Date: 2009-08-10 23:22:00
spoken languages by land area

For no other reason than pure curiosity[*], I made the above comparison of spoken languages compared to land area. I started with Wikipedia's List of countries and outlying territories by total area and made a table of country vs. major spoken languages in that country (mostly official languages, though I made some judgement calls). Then using the Google Chart API, I produced the above graph, as well as an interactive page that shows countries by language on a world map.

Not surprisingly, English is the top of the list with several large countries. Russian is next just because Russia is the largest country, followed by Arabic, French, Spanish, Portuguese, and Chinese. This comparison quickly ends up being pretty meaningless because I can think of no other ranking that would put Kalaalisut (Greenland, 50 thousand speakers) above Indonesian (250 million speakers), except maybe latitude.

While working on this I thought of another potentially interesting comparison: Languages by tourism volume. On average, what languages would people need to learn as a "typical tourist"? (I'm sure travel language book publishers already know this.)

[*] Well, I also implemented this using Psil in a mostly functional programming style. This was an opportunity to use Psil for something non-trivial, as well as to experiment with building an HTML rendering system.
You know, this kind of weird query sounds like exactly the sort of thing Wolfram|Alpha is supposed to be good at. But I haven't got a clue how to coax the cursed thing into doing anything particularly useful.
That's true. I think I had considered using Alpha when I thought of this, but quickly dismissed it because I haven't been able to make anything other than trivial example queries work. I think there will always be a place for hand-constructed analysis.
Did you do any special handling of countries with multiple languages? For example (according to Wikipedia) Hindi is spoken by only 41% of Indians. So you could argue that it should only be assigned 41% of India's land area.

Same for China/Chinese I guess also.

On the other hand, according to

approx 12% of Russians can speak some English. So technically English might be entitled to 12% of Russia's land area. :)
Except for Canada (with 85% English and 15% French in Quebec), I didn't do much special handling of multiple languages. And although Hindi might be spoken by 41% of Indians, what land area would that represent? I have no idea and no idea how to find out. The point of this exercise was only that land area doesn't have a whole lot of meaning when correlated with spoken languages.
(anonymous) : Beautiful
Nice work, I'm linking to you. (
[info]ruthiebaby88 : I love thinking about stuff like this - glad to hear I'm not the only one!
I found your post on a google search because I was wondering the same thing. In moments of stillness I have often wondered which are the most useful languages for a traveler to learn.

Of course that depends on where the traveler wants to go - but assuming the traveler wants to go everywhere then one must take into account what the common second languages are in countries as well.

For example even if Dutch was spoken in 50% of the world - that wouldn't be the most useful language for me to learn since most of the Dutch speaking population also speaks English.

The most useful languages - would be those widely spoken by people in many different areas who also do not speak another language in common with the traveler.

One could also consider the time commitment to learn a new language - one with nothing in common to the traveler's native tongue might not be worth the time investment required to master a very rudimentary level. For example - although Chinese is spoken by the most people in the world - if it takes me months to learn to count to ten - I might have been better off learning German!

In the end of my ponderings - I decided the most useful languages for me would probably be Spanish, French and either Portuguese or German. With the amount of time it's taken me to get to an intermediate level of Spanish - an 'easy' language - I can't imagine I'd want to give sufficient time to a language with a whole new alphabet and no cognates!

Any language can wind up useful anywhere with the amount of immigration that goes on world wide - you never know when and where you will bump into another speaker! I was surprised to use my Spanish in Vietnam for example - and surprised again to see German villages in the south of Chile and Argentina!
Greg Hewgill <>