The languages of 1/7th of the world

Undergraduate Open Day in the Brunei Building June 18th 2016

It is calculated that 1/7thof the world, or around 1.1 billion people, speak these 22 languages as a first language:

Amharic, Hausa, Somali, Swahili, Yoruba, Zulu

Near and Middle East
Hebrew, Persian, Turkish

South Asia
Bengali, Hindi, Nepali, Punjabi, Urdu

South East Asia
Burmese, Indonesian, Khmer, Thai, Vietnamese

East Asia
Cantonese, Hokkien, Tibetan

Three of the 22 languages feature in the World’s Top 10 languages, spoken by almost 50% of the planet:  Bengali, Hindi – and if ‘Chinese’ includes Cantonese as well as Mandarin – Cantonese.

Perhaps it is unsurprising that India (population 1,354,051,854 billion) and the People’s Republic of China (population 1,415,045,928) should have a correspondingly high number of speakers, as China, India, US, Indonesia and Brazil are the most populous countries.  Languages are not limited to their countries of origin, either:  travel, migration, and other factors have led to diasporas worldwide.

More surprising, given the potential reach of those 22 languages, is that only one place in the UK – SOAS, teaches 13 of them to university level.

The Languages of SOAS
The Languages of SOAS (c) Jody Kingzett

So why learn a language from Africa, the Near and Middle East, South Asia, South East Asia or East Asia?

Building knowledge of a language in tandem with regional expertise is likely to be useful in a globalised world. If languages are a means of communication, and communication is the driving force in relations between peoples and countries – being able to speak and understand different languages is essential to forming and maintaining political, economic, trade, cultural, and other ties.

For those who can speak but not read or write in their mother tongue, it is a chance to learn it formally, to maintain links between generations, and continue traditions into the next.

An interest in other countries:  in following international politics, understanding global economics, exploring diverse social, cultural, music or other traditions, or simply bread-and-butter work opportunities are all reasons for specialising in the study of a region and its language(s).


At SOAS, many students arrive already speaking at least one other language in addition to their mother tongue and English.  The polyglot atmosphere is not only because over 50% of students are international students but also because language-learning is integral to most of the degree programmes.  Even if it is not possible (for workload or timetabling reasons) to study a language as part of a degree, many of the same languages are offered on courses by SOAS Language Centre.

What does the training comprise?

SOAS language degree programmes are usually four years long, to include a year spent in the country of language study.   Shorter courses are also available on other programmes.

Crucially, will it lead to a job?

Scenario one (‘the best-case scenario):  you obtain your dream job, such as working for the UN (official working languages:  Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian and Spanish); setting up your own NGO in Ethiopia; teaching Punjabi or Hindi to primary school children; working as a translator or interpreter; in international business; a world music company, and so on. Language graduates of SOAS University of London return to, visit, or take up residence in countries worldwide, obtaining employment in jobs for which their knowledge of:  Amharic, Hausa, Somali, Swahili, Yoruba, Zulu, Hebrew, Persian, Turkish, Bengali, Hindi, Nepali, Punjabi, Urdu, Burmese, Indonesian, Khmer, Thai, Vietnamese, Cantonese, Hokkien, and Tibetan, is indispensable.

Scenario two (‘the worst-case scenario’):  you graduate, never set foot abroad again, and never open the covers of a book in, or speak a word of [French, Spanish, German, Mandarin, Amharic, Burmese, Tibetan, other – insert your language of study here]. Even in a ‘worst case scenario’ employers still seek the kind of transferable skills, which language training provides. The CBI and British Council affirm how employers continue to need graduates with a knowledge of language(s). Language uptake has been in decline in the UK schools, and employers are increasingly having to recruit abroad.   Become the language graduate on their doorstep!

The ‘average’ employment history now comprises seven to eight changes of job over a lifetime. Acquiring a knowledge of language(s) – how to communicate – enhances life in immeasurable ways.

Find out more:

Degree Programmes with Language Options

Languages available at SOAS


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