitions of language, shouldn’t the Serbo-Croatian language be mapped as official in Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia, Montenegro, and Kosovo?

    • see my posting above on that topic (Tajiki listed alphabetically as 3rd for Tajikistan, and separate lists for Serbia, Croatia etc.)

    • Excellent point. By the same token, Afghanistan lists its second official language as “Dari” rather than Persian. And by purely linguistic criteria, Serbo-Croatian (as it used to be called) is probably as coherent a language as “Persian” is. I could solve this problem either my adding “Serbo-Croatian” or deleting Persian. But Persian still seems much more “international” to me, considering the expanse it covers and its historical role (official language of the Mughal Empire, etc.); before 1991, moreover, Serbo-Croatian was limited mostly to one country, Yugoslavia.  I would be interested to know what other readers think about this dilemma. 

  • As I noted in a comment on a previous post, UN Data fares poorly as it lists languages for only 84 countries. Not finding it anywhere else, I took cue from here and simply made my own list of official languages from Wiki:
    Now I can post them on Google Fusion Tables aggregated by country (223) or by officlal language (135). Watch this space for a post on simple maps for a complex topic…

  • More links at the risk of repetition (cross post from Misleading Language Maps):
    WALS online (Oxford Uni./Max Planck Dig. Lib.) 
    World mapper (Uni. Suffolk and its famous cartograms) also posted on Google Docs:

  • Andrew L.

    Living in Singapore now, I would definitely pick English over Mandarin Chinese as the ‘most widely used’ language. Even with lots of mainland Chinese immigrants and lots of Chinese in the streets, the official business language of Singapore is English, which people are expected to know more than Chinese. Indeed, mainland Chinese are often looked down upon in part due to the fact locals feel they do not learn English well enough. And finally, although many of the older generation do speak Chinese fluently, most young people in Singapore struggle with ‘Mother Tongue’ classes (only class in Chinese) such that Singapore just recently introduced a lower-level exam for those less competent in Chinese (since fewer have any type of Chinese as a home language.)

    • Many thanks for the information.  I agonized over Singapore. In the end I chose Mandarin Chinese because so so many Singaporeans speak closely related Chinese dialects at home.  But of course that is declining as well, in favor of English. I think that I will change the designation for Singapore on the map unless others object.  

      • Andrew L.

        And two more points: I would label Malay/Indonesian as just Bahasa, the term used for the language when they talk about it with each other. Also, the wikipedia list doesn’t include Tamil, which can (depending on your definition) be considered an official language of India as it does have ‘official status.’ Since Tamil is an official language of Sri Lanka and Singapore as well, Sri Lanka would then be colored as a Tamil country.

        • Thanks for making these points, Andrew!

          With Bahasa, it just means “language”, so I avoid using it as a label. Otherwise, we should also put “language”, “langue”, “язык” etc. on the map. Could be a fun map, actually!

          As for Tamil, it has official status only on the sub-national level in India (mostly in Tamil Nadu). I think that’s why it didn’t make the cut…

  • Nadia

    I wonder if anyone has ever made/compiled a historical (century by century) mapping of international languages? That is, a map of the world throughout different centuries, showing the territorial expansion/decline of various nations and their associated official languages across the continents. It would be quite interesting, although I should concede that it would require a lot of effort to construct but I would imagine that there are books that already have these kind of maps, especially for students who are studying these subjects in university, although now I’m just guessing. For those interested in history, linguistics, geography and anthropology — which I’m sure is the general consensus among most visitors of this website — it would be very interesting to personally possess.

    Thank you for this website. I hope you don’t mind me collecting some of your maps, such as the one from this article. I have a habit of collecting different maps of the world, be they ethnic-linguistic, religious, or cultural. It can be a bad habit at times. >_<

    • Thank you for your kind words about our site, Nadia!

      The sort of map series that you propose would be a fascinating resource indeed, but I am afraid I am not familiar with anything like that. The spatial distribution of languages is difficult to map synchronically, let alone to track it historically with any accuracy.

  • David A.

    The map is incorrect, because Both English and French are official languages of Canada

    • As explicitly explained in the post, for states with more than one official language on the list of “international languages”, the most commonly used
      language is mapped.