Top Ten Most Spoken Languages in the World
Sean Hopwood, MBA is the President of Day Interpreting, a real-time phone interpreting app.
Our world is home to more than 7,000 languages, every one of them contributing to human nature’s fascinating diversity. While some are spoken by millions of people, some languages are in danger of going extinct.
Being lovers of all things language, we thought it would be interesting to compare the world’s most spoken languages, the number of people that speak them as their native language, and where they’re most widely spoken. And today, we’re sharing these nuggets of wisdom with you!
Here’s a look at the world’s most popular languages!
#1 – Chinese
The numbers on Chinese vary widely. Ethnologue says there are some 1.3 billion native speakers with about 1.1 Mandarin speakers in the world. Chinese is a tonal language heavily reliant on logograms, making it quite hard to learn yet very rewarding to master. As an official language of mainland China, Taiwan, and Singapore, it’s also one of the United Nations’ six languages.
It’s estimated that you’ll need to learn about 2,500 characters to read roughly 98% of everyday written Chinese.
#2 – Spanish
Even though you might think that English should feature in the second spot, when we exclusively look at native speakers, Spanish trumps English, boasting a whopping 471 million speakers. As the primary language in most of South and Central America, Spain, and large portions of the U.S, Spanish is the world’s second most widely spoken language.
Twenty-two countries across four continents use Spanish as one of their official languages, and it’s also the world’s most studied language.
#3 – English
Coming in at third place with some 370 million native speakers, English, as you might have assumed by now, is not the world’s most spoken language. However, it has about 978 million speakers that use it as their second language and is still widely accepted as the lingua franca of business, travel, and international relations. English is relatively easy to pick up compared to Chinese. Because the U.S culture has a pervasive soft power, so English should continue to dominate the world stage for the foreseeable future.
Shakespeare added about 1,700 words to the English language vocabulary because he changed nouns to verbs, verbs to adjectives, connected phrases together, and devised original words.
#4 – Hindi
Hindi is chief among India’s 23 official languages, as is spoken by 342 million native speakers. It’s not always clear whether Hindi and Urdu are two languages in their own right or if they’re the same – Hindustani – but we know that Hindi is spoken mainly in the northern regions of India and parts of Pakistan. Regardless, it is the line of languages that brought us pretty words like shampoo and bungalow, which just goes to show that a little Hindi goes a long way.
If English is your native language, you probably already know some basic Hindi. Guru, jungle, karma, yoga, cheetah, and avatar are just some of the many words that the English language borrowed from Hindi.
#5 – Arabic
Arabic has 315 million native speakers, but just like Chinese, this language varies a LOT based on its plethora of dialects which are grouped for the sake of convenience. Modern Standard Arabic is a written language that’s closely related to Classical Arabic found in the Quran. Some versions of spoken Arabic, like the version you’d hear in Oman, vary dramatically from the version you’d encounter in Morocco.
There are at least 11 words for love in the Arabic language, and each of them is used at different stages of the process of falling in love.
#6 – Portuguese
Portuguese’s reach owes much to its colonial past, with Portuguese traders and conquerors taking their language to Africa, Asia, and the Americas in the 15th century. The colonized countries that adopted Portuguese transformed the language and made it their own, but today, there are about 232 million native Portuguese speakers worldwide.
Even though Portuguese is rooted in medieval Galicia, which was between the north of Portugal and the northwest of Spain, just 5% of all native Portuguese speakers call Portugal home.
#7 – Bengali
Have you ever heard of Bengali? We’re betting this wasn’t one of the languages you expected to see on this list. Bengali is the language of Kolkata, and the Andaