Portuguese and Other World Languages by the Numbers


“Proportion of U.S. undergraduates studying the Top 20 spoken languages compared to speakers worldwide.” Source: Student Language Exchange. (Click to enlarge)

The above infographic is highly informative: Given the amount of individuals who actually speak a living language, the number of U.S. students currently studying those languages may be completely disproportionate. Clearly this is the case of French, which, for historical and geographic reasons, has been Americans’ and other native Anglophones’ foreign language of choice par excellence (no pun intended) for centuries. But, in reality, only about 1.07% of the world’s population speaks French as a first language (Ethnologue 2014).

Especially in the case of the United States, Spanish also makes logical geopolitical sense to study and master. However, with 414,170,030 speakers worldwide (as opposed to French’s “only” approximately 75 million (Ibid.)), the prevalence of Spanish-language students makes more sense numerically. Still, statistics like those provided by the Student Language Exchange show that U.S. universities are neglecting huge populations and markets by only focusing on the old standbys.

Portuguese is one such example. While Portuguese has certainly been an important world language throughout the last 500 years, many Americans and English speakers in general may not have considered it as a worthy focus of their attention. Until now.

In a recent interview, Edleise Mendes, President of the Sociedade Internacional de Português Língua Estrangeira (SIPLE, the International Society of Portuguese as a Foreign Language), reports that, in the last ten years, interest in studying Portuguese as a foreign language throughout the world has tripled (Neves 2014). She notes that rising interest in China and the United States reflects a worldwide reawakening to the practicality of studying this language.

Of course, one would be quite remiss in omitting the vast influence that Brazil has had in swaying this surge in interest. In fact, and staying within this article’s parameters of “language by the numbers,” approximately 95% of worldwide Portuguese speakers (of a total approaching 210 million) live in Brazil (Ethnologue and CIA World Factbook 2014).

An enormous nation (the sixth most populous in the world) comparable in both territorial and population size to the United States, Brazil’s diversified economy has grown to the point that its is now primed to be one of the leading markets of the 21st century: “Exploiting vast natural resources and a large labor pool, it is today South America’s leading economic power and a regional leader, one of the first in the area to begin an economic recovery” (Ibid.). What’s more, Brazil’s image as a fun-loving, culturally rich patchwork nation of many nuances is a huge part of its worldwide appeal.

For more information regarding how you can study the Portuguese language and all of its many “ports of call” at the University of Illinois (and beyond), check out this LibGuide. The Latin American and Caribbean Studies Collection at the University Library is also a fantastic starting point and resource, along with the reference collection at the International and Area Studies Library.

Map of nations where Portuguese is an official language.


_____. (2014). “Brazil.” CIA World Factbook. Web. Accessed 11 December 2014. https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/br.html

_____. (2014). “French.” Ethnologue. Web. Accessed 10 December 2014. http://www.ethnologue.com/language/fra

_____. (2014). “Portuguese.” Ethnologue. Web. Accessed 11 December 2014. http://www.ethnologue.com/language/por

_____. (2014). “Spanish.” Ethnologue. Web. Accessed 11 December 2014. http://www.ethnologue.com/language/spa

Neves, Patrícia. (2014). “Português gera interesse mundial ‘nunca visto’.” Plataforma Macau. Web. Accessed 11 December 2014. http://www.plataformamacau.com/macau/portugues-gera-interesse-mundial-nunca-visto/


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FLAS Fellowships: A Brief Introduction

Despite the recent chill foretelling the start of winter in Champaign-Urbana, it is already time to start planning for summer and the upcoming 2014-2015 academic year. Many undergraduate and graduate students whose research is related to area studies use the summer break to study a language relevant to their academic and professional interests. Foreign Language and Area Studies (FLAS) Fellowships are an important resource for these students, as well as those hoping to pursue language and area studies abroad and on campus during the academic year.

