I've just found a list at this site which lists the most common languages in the world by native speaker. The top 10 are:
|rank||native speakers||code||name||country of origin||continent|
|6||168000000||BNG||BENGALI||Bangladesh (and West Bengal, India)||Asia|
It is quite surprising to me that Dutch fairs as badly as it does (45th on this list), given Dutch maritime history and the trade routes they established. I know Dutch isn't a big international language today, so it's not surprising that it fairs so badly - what's surprising is that Dutch hasn't had more of an impact than it did.
Back to the point, if there is indeed a point. When I see data such as this, it makes me marvel that the most common language taught in UK schools is French, with German and Spanish coming up the rear. Granted, there are good historical reasons for this, and these countries are our nearest big neighbours - but for a child living in, say, Manchester, is much more likely to hear Hindi than French.
If a European language is desired, then why not Portuguese, German, Spanish or Italian? When in Edinburgh the difference between France and Italy is negligable in terms of distance! I've seen Spanish and German taught in schools, not Italian though - or Portuguese!
What about the non European languages? I know from experience that it is quite hard to find someone who can teach বাংলা (Bangla/Bengali) where I live, and it is the sixth most common language in the world! More than this, it's the language from the Calcutta region, where the East India company was based - and hence we have a fairly large number of Bangla speakers in the UK. It's rare to see Japanese being taught, or Russian.
Looking more broadly, surely with China becoming more important on the world stage, the UK could probably benefit from having Mandarin speakers. We could also use speakers of Hindi (though for historical reasons, English is a de facto language in India). Of course, we do already have Hindi speakers, Gujurati speakers and so forth, but we should not rely long term upon 'home learning'. I have little doubt that we could also use Arabic speakers in the current political climate.
Fundamentally, native English speakers are quite lazy linguistically due to the predominance of English - arising from an Imperial past. Couple this with the fact that in the UK as we are an island, and so we don't have the easy movement of peoples across borders as happens in places like Belgium - one simply isn't exposed to languages.
There are similar issues elsewhere. In the US the country is large and quite insular (there are lots of places to see at home, why go abroad?). With the exception of Spanish (and also French in Canada) one must leave the continent to get a reasonable mix of languages (with the exception of certain areas within some big cities). Australia is in a similar position.
Given that we share a long border; I'd like to see Welsh or Gaelic being offered in England, especially along the border. I won't hold my breath for this happening in any sizable way, though - the main reason being a lack of teachers, and a lack of demand! Many people simply don't get the urge to learn a language until later in life.
Combine all these factors lack of exposure with the late start people get in foreign languages in the UK (usually aged 11) and we end up with a nation of essentially monolingual people.
A crying shame - it would be wonderful to be fluent in another tongue, and the best way to fluency is an early exposure.
I'm sick of being functionally monolingual. This is why I'm taking steps to do something about it. I'd like to learn বাংলা (Bangla/Bengali), but for now am learning French (boringly). Given what I've said above, why French? Essentially for me it is easier. I live in easy reach of the ferry and like to pop over for day trips. I do have a smattering of schoolboy French, and hopefully this will give me a head start.
The course starts in earnest within about a week. I hope I can maintain my focus and get myself to a reasonable level. Wish me luck - and don't be surprised if I try the occasional post in French at some point.