2012: possibly the year Chinese eclipses English on the internet (in number of native speakers online)

Thursday, August 11, 2011

I put the extra information in parenthesis in the title in order to avoid it being misunderstood. Matt has informed me that Internetworldlanguages.com has finally updated their stats of languages on the internet, and you can see them here. This is the first update in a year. Some of the numbers have not changed at all, but this is certainly due to countries not having released new numbers in the last year so there is nothing that can be done about that. In the meantime though let's take a look at the numbers with the caveat that unchanged numbers are certainly higher than stated:

2000 -- 2011

English: 537 million -- 565 million (26.8%)
Chinese: 445 million -- 509 million (24.2%)
Spanish: 153 million -- 165 million (7.8%)
Japanese: 99 million -- 99 million (4.7%)
Portuguese: 83 million -- 83 million (3.9%)
German: 75.2 million -- 75.4 million (3.6%)
Arabic: 65.4 million -- 65.4 million (3.3%)
French: 59.8 million -- 59.8 million (3%)
Russian: 59.7 million -- 59.7 million (3%)
Korean: 39.4 million -- 39.4 million (2%)

As Matt also noted, Indonesian + Malay is more than Korean, about 55 million users total. Korean as a language is near saturation if you look at it one way (South Korea), and not if you look at it another way (almost 0% penetration in North Korea).

Chinese is of course the most interesting number. Internet penetration is at 37%, and as a language mostly tied to a single country it is easy to predict how it will change in the future: even achieving around 60% penetration (similar to Malaysia today, about 20% less than Japan and South Korea) would bring the current number to 720 million.

This is also the reason why the number of native (L1) users will certainly eclipse English soon: English is used as a first or primary/important official language in areas that are either mostly saturated (USA, Canada, UK...) or nowhere close to it and with very little progress on that front (Kenya, Zimbabwe, Zambia...); in either case there is little growth expected in the next few years.

An old edit of the Wikipedia page on global internet usage shows us what the numbers were just a few years ago:

English -- 35.2%
Chinese -- 13.7%

Those numbers came using a different method so take them with a grain of salt, but the overall trend is clear. While I am not exactly a cheerleader for the PRC (it's an okay place but having Wikipedia blocked for me when I was there was highly annoying) it will be nice to see a new linguistic dynamic in the near future, and one that can only be good news for international auxiliary languages.


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