One hardly risks controversy with the statement that today English was a more influential language world-wide than Yanomami. To a child’s question why that should be so, the well-informed parental brush-off would be that English had hundreds of millions of speakers while Yanomami could with difficulty scratch together 16,000. Really difficult and well-informed off-spring could then point out that in this case, Chinese would be the most important language of the world. At this point, the experienced parent would send the brat off to annoy someone else.
Every language, including Yanomami, is the most important language of the world – to its speakers. Rather than “important” we shall here, therefore, use the world “influential” in its stead. Chinese is a very influential language, no doubt about it, but is it more so than English? Clearly not. The number of speakers is relevant but quite insufficient for a meaningful ranking of languages in order of current world-wide influence, the stress being on the word “world-wide”. There are many other factors to be taken into account and this is what we shall attempt to do in the following.
Ranking the world’s current top languages is not just an idle past-time. The world is growing closer and this historical development is matched by large-scale linguistic adjustments, the most dramatic of which being the explosive growth of the English language. It does matter how major languages stand and evolve in relation to each other. Like the weather, many developments make sense only if one looks at the world-wide picture, not just parochial bits of it.