At Illinois, FLAS Fellowships are offered by area studies centers, each of which provides funding for eligible languages spoken in the region. The deadline for this round of fellowship applications has recently been announced: February 7, 2014. Area studies departments may have different internal deadlines so students should check the departmental websites as well. In the coming weeks, students interested in this opportunity will have to start thinking seriously about their application materials. This post is an introduction to the FLAS Fellowship and to the library resources available to support FLAS fellows and language study at the University of Illinois.


FLAS Fellowships can be an opportunity to supplement your scholarship with travel.

About the FLAS Fellowship

FLAS Fellowships are a federally-funded initiative of the Department of Education, which awards grant money directly to institutions of higher education for a four-year period. These grantees host annual competitions to distribute fellowships to qualified applicants enrolled at their institution (U.S. Department of Education, 2013). At the University of Illinois, fellowships are awarded through our various area studies centers, each of which offers fellowships for languages spoken in the region covered by the Center (FLAS Fellowships at Illinois, 2013). For example, the European Union Center funds students for Arabic, Bosnian-Serbian-Croatian, Bulgarian, Catalan, Czech, French, and many other European languages.

Funds are available to Illinois graduate and undergraduate students, who are United States citizens or permanent residents. However, undergraduate fellowships are limited to students studying a less-commonly taught language at the intermediate level or above and application procedures for undergraduates are slightly different.  Fellowships are awarded for summer language study in the United States and abroad, as well as academic year awards for a combination of language, area studies and, in some cases, dissertation research. More information about the application process can be found on the FLAS Fellowships at Illinois website, including details about upcoming information sessions. The first information session for students is on December 4th, 2013 (FLAS Fellowships at Illinois, 2013).

Library Resources for Language Study

The University Library offers a variety of resources for students, who are studying a foreign language or are away from campus for the duration of their fellowship. Reading is one of the best ways to improve language skills and the library has a large collection of foreign language reading materials. The International and Area Studies Library collects materials in the vernacular languages of Africa, East Asia, South Asia, Central and Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and Latin America and the Caribbean. These resources include reference works, dictionaries, journals, magazines, and books (including fiction) written in the target language. Reference books and current issues of periodicals are available for use inside the library, while back issues of periodicals and books can be checked out from the Main Stacks. Similar materials in the languages of Western Europe are available through the Literatures and Languages Library.


Spanish-language materials at the International and Area Studies Library.

Foreign films are among those available for check out at the Undergraduate Library. (Take a look at this helpful post on how to find them in the catalog.) Additionally, print and online versions of international newspapers are available through the History, Philosophy, and Newspaper Library. The library also subscribes to Tell Me More, an online language learning software. While the selection of languages is limited to Western European languages, the software is a great resource for beginners and for those hoping to keep up with their language skills after returning from a FLAS fellowship.

Perhaps the best resource the library has to offer students (both those on campus and abroad) are the subject specialists in the library, many of whom have created Libguides dedicated to language acquisition resources in their subject areas. The International and Area Studies Library is home to subject specialists in many regions. They are great source of information for vernacular language material, as well as research assistance for those students whose FLAS fellowship includes an area studies or dissertation research component. Other subject specialists can be found throughout the University of Illinois library system. All of our librarians can be contacted by email and additional assistance is available to students through the Library’s virtual Ask-a-Librarian service. Finally, students who are enrolled at the University during the period of their fellowship retain access to our collections through remote access to electronic resources and DocExpress.

Language study, including a FLAS fellowship, can be an essential component of your academic career. Keep in mind that the University Library has many resources available to support language acquisition and scholars working with foreign language materials.


U.S. Department of Education (2013). Foreign Language and Area Studies Fellowships Program. Retrieved from http://www2.ed.gov/programs/iegpsflasf/index.html.

FLAS Fellowships at Illinois (2013). FLAS Fellowships at Illinois. Retrieved from http://publish.illinois.edu/illinoisflas/.




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