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I have heard there are more Chinese who speak English than there are Americans who speak English. Is this true?

  • 4
    It's mentioned in the "Did You Know 3.0" video. – Oliver_C Jul 9 '11 at 22:34
  • 8
    How do you define "speak english"? There are varying degrees, from only knowing how to ask where the restroom is to understanding idioms. How much English does someone need to know to be considered "English speaking"? – fred Jul 12 '11 at 20:59
  • Considering that most people in the USA speak American rather than English, it seems very plausible! – Andrew Grimm Jan 18 at 4:32
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Depends what you mean by "speaking English". There are reports that 250-300m Chinese people are learning English. However, that doesn't mean that they speak it fluently.

Just how many millions are there? China’s huge English-knowing population of 200–350 million is often cited as evidence of the language being nativized in the world’s most populous country. We may note, however, that the words user and learner are used interchangeably in reference to its speakers of English. When however the focus is on the nativization of English in China, a country in Kachru’s ‘Expanding Circle’ of Englishes, it is imperative to distinguish between users and learners of the language. Kachru points out that institutionalized varieties of English in Outer Circle countries have four functions: the instrumental, the regulative, the interpersonal, and the imaginative/innovative. For English to perform any such functions, there needs to be a large number of proficient bilingual users of the language – which seems not to be the case in China, where English is primarily learned in the classroom as a foreign language.

  • I'm now hunting down info to see whether there is a more reputable recent set of figures for India than wikipedia, as our numbers are dramatically different. – Rory Alsop Jul 11 '11 at 11:30
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    That Indian census number says 226,449, i.e. less than a quarter of a million. It is a "mother tongue" definition, and clearly far more Indians speak English to some degree. – Henry Jul 11 '11 at 11:47
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    @Henry: The Wikipedia link also states "125,226,449" total English speakers which I still feel might be on the smaller side. English is the binding language in Indian cities since there are so many regional languages, and is the first language in many schools across the country. Again no stats for this. – JoseK Jul 12 '11 at 9:33
  • Yeah--I got quite a surprise when I realized the clerk at the internet cafe turned out to have perfect English spelling over the limited words we tried, yet I couldn't understand a word she said even knowing what she was saying. Did she know English??? Or someone who can talk reasonably and can read but whose spelling is so bad one would be hard pressed to figure out what they were saying? – Loren Pechtel Jan 17 '16 at 19:41
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According to 2010 figures in Wikipedia (drawn from a variety of sources), the USA is top with India second, Nigeria third and the UK fourth. China is way down in 17th place.

  • USA - 251,338,301 - 95.81% of the population (age 5+)
  • India - 125,226,429 - 11.38% of the population (age 5+)
  • China - 10,000,000 - 0.83% of the population (age 5+)

There is a note that the 10 million figure for China is being used because:

The oft-cited figure of 300 million is for "learners."

Which it distinguishes from those who are fluent.

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