Is Italian really the Fourth Most Studied Language in the World ?

I came across this statement a few days ago and found it mightily surprising.

I don’t doubt that Italian is a very popular language to learn for a variety of reasons (a rich, distinctive culture with a global renown and a long history, one of Europe’s most important languages in terms of number of speakers, a major economic actor) but… fourth most studied globally ?

It’s in the top 25 of languages with the most native speakers in the world and the factors I listed above explain why it may be much more attractive as a second language than its size suggest, but I find the claim in the two linked articles rather incredible.

Are they counting high school and college courses that may only offer Spanish, French and possibly German and Italian?

When I read the OP, it didn’t seem that surprising to me. It seems like a good language for someone to study if they just want to casually pick up a second language (after English). I’ve never studied Italian, but after a few years of high school and college Spanish, I feel like I’d be comfortable learning it. At least to the non-Italian speaker, it appears similar.

ETA, just quickly looking around, I’m having a hard time finding good cites, written clearly, that are easy to make sense of. However, it does seem that they are counting school. That may skew things one way or the other (ie, bringing Spanish waaay up to the top of the list).

They might have meant the 4th most popular within the European Union or among a non-representative set of institutions. One of the sites specifically says “in the world” but I wonder if the qualifier “within the European Union” didn’t get ellipsed and then replaced with “in the world” more out of enthusiastic sloppiness than dishonesty.
It would be very surprising if the sites were accurate. 700 000 students is a pretty small number globally and it’s difficult to see how the 4th most studied language would only have that many students. Think of all the countries where people are expected to be bilingual or at least go through the motions of being able to pass school tests.

I don’t know if the claim is true or not, but this article speaks to the actual study that is used to back up the claim. It’s from 2014, btw:

Unfortunately, no link to the actual study. I have seen other sources say that the study was done by Italians, so there could be some bias in the study itself.

“Most studied” is the weasel phrase. With that they can include every scholar who ever needs to translate a passage. Heck, they could count every tourist who is trying to decipher a menu in Milan!

That’s what I’m thinking. They may well be counting all the Italian phrase books sold or copies of Rosetta Stone downloaded or apps people bought etc. That could make for wildly different numbers than going to a representative group (for the world?) and asking them how many other languages they could at least speak a few sentences in. Learning how to say “Bathroom” or “hotel” or “airport” isn’t the same as taking even a semester with proper teacher.

Yes, good points, thanks.

Seems unlikely to fall ahead of Mandarin, English, French, Spanish, and German.

Or anyone who ever did a Google search to figure out what the hell they were talking about on The Sopranos.

How many people study Mandarin, though, and how many can teach it? Chinese people are unlikely to be counted in this kind of research, even if their first language is actually Cantonese or Shangaiese or whatever.

When my nephews’ school tried to offer Mandarin or Arabic (those being big immigrant groups), they were unable to because of lack of teachers; the mother of one student is working on becoming qualified but it’ll still take several years. The other nephew and his proud daddy are learning Bulgarian: turns out it was easier to find qualified people to teach Bulgarian than Mandarin, at least in Northern Spain. For someone who’s already qualified to teach Spanish or French to become qualified for Italian is relatively easy (lots of them begin by having degrees in Philology (Romance Languages)), and for Italian speakers to become qualified teachers is easier than for most of the speakers of Arabic or Chinese than get to Europe. So it’s possible that for starters Italian is more offered than other languages simply due to the ease of offering it.

Right, according to the PRC there is one Chinese language and Putonghua (aka Mandarin) just its standard spoken form. The concept of many ordinary Westerners is that Mandarin is a language, and maybe some Western language experts agree, you might argue it either way depending what you emphasize in defining a separate language. But the PRC concept is specifically that the Chinese dialects aren’t different languages. So I doubt there are official figures on Han Chinese students in China studying a ‘foreign’ language that’s also Chinese, as far as they are concerned. I wonder if they even count the kids of non-Han minorities who might learn non-Chinese languages at home first.

Right, and one of the difficulties that mother who wants to be a teacher is facing, is that to teach Mandarin you can’t only teach the written form. I don’t even know for sure where is she from, but teaching the written form and her own pronunciations isn’t Acceptable.

We have a similar situation in Basque (the taught form is Batua, the “official” version), but how common is that for the really-major languages? And how many Chinese-speaking people have Mandarin as their “home” dialect? There may have been someone who was told he couldn’t teach Spanish because he didn’t speak better Castillian than the Castillians (morons exist in every culture), but at least for Spanish there are many speakers who can go “academic” relatively easy and a lot of them have college degrees.

Italian is spoken only in two countries: Italy and Switzerland. Portuguese is spoken in seven, Spanish, in twenty-one, and French in almost thirty. In order to be considered an important language, the number of countries that speak the language or the number of speakers are taken into account. Chinese is important because of the number of speakers. Arabic is important because of the number of countries that speak this language.

Surely, a native speaker of any language also studies it. And I’d be surprised if the number of people who speak any Italian at all is as great as the number of native Mandarin speakers.

Surely, but I’m pretty certain that, by definition, native speakers are not taken into account in such surveys.

This wikipedia page ranks it as 23rd language in the world for native speakers and 19th in terms of second-language speakers. So, still punching above its weight, but more realistically so.

If you look at the cite I gave, it looks like they are defining this as “studied at the college level”. That is going to skew heavily toward The West since that’s where the bulk of college students are. As noted, colleges in China aren’t going to consider the study of Mandarin to be the study of a foreign language.

Indeed, thanks for the link. I also found this to be particularly relevant :

It looks like art, culture and history are in large part to thank for its success as a second language.

That sounds to me like defining “culture” as “what Italy has”, and ignoring all other cultures. Someone who studies English in order to watch Hollywood movies is doing it “for culture and pleasure”, too.


On the other hand, I wouldn’t find it surprising that most people who study Italian do it for the cultural aspects first and foremost, as opposed to English where practical reasons (business & science) are probably the overwhelming driving forces for learning the language.

“Fourth most studied” and “nineteenth most spoken as a second language” are two statistics that do not sit very well together at all