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Basic Knowledge about Asian Languages

Asian Languages – The Origin and Overview of Major Languages

Posted by Anne Quach on Sep 2021.

When referring to Asian languages, it is easy to assume that those languages only have their influence within the continent of Asia. On the contrary, if you think Asia is already geometrically expansive, you’d be surprised at the vast influence Asian languages have all over the world.

In fact, Asia is the home of 2,300 living languages spoken by about 4.3 billion people in Asia which is nearly six times the population of Europe.

Let’s trace back to the origin of Asian languages and have a closer look at the thirteen most popular languages of Asia.

Major Asian Language Groups

The majority of European countries speak Indo-European languages which are the second-largest language family in the world when it comes to the number of speakers. This is also the case for Asian languages. However, not all Asian languages fall within this group. Asian languages span a much broader variety of families, including Sino-Tibetan, Indo-European, Altaic families, Austronesian, and many others.

Asian Language Families

In South Asia, Indo-European, Indo-Aryan languages and Dravidian languages are the major families while in East Asia, it’s Sino-Tibetan. Several other families are regionally dominant. In the scope of this article, we will go into detail about the five most major Asian language families:

Sino-Tibetan

Out of all five groups, Sino-Tibetan might be the most mysterious one. Up until today, the location and timing of the emergence of the Sino-Tibetan language family are still debated. Some believe the Sino-Tibetan languages originated in northern China around 4,000-6,000 years ago. Another school of thought assume it appeared 9,000 years ago in southwest China or northeast India.

However, one of the most recent researches in 2019 suggested that the homeland of the Sino-Tibetan language group was in the Yellow River basin region of present-day northern China. It scattered and diversified about 5,900 years ago; and finally, in the 21st century, it has around 1.5 billion speakers worldwide which make it one of the most popular language groups in the world only after Indo-European.

In Asia, the Sino-Tibetan language group covers Chinese (about 1.3 billion native speakers), Tibetan (6 million), Burmese (33 million), Karen, and various languages of the Tibetan Plateau, southern China, Burma, and Northeast India. This group is also seen as a typical Southeast Asian language.

Indo-European

Indo-European is the largest language family in the world, comprising about 445 languages, most of which are the languages of the Americas and Europe (English, French, Portuguese and Spanish), along with other languages in Western and Southern Asia. In total, 46% of the world’s population (around 3.2 billion people) speak Indo-European as their mother tongue.

Out of 445 Indo-European languages, 313 of them are from the Indo-Iranian branch which includes Hindi, Urdu, Bengali, Assamese, Odia, other languages in South Asia, Central Asia, the Caucasus and parts of South Asia, etc.

Altaic-Congo 

The Altaic language family derives its name from the mountainous region of Altai where these languages are thought to have originated. When it comes to the number of languages, the Atlantic-Congo family comes out on top, with an impressive 1,432 languages, most of which are Turkic, Mongolic, Tungusic, Koreanic, and Japonic languages.

Austronesian

The Austronesian language family contains over 1200 of the world’s languages which are spoken by about 386 million people. It is geometrically large spanning from Southeast Asia to the westernmost islands of the Pacific. The major languages falling into this group are Fijian (Fiji), Tagalog (Philippines), Cebuano, Malay (Malaysia, Singapore, and Brunei), Javanese, Sundanese, and Madurese of Indonesia.

Semitic languages

The Semitic language family is a branch of the Afroasiatic language family originating in West Asia. It is spoken by more than 330 million people in large parts of the Middle East and North Africa, as well as by large minority populations in both Europe and North America. The most spoken language from this group is Arabic with about 315 million native speakers.

 

Most popular Asian languages

Now that we have understood a little more about the origins of Asian languages, let’s take a closer look at some of the most popular used languages in Asia.

Chinese

Language family: Sino-Tibetan language

Chinese is the most spoken language in Asia as well as the world, with approximate 1.13 billion speakers worldwide. That’s about 16% of the world’s population. Chinese is a rich language with various dialects including Cantonese, Wu, Jin, Min, Hakka, Xiang, Gan, etc.

Chinese dialects

Among these dialects, Mandarin Chinese and Cantonese Chinese are the two that have the most striking differences. Mandarin Chinese is the official language of Mainland China, spoken widely throughout China, Taiwan, and Singapore where it is the fourth official language. It is the native dialect of approximately 960 million people around the world. Meanwhile, Cantonese is spoken in southeastern China, Guangdong Province, Hong Kong, Macau, and some Chinese communities around the world.

Read more: The differences between Traditional Chinese and Simplified Chinese

Japanese

Language family: Japonic languages family (Altaic-Congo)

Japan is known for its minimalism as a way of life, however, ironically the Japanese language is far from being minimal. In fact, Japanese is considered one of the most difficult languages to master in the world with three distinctive writing systems – kanji, katakana, and hiragana – each of which has a different alphabet.

Japanese writing scripts

Korean

Language family: A language isolate

Modern linguists generally classified Korean as a language isolate, i.e. it’s not related to other languages. However, there are still some theories and arguments over its origin. Some think it links to the Altaic languages of central Asia, while others believe it belongs to the Uralic languages.

