Something as simple as tracking Google searches can reveal the rise and fall of the world's many languages, as this new Google Trends interactive reveals.
The interactive includes data since 2004 in nine cities: Berlin, Delhi, London, Madrid, New York, Paris, Sao Paulo, Shanghai, and Toronto.
There are a couple of things to consider when looking at this data. First, the interactive does not use a list of the most populous cities in the world — that would need to include Tokyo, Mexico City, Mumbai, and Beijing, and this isn't even a complete list of urban hubs with more than 10 million residents. Second, these searches are geolocated, so the data includes searches from travelers looking for a restaurant as well as permanent residents who will mostly use the native, first, or official language.
The most-used language tends to be pretty intuitive, and Google lets you choose whether you want to see that. The interactive gets way more interesting once you hone in on changes in non-native languages. In New York, for example, Spanish was taken over by French in 2010 and 2011 before it settled into third place behind Japanese. That French would ever be used more in New York City than Spanish is quite incroyable to me.
I wanted to explore Japanese use in the other cities, so I looked at Japanese use by using the language-specific search (it's the second option in the interactive). New York landed in Japanese use behind Shanghai but ahead of London:
If you asked me to guess whether London, Toronto, or New York would tend to Google in Japanese the most, I wouldn't have had a clue on where to begin.
The mini-timelines for the nine cities are fun to watch, too. Consider that from 2009 through 2011, Portuguese kicked Spanish from the most-used search language spot in Madrid, Spain.
Spanish returned as the top-used language for Madrid searches in 2012, and has remained there since.
Just imagine this data in the hands of a demographer or anthropologist. Tracking online behavior and offline shifts in language will give researchers a greater sense of everyday decisions made by millions of people. As for me, I only search in another language if the concept or name of something is not in English. And I can only help but wonder if, say, the word tortilla counts as Spanish or English.
For those taking a vacation in the included cities or study abroad students, this project may give you insight into which languages to practice during your travel. Take a look at the visualizations and see what you find.