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I am interested in languages that are used as first languages.

Does it have to do simply with population growth/sustenance of the speakers of those languages? What are the theories put forward to explain this?

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    Welcome to the site, by the way! – Joe Apr 27 '12 at 22:53
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Quite simply, history.

Languages gain speakers when their speakers:

  • raise children to speak the language
  • conquer other people and imposing their language
  • become culturally influential on other communities

Languages lose speakers when their speakers:

  • die
  • switch to a different language
  • diverge into different groups who can no longer speak to one another

Let's look at the example of Spanish. It started just in Spain, then spread to many parts of the world. This happened because the Spanish conquered other groups (like the Aztecs) and imposed their language and because their population grew in the new territories and they raised their children in a Spanish-speaking environment.

Now let's look at Welsh. It was once more widely spoken in and around Wales, but is now much reduced in number of speakers. Many people who once spoke Welsh now speak English in their daily lives and don't teach Welsh to their children.

The number of people who speak a language depends on the rise and fall of the community that speaks that language.

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    Luckily, there are many efforts to preserve Welsh... :) – Alenanno Apr 27 '12 at 22:53
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    Another reason: religion. Many Jews learn Hebrew and many Muslims learn Arabic in order to read the holy texts. Some can converse freely in these languages even though they are not used as an N-th language in their everyday lives. – dotancohen May 1 '12 at 14:52
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Somebody, possibly Max Weinreich, commented that "A language is a dialect with an army and navy". A bit of a soundbite perhaps, but the general idea of having an identifiable group associated with the language is sound.

Military dominance is definitely a factor - Spanish in South America for instance - but economic power is needed to maintain it. A country such as Singapore, for example, has English as its official language for purely economic reasons.

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The culture around the language is important also.

France has a "Académie française", laws regarding product labels in shops so that a french translation is always available, a strong national cinema culture. Also, most movies or television shows are either in french already or dubbed in french. The education of the language is a lot more proud and technical with grammar rules taught for most of the primary and secondary stages.

This is opposed to for example regional dialects such welsh of languages such as finnish where there is no legislation (or was until recently) aimed at aiding the language gain more prominence. Movies are usually subtitled for example in Finland, meaning most Finns know english quite well as opposed to French who don't know english that well but have a strong focus and knowledge in their native tongue.

Regional dialects are sometimes reduced a single class teaching the dialect instead of teaching in the dialect whereas the main curriculum is taught in the main language.

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