Korean is the national language of both North Korea and South Korea, although there are different standardized forms used in each country. It is estimated that over 77.3 million people are using the Korean language around the world.

Thai

Language family: Kra–Dai language family

Thailand is home to 71 living languages, among which Thai is the official and most spoken. The Thai language is used by about 70 million people in Thailand and other countries like Cambodia, Malaysia, Myanmar, and Laos.

Besides numerous dialects, Thai have five distinct registers, including Elegant Thai (when talking to strangers), Street Thai (when communicating with friends), Rhetorical Thai (for public speaking), Religious Thai (to monks), and Royal Thai (spoken to or about the royal family).

Fun fact: Thai uses two number systems and two types of calendars.

thai-numerals-system

Vietnamese

Language family: Austroasiatic language

Vietnamese is the national language of Vietnam and is recognized as one of 14 minority languages of Czech. It is spoken by 95 million people worldwide. Vietnamese people once wrote in Chinese characters until the 13th century when chữ Nôm started to gain popularity. In the 17th century, a Latin-based script was developed and later made a part of compulsory education in 1910. The Vietnamese language has significant Chinese and French influences.

Indonesian

Language family: Austronesian language

Although Indonesian is the official language of Indonesia, most Indonesians are fluent in at least one of the 700 indigenous local languages. The Indonesian language is believed to be spoken by 43 million native speakers and approximately 156 million second-language speakers, making it the top 10 most spoken languages in the world.

Indonesian dialects

For formal situations, standard Indonesian is used. However, when it comes to everyday communications, people are likely to use their local languages such as Sundanese, Javanese, and Balinese.

Burmese

Language family: Sino-Tibetan language

Burmese is the official language of Myanmar, spoken by over 50 million people, both native and non-native speakers. Despite being officially recognized with the English name Myanmar language by the Constitution of Myanmar, most people still refer to the language as Burmese.

Being a tonal language, one Burmese word can have several meanings depending on its tone.

Read more: Language and localization tips for Burmese

Filipino

Language family: Austronesian language

Filipino is the national language of the Philippines. Many people confuse Filipino and Tagalog as two different terms for the same language. The truth is Filipino is the standardized variety of the Tagalog language. It is estimated that about 80-90% of Filipino is Tagalog and the remaining is from Spanish, English, and some other Philippine languages.

Read more: The differences between Filipino and Tagalog

Malay

Language family: Austronesian language

Malay is the official spoken language in Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei, and Singapore. It is also unofficially used in some parts of Thailand and East Timor. This language has numerous official names. It is known as Bahasa Malaysia in Malaysia, Bahasa Melayu in Singapore and Brunei, and Bahasa Persatuan/Pemersatu in Indonesia.

Malay languages, Malay dialects, Asian language

Two dialects of the Malay languages are the northern dialect (used in Malaysia, Singapore, and Brunei) and the southern dialect (spoken in Indonesia).

Malay is a mixture of numerous languages, with many borrowed words. Some words were borrowed from Arabic, Sanskrit, Tamil, certain Sinitic languages, and Persian during the trading with the locals as Malaysia (used to be called Tanah Melayu) was a strategic transit point in South East Asia. More recently, the Malay vocabulary was enriched with several loanwords from Portuguese, Dutch, and English, a majority of which are scientific and technological related terms.

Lao

Language family: Kra–Dai language

Lao (also called Laotian) is one of the Southeast Asian languages from the Kra-Dai language family. It is the official language in Laos, with around 7 million native speakers. Lao is also used in northeast Thailand, where it is called Isan, by approximately 23 million people.

Lao is a tonal language that uses pitch differences to distinguish between words that are pronounced alike, similar to Vietnamese or Chinese and other Kra-Dai languages. In general, spoken Lao is mutually intelligible with Isan and Thai.

Khmer

Language family: Austroasiatic language

Khmer, the official language of Cambodia, is spoken by over 16 million native and non-native people, making it the second most popular spoken Austroasiatic language after Vietnamese. It is estimated that Khmer is also spoken by about 1.3 million people in southeastern Thailand and around 1 million in southern Vietnam.

Hindi

Languages of India

Language family: Indo-Aryan language

Hindi is one of the most spoken Asian languages in the world, with nearly 425 million people use Hindi as a first language and 120 million as a second language. From the Indo-Aryan language family, Hindi is one of two official languages of the Government of India (besides English) and one of the 22 scheduled languages of India. In addition, Hindi is officially used in 9 states and 3 union territories.

Arabic

Language family: Semitic language

Arabic is one of the most spoken languages in the world. In Asia, Arabic is the lingua franca of 13 countries in the Arab world, including Bahrain, Israel, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Palestine, Syria, the United Arab Emirates and Yemen.

Arabic has several dialects, with 32 varieties that were assigned language codes by ISO. The number of Arabic speakers (all dialects combined) is 422 million speakers (both native and non-native) in the Arab world, making it the fifth most spoken language. It is also the religious language of 1.8 billion Muslims and Arabic.

 

Wrap Up

We hope the insights in this article have given you an overview of Asian languages. If you are planning on entering a market in Asia, it is necessary to do more thorough research to understand the linguistic and culture aspects of that language. You can get some helpful localization tips for 10 Asian languages from our free 56-page whitepaper here.