Russian Is The Internet’s Second Most Popular Language

In the wake of Russia’s Internet penetration breaking the 50% mark (now – 55%) and overtaking Germany in total number of users last year, we now have news that Russian overtook German as its second most popular language. It is used on 5.9% of all the world’s websites. It is projected that Russia will maintain this position for a few years. Also .ru has become the world’s most popular country-level domain.

internet-most-popular-languages

This is quite a remarkable achievement considering Russia’s limited number of Internet users relative to the much more populous Spanish and Chinese speaking worlds (even if Internet penetration in the latter regions is a bit lower). I wonder why that could be the case? One theory is that Latin Americans simply don’t read much, while creating websites in China may be trickier than in the West because of greater controls over the Internet. (Also hanzi are much more space-economical than alphabet-based writing systems, so what might take a few pages in English may only require one page in Chinese; that is another possible explanation). That would also explain why the world’s less than 100 million native German speakers are also far ahead of those far more numerous nationalities. Alternatively, maybe there’s simply more spam blogs or pages hosting copied content in Russian.

Here is a trends graph. As of March 27 (the date of this article), Russian has clearly at 5.9% edged past German which is now at 5.7%.

  • Ildar Adi

    Due to the vastness and complexity of the matter in hand the information provided by w3techs about popularity of languges is likely to be incomplete and inaccurate.

    But what can be known for sure is that the Russian language is retreat all over the world. Retreat is massive, without a precedent in human history; just 20 years ago there were nearly 500 million Russian speakers in the world, in 20 years time the number could have been dropped to 150 million. Russian population is declining, new generations in Central Asia, Caucasus and Eastern Europe are no longer studying Russian. Especially in Europe the knowledge of Russian language will all but dissapear in a generation. According to Eurostat Russian language is being taught as one of the main foreign languages in European schools only in the Baltic States. In Bulgaria 1/4 of primary school students study Russian as second foreign language, and in Poland 7% as third. In rest of the Europe Russian lessons are close to 0% of curriculum; it is less popular language to study than Swedish!

    http://ec.europa.eu/public_opinion/archives/ebs/ebs_386_en.pdf

    • Scowspi

      My perspective is a bit more optimistic than yours. Some points:

      “just 20 years ago there were nearly 500 million Russian speakers in the world, in 20 years time the number could have been dropped to 150 million”

      Where do you get this “500 million” figure? The total pop of the USSR at its height was c. 280 million, and not all of them spoke Russian or spoke it well. In order to get to 500, you’d probably have to pick everyone who had studied Russian as a foreign language, which does not guarantee fluency.

      “new generations in Central Asia, Caucasus and Eastern Europe are no longer studying Russian”

      In fact, after a steep decline, Russian study has started to rise again in many of those countries. Granted, not to the level of Soviet times.

      “it is less popular language to study than Swedish!”

      I suspect this is due to the “protected status” of Swedish in Finland, where it is a compulsory subject even though the Swedophone community there has been in decline for decades.

    • Carlo

      The population of the Russian Federation is 143 million. Differently from the USSR, it is hard to find someone in the Russian Federation who don’t speak this language, only in extremely remote areas of non-Russian ethnic groups. This means that only 7 million people speak Russian outside of the Russian Federation, which is absurd, considering the big communities of Russians/Russian descendants in many countries, apart from those who learn it as a foreign language.

      • It’s strange how when a statistic comes along that shows the growing importance of Russian some people see the language as in catastrophic decline.

        My own view is close to Scowspi’s. I think Russian is reviving.

        • Ildar Adi

          500M in 1990 is the number Russian speakers with any kind of knowledge the language, 150M in 2030 respectively.

          I linked an EU study which clearly shows that the number of Russian speakers in the EU is in sharp decline (and the very same thing is demonstatibly happening in Central Asia and Causus as well), and seen as least useful of any major language, behind Italian and Chinese!. In many countries Russian is seen as language of 0-usefulness, most notably in France

          Ironically, Russian is most widely perceived to be useful only in countries which Russia sees as Russophobic, namely Lithuania (62% of resp.), Latvia (50%), Estonia (47%), Finland (25%). Russian is also seen somewhat useful, at the time of the study, in Cyprus (18%) (why so low despite all the talk of brotherly nations?), but I wonder how much longer, LOL. Also, combined population of those countries where the Russian language is seen as of any importance is in sharp decline.

