1. How widely is English language used?

1.1 How many people speak English?

English is the most widely-spoken language in the world. Here is a comparison of number of speakers (native + non-native) of most-spoken languages:

Source: Ethnologue, 21st edition

1.2 Number of native and non-native English speakers

(Non-native speakers speak English as their second language.)No. of native and non-native English speakers

Source: Ethnologue, 21st edition

1.3 What % of English conversations involve only native speakers?

If we listen to every conversation happening in the world, only 4 percent of the conversations involve only native speakers. Rest involve at least one non-native speaker.Communication in English language not involving a non-native speaker

1.4 English is the language on internet

More than 50 percent of content on the internet is in English language. Russian, at 6 percent, is a distant second. (The data pertains to 10 million websites with most traffic.) Here is the top-10 list:

Source: Historical trends in the usage of content languages for websites, W3Techs

1.5 English is the language of technical and scientific periodicals

More than half of the world’s technical and scientific periodicals are in English.% of technical and scientific periodicals in English

Source: Discourses of the Developing World: Researching properties, problems and potentials

1.6 In how many countries is English spoken?

(Note that in the chart below, number of countries is not the number where a language has official status. The number is that of countries where a language is one of the established languages.)

Source: Ethnologue, 21st edition

1.7 In how many countries is English recognized as an official language?

Source: Wikipedia

2. Vocabulary

2.1 Number of words in English Language and vocabulary of native & non-native speakers

Putting a number to words in English language is not easy because, first of all, it’s not even clear what constitutes a word.

Should ‘air’ be counted twice – once as noun (example: the air is polluted) and once as verb (example: he finally decided to air his opinion)? Should medical and scientific terms be treated as words? Should names of countries be treated as words? Should obsolete words be included? And so on.

There are many questions on what constitutes a word, most with differing answers. And therefore, depending on the source you’re referring to, you’ll find multiple word counts in English language.

As per Oxford Dictionary, there are:

  • 171,476 words in current use
  • 250,000 distinct words, excluding inflections and words from technical and regional vocabulary
  • 750,000 words if words are counted in the most liberal way

Source: Oxford Dictionary

Native speakers who grew up in an English-speaking country and went to college typically have a vocabulary size of 25-30,000 words.

(The above range is a rough, commonly-accepted estimate. In reality, estimates vary widely. This source, for example, estimates that a 20-year-old native speaker of American English knows 42,000 lemmas (or dictionary words), and this knowledge can be as superficial as knowing that the word exists. This estimate, however, puts the vocabulary size of a college student to 16,785 words.)

Note that even native speakers have a command over just 4 percent of words in English language. (We’ll see later in the post that this small fraction covers almost all words used in spoken and written English.)

In contrast, non-native speakers typically have a vocabulary of 2-3,000 words. Source

2.2 Proportion of nouns, adjectives, verbs, etc. among English words

Source: Oxford Dictionary

2.3 Not all words are created equal

Native speakers cover almost all words used in common parlance in spoken and written English. However, you don’t need to attain their level of vocabulary to reach a high coverage of words in common English.

Dr. Brent Culligan, Joseph Phillips, and Dr. Charles Browne analyzed a corpus of 273 million words of spoken and written British and American English to come up with their New General Service List (NGSL) of 2,800 words. These words cover a whopping 92 percent of words people are likely to come across in average newspaper, magazine, TV show, book, movie, and so on. 92 percent coverage with only 2,800 words (around 10 percent of a native speaker’s vocabulary)! Recall Pareto (or 80-20) principle.

3. Words, letters, and sounds – a comparison with other languages

3.1 Number of words

English has the most words (250,000 as per Oxford Dictionary) of all languages.

At another extreme is Toki Pona with just 123 words, the fewest of all languages. Source

3.2 Number of letters

Khmer, the official language of Cambodia and spoken by around 16 million people, has the most letters (74) in its alphabet. On the other extreme is Rotokas, spoken by around 4,300 people in Eastern part of Papua New Guinea, which has the fewest letters (12). Source 1 and Source 2

English, as you know, has 26 letters.No. of alphabets in different languages (min. to max.)

3.3 Number of sounds (or phonemes)

!Xóõ, spoken by around 4,200 people mainly in Botswana, has the most sounds (141). On the other extreme is Rotokas, which has the fewest sounds (11) of all languages.

English has 44 sounds. Source

No. of phonemes (or sounds) in different languages (min. to max.)