          Russian language is seen as unuseful because at this time and age Russia has nothing to offer but oil and gas. Also:
          -Investment climate in Russia is horrible > few foreign companies > no jobs there
          -Working for NGOs in Russia is no longer possible
          -There are no quality Russian made consumer products
          -Becuase of language barrier (very few in Russia know English, very few European know Russian) and soon-to-be physical barrier Russia separated online from the rest of the world
          -Russian popular culture has no sex appeal whatsoever in the West
          -Russian high culture is in decline (where is the famous Russian literature nowadays?)
          -There are no admired Russian sport stars (there is Sharapova, of course, but in away her absence from Russia underlines something, doesn’t it?), and many of those that are successful are seen as arrogant or sore losers (like Ovechkin, like Plyshenko)
          -Russian universities have lost their status complitely in the West and the Russian academic world is practicaly isolated
          -There is no “soul exchange” between Russia and the West – nobody from the West goes to Russia, even as a tourist, and if you believe the official statistics of Russia, only 35.000 people moved from Russia to the West in 2012. According to EU 23.000 of those were asylum seekers.
          -Politically Russia is drifting rapidly away from common European values
          -Russian PR is the worst in the world, and those who try to promote the Russian point of view are usually too dogmatic, aggressive and generally unfriendly

          • JLo

            Well, you may be right on the last two points, but the rest is such a load of bullshit it’s not even worth the time to debunk.

            • Scowspi

              I do think he is partially right on these points:

              “-Russian popular culture has no sex appeal whatsoever in the West
              -Russian high culture is in decline (where is the famous Russian literature nowadays?)”

              The first one is self-evidently true – its appeal is pretty much restricted to post-Soviet space. The second one is more complicated. There are some interesting Russian-language writers, films etc., but they are poorly translated and distributed, and the automatic Cold War-era interest that accrued to a lot of writers is gone.

              • Ildar Adi

                Also, and interestingly, many of the best contemporary Russian writers that have some fame in the West are not excatly very much liked by so called Russophiles, neither are they themselves very fond of present day Russia. Viktor Erofeyev comes to mind, for example.

              • anon666

                I don’t think the first point is true at all. Russian porn is first rate! They have the hottest girls, with a natural cuteness that’s way more appealing than the syntheticness of the Los Angeles industry.

            • Ildar Adi

              The rest of my points was just observations. Whether or not they correspond to reality, beats me, but unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your preferences) those are just the most common associations westeners hold about Russia. I thought that is the very reason why this blog exists?

              • Scowspi

                However, to add a bit of context, I’m unaware of any non-Anglospheric pop culture that has a global reach. As for high culture, post-WW2 Europe is a shadow of its former self: some worthwhile things have been produced, but it can’t compare with previous European golden ages (e.g. the 1870-1914 period). Cities like Vienna, Paris and Prague are mostly curators of their cultural heritage rather than creators of anything new. So in that respect Russia’s situation is similar to that of once culturally dominant countries like France and Germany.

              • Ildar Adi

                I agree, there is no other pop culture with a global reach than the Anglospheric kind. But German, Polish, Swedish etc., even Spanish and French, cultures are finding their ways by integrating into the Anglospheric culture, adding their own twist. The most obvious evidence of this is the music industry. But this integration is not happening with the Russian culture. I’d say for an average Westener it is as alien as Soviet, Arabic or Turkish cultures. Just watch Музыкальный телеканал RU TV for few minutes and you know what I mean.

          • AK

            500M in 1990 is the number Russian speakers with any kind of knowledge the language, 150M in 2030 respectively.

            Okay, let’s take this figure: 150M in 2030. Even assuming that Russia’s population continues declining and falls to 130M in 2030 (this is practically impossible on the face of current trends but let’s ignore that). The vast, vast majority of Belorussians speak Russian as a first language; certainly virtually all of them have “any kind of knowledge.” That’s another 10M, assume there will be 8M by 2030. At least 90% of Ukrainians speak Russian. Even assuming that no further Ukrainians learn Russia from today onwards (a wildly unrealistic assumption, as virtually all Ukrainian web sites not based in West Ukraine are primarily in Russian) that will mean 75% of them will speak Russian in 2030. Say there are 36M of them in 2030, that means 27M. That already adds up to 165M, in Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus alone, under extremely pessimistic assumptions about demography and the future of Russian in Ukraine. It ignores Russians in other countries of the Near Abroad and likewise the relative popularity or not of Russian as a foreign language in European and other countries.

            In other words, that particular claim from which much of the rest of your argument is drawn is quite simply bullshit.

            • Ildar Adi

              Well, even today surprisingly many of the 140M residents of Russia have no command of Russian. This is evident for anyone who has visited Moscow in the last couple of years and that is why last December Duma passed an extremely harsh bill which stipulates that all immigrants will have to pass a language test to be able to receive or even extend a labor permit. I’m also very sceptical that by 2030 90% of Ukrainians and Belarusians speak Russian. If those countries were to choose European integration the number of people with command of the Russian language could drop almost as fast as in the Central Europe after the end of the Soviet occupation. Not as fast of course because of large populations of native Russian speakers which today exist only in the Baltic States.

              150M by 2030 is naturally the worst case scenario, and I certainly hope that those apocalyptic estimates that practically all research institutes are putting forward about the demographic development of the Slavic post-Soviet countries do not become facts. The number of Russian speakers could very well be 200M or even a touch above, but that’s beside the point. Russian language is in rapid retreat all over the world, just like Russia itself is becoming increasingly irrelevant, and there is nothing in the horizon which would indicate a reversal of that trend.

              • AK

                If those countries were to choose European integration the number of people with command of the Russian language could drop almost as fast as in the Central Europe after the end of the Soviet occupation.

                Just as presumably the path of “European integration” and the Euro-Atlantic Choice will ensure economic prosperity and the decisive defeat of corruption as testified to by the experience of Latvia, Romania, and, erm, wait.

              • JLo

                Have you been paying any attention to current events over the past few years? The West’s influence in the former Soviet space is being rolled back, the orange/rose/tulip revolutions are over. These countries are economically and, gradually, politically, moving back into Russia’s sphere of orbit. Sure, I guess you could say, “if” Ukraine and Belorus choose European integration. But, as the saying goes, if a babushka had balls she’s be a dedushka, know what I’m saying?

                Furthermore, Russia is the second largest destination in the world for migration after the US. Many of those migrants have to speak at least some Russian to get along. So when you say that Russian is in retreat and Russia itself is becoming irrelevant you’re living in some kind of delusional fantasy land of wishful thinking. Nobody is interested in your observations if they don’t correspond to reality.

              • Ildar Adi

                I don’t quite see what is your point, but in general, by any given indicator, new EU countries are doing better than non-EU Eastern European countries, including Russia. But what I think is the best thing for the citizens of those new EU countries is that after decades of oppressive restrictions they can now very freely and very easily try to find their luck somewhere else in the European Economic Area if they were to find that don’t like what some indicators show in their home countries. Hundreds of thousands of Latvians and Romanians have already taken this opportunity, and in the long run it will be beneficial also for their respective home countries. Unfortunately Ukrainians and Belarusians don’t have this opportunity yet.

              • Ildar Adi

                Orange and rose revolutions opended a door for Ukraine and Georgia for Western integration. I find it difficult to believe that Russia could derail Georgia’s integration. It tried by waging a war (according to Medvedev), but could only delay. New war would be disastrous not just for Georgia but also for Russia.

                As for Ukraine, well, it’s future is hanging in the balance. Much depends of whether it manages do initiate reforms prerequisite for association agreement that is supposed to be signed in Novemeber this year. If not…what would then be the driving force behind any kind of democratic or economic reforms? Russia? We all know what happened to much touted Medvedev reforms there. They came to absolutely nothing.

                I know that Russia is the #2 destination for migrants. I’m just not so sure if Russians like their gastarbaiters and will the massive immigration make Russia more cohesive or will it cause explosions of some kind. I’m not very optimistic, and like I said, according to the Russian gov’t, there are serious problems with the language skills of immigrants.

                With all do respect I have to ask you have you been paying any attention to current events just over the past few days? Politics: Reset is officially proclaimed dead, Russia’s best friends in the EU; Germany and France have abandoned thier detente policy. Language news: Kyrgyzstan seeks Russian-language ban, Kazakhstan plans to switch the national language to the Latin script, Azerbaijan is banning Russian names like Maria, Yekaterina, Olya or Alya.

                I also have to say that when we talk about future there are only ifs.

              • JLo

                You just don’t get it, do you? You automatically assume that there is something inherently positive in the West, and democracy, and that Russia should strive to be like them. I guess you haven’t noticed that these shining examples are wallowing in debt and unemployment, while simultaneously lurching from war to war. The Reset is officially claimed dead? So the fuck what? There never was a Reset to begin with, only fools thought there was.

                Meanwhile, China, the world’s largest creditor, has become Russia’s largest trading partner. China’s newly elected leader made Russia his first foreign trip where historic deals for gas, oil, and arms were agreed upon and signed. People like you make me laugh. You’re living in the past and, in your case, utter delusion. I understand, though, I mean everyone has to justify their life decisions.

              • Ildar Adi

                JLo, you said “You automatically assume that there is something inherently positive in the West, and democracy, and that Russia should strive to be like them.”

                Russian leaders also seem to find some value in democracy, because they try so hard to pretend to be one.

                I think it is self-evident that democracy is the best. Or like Medvedev famously said: “freedom is better than non freedom”. It is also self-evident that the West is the wealthiest, healthiest, happiest and freest corner of the world.

                There is no denying that there are problems in the West, too, but they pale in comparison with the troubles that Russia, China, Arab world or Africa are experiencing in the very day.

                China and Russia are so unevenly matched and so different in so many ways that Russia has no other role than junior partner in that relationship. Ironically it could be argued that China is more democratic than Russia – Chinese have some rotation in their leadership, Russia not so much.

              • AK

                Ironically it could be argued that China is more democratic than Russia – Chinese have some rotation in their leadership, Russia not so much.

                No, it can’t be argued at all. Because, erm, leadership rotations have zilch to do with democracy.

                Unless you wish to argue that Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson is the biggest dictator of them all.

          • AK

            Also, and interestingly, many of the best contemporary Russian writers that have some fame in the West are not excatly very much liked by so called Russophiles, neither are they themselves very fond of present day Russia. Viktor Erofeyev comes to mind, for example.

            “Every decent man is ashamed of the government he lives under.” -H. L. Mencken

          • AM

            Think you’re getting it wrong – in artys-fartsy world I hear about “Russian” a lot – maybe I’m sensitive to it, but certainly doesn’t seem to be as much German, Polish or Scandinavian things going (in terms of literary/film festivals, play shows, exhibitions, dance etc.). Granted tho that these things don’t appeal to the masses, but more elitist types.

    • AK

      Continued from here:

      I don’t quite see what is your point, but in general, by any given indicator, new EU countries are doing better than non-EU Eastern European countries, including Russia.

      They were doing better long BEFORE they joined the EU, and have continued doing better after, if not by nearly as much as a decade ago. Joining the EU per se means almost nothing. Not having to jump through the accession hoops means that they can, if anything, relax on the anti-corruption fronts and so forth.

      Hundreds of thousands of Latvians and Romanians have already taken this opportunity, and in the long run it will be beneficial also for their respective home countries.

      Not necessarily, if it results in the depopulation of their skilled labor polls. You surely cannot be serious, say, that Latvia losing 10% of its population in the past 10 years – mostly due to massive emigration of skilled younger people – is a good thing for it in the long-term.

      I find it difficult to believe that Russia could derail Georgia’s integration. It tried by waging a war (according to Medvedev), but could only delay.

      Cite where he said that.

      With all do respect I have to ask you have you been paying any attention to current events just over the past few days?

      Developments over a few days are inconsequential. In the larger picture Russia does not need very amicable relations with the EU, and the status of Russian in places like Kyrgyzstan or Azerbaijan is quite irrelevant to anybody who doesn’t live there.

      • Carlo

        After the guy said that Russia “waged a war” on Georgia, everyone should give up replying to him. He totally ignores hard facts, admitted even by the EU, so it is a waste of time arguing.

        • AK

          That is why I requested demanded a citation for that claim. Should he fail to give one, I will indeed write him off as a troll and no longer reply to him.

      • Ildar Adi

        If EU means nothing then I wonder why practically all countries in Europe and also beyond are queueing for EU’s membership? Even so called tradional allies of Russia like Serbia.

        Latvia, for example, survived loss of independence, half a centrury of occupation, deportations, genocide and mass emigration. So I have no doubt about it’s surviving skills. There are plenty of examples of small countries that have faced mass emigration and declining population and not just survived it but turned it into their advantage. Take Finland for example. In the end of 60’s and begening of 70’s hundreds of thousands Finns went to Sweden to look for a better life. It took just a decade and Finland was one of the best countries in the world, by any measurement.

        Medvedev’s unfortunate (for him) slip about the war:
        http://en.rian.ru/russia/20111121/168901195.html
        http://www.rferl.org/content/medvedev_gets_caught_telling_the_truth/24399004.html

        “Russia does not need very amicable relations with the EU”

        EU needs amicable relations with Russia even less.

        “the status of Russian in places like Kyrgyzstan or Azerbaijan is quite irrelevant to anybody who doesn’t live there”

        True, but proves my point: Russian language is in serious retreat in Central Asia.

        • AK

          I suspected this is what you would quote. The only problem? MEDVEDEV DOES NOT ACTUALLY SAY WHAT YOU SAYS HE SAID.

          «Если бы в 2008 году мы дрогнули, была бы уже другая геополитическая раскладка, и целый ряд стран, которые пытались искусственно затащить в Североатлантический альянс, скорее всего, были бы там» ≠ “I find it difficult to believe that Russia could derail Georgia’s integration. It tried by waging a war (according to Medvedev), but could only delay. ”

          I do not see how any person with even halfbaked pretensions to objectivity could interpret that as Medvedev saying Russia was “waging” (aka starting) a war. Ergo: You have an agenda, and are a dishonest troll.

          • Ildar Adi

            Uh, let me rephrase that then, your honor, and this time I shall quote Brian Whitmore:

            “In a rare instance of truth telling, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev appeared to reveal on Monday the real reason Moscow went to war with Georgia in August 2008” / “Medvedev seemed to suggest that the goal was preventing Georgia from joining NATO”

            I’m happy to go with that if you think what I first wrote was dishonest.

            Anyway, it looks like we have established that the Russian language is retreating from the near abroad faster than Putin can rip his shirt off and fly a crane across the Red Square. I see no counterarguments to that.

            • Realist

              So said Brian Whitmore, who’s a Radio Free Europe guy – of course he’s got an agenda with the way he phrases shit so therefore I’d also look at that source with suspicion as well if I were you just like you would the Russian sources if that’s what you’re quick to do Ildar.

    • From the w3techs report:

      “Russian is also the most used language in several countries that belonged to the Soviet Union: 79.0% in Ukraine, 86.9% in Belarus, 84.0% in Kazakhstan, 79.6% in Uzbekistan, 75.9% in Kyrgyzstan and 81.8% in Tajikistan.”

      Also, the number of Russian speakers was never close to 500 million and it is extremely unlikely to ever decline to 150 million. You’re using numbers like you’re trying to sell us something.

      • AP

        Russian as most used language by 79% in Ukraine (only 7% less than Belarus) seems dubious…

        Otherwise I agree with you.

    • But but but…the evil Kremlin shut down a few Twitter accounts that advocate for suicide! Putin is an Internet censoring dictator, I tells ya! Phobie cited the shut down accounts but in her entire Pajamas Media article failed to mention what they were saying or quote a single one!

  • Scowspi
  • Separately from any question of the rise and fall of Russian, what this statistic surely shows is the growing importance of the internet in Russia. There is endless talk about the importance for Russia of “modernisation” and “diversification”. Given the importance of the internet in modern economic development, here surely is evidence that Russia is “modernising” and diversifying and doing so moreover at a rapid rate and in a way that suggests its economy’s growing importance.

  • pr.com

    A language’s importance is only if it is useful either for immigration, or employment or for general use – And Russian is either rising or growing on all counts according to many studies…

    • JLo

      I hope you’re right because it was a major time consuming PITA to learn!

  • Doug M.

    It’s kind of a non-story.

    Russian is immensely important in Russia and the countries of the former Soviet Union. Outside of those countries, eh, not so much. But since those countries include 300+ million people, most of whom are (by world standards) middle income, hey, Russian is a big deal on the internet.

    But the pool of Russian speakers is just too small for this to be permanent. In a few years it will be overtaken by Spanish and/or Chinese. Another decade or two, and French, Urdu and possibly Arabic will nudge it down yet further. By 2050, it’ll be around 7th or 8th place.

    And it will be no big deal. Russian’s a major language; people will be able to find whatever they need, from eBay to porn to the latest David Bowie album, on a Russian-language site. No change.

    Doug M.

    • JLo

      If David Bowie is still producing albums in 2050 then anything’s possible!

  • Here is a world map of the languages of Twitter:

    http://thumbnails.visually.netdna-cdn.com/language-communities-of-twitter_50290d6f67478.png

    And this is just Europe:

    http://1.bp.blogspot.com/-3DH5ILgrhho/TrugP-3McoI/AAAAAAAAA9U/ymVIGUS1vBI/s1600/twitter_europe.jpg

    It seems that the only languages of the former Soviet Union that are used enough on Twitter to have merited their own colors on that map are Russian, Latvian and Lithuanian. It looks like Estonia isn’t tweeting much in Russian either though. The rest of the post-Soviet space is. On the map Catalans are tweeting in Catalan, but Ukrainians are tweeting in Russian. And that’s the young generation, the future. Who else is going to use Twitter? Kiev looks like the third-brightest Russian-tweeting city in the world, right after Moscow and St. Petersburg. Slovenian, Slovak and Albanian have their own colors, but Ukrainian doesn’t.

    • AP

      It’s probably a map thing rather than a twitter thing. They just don’t list the Ukrainian language, so it’s impossible to tell how widespread its use is.

  • KenM

    Russia has steadily become a major internet development center as well, which likely plays a role & will continue to grow in importance. Not only are they a major outsourcing destination for advanced coding, the array of startups in web development & apps has been exploding.
    One of the major points in English becoming such a widely spoken language is that the US (with the UK & Canada playing a lesser but still important role) has been at the forefront of development of communication transmission technology over the critical period from the 50’s up until the turn of the century. This has been increasingly outsourced & now the Anglosphere does more packaging than anything else.
    Chinese is obviously going to rise, but China has a very insular culture, & the Japanese even more so. I suspect there will be a limit past the necessities of business on how much interest there is learning the language;
    Korea seems to have a limited external appeal (how many people know much about Korean culture, even in Asia?) & not much in the way of expanding foreign communities to amplify it;
    Spanish & Portugese are ofcourse very widely spoken thanks to Latin America, but are still lacking in human capital (although improving strongly) & have yet to build a strong culture in R&D. Likely to improve as Brazil rises, but still a ways to go.;
    Russian however has a strong legacy in both the former soviet republics & Eastern Europe, and Russia has a very strong legacy in R&D, a high level of human capital, along with an advanced, growing, sovereign internet industry (Yandex, Mail.ru, etc).
    If they continue to expand in the development of internet technologies (which seems very likely), it’s position as a strong regional language looks assured.

  • Ildar Adi

    @AK b Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson,

    You could have chosen the United Kingdom as well – Elizabeth II has been the head of state for a long time – but you would have been equally mistaken. Iceland is a parliamentary democracy, the role of the president is largely ceremonial. Since 1996 Iceland has had four PMs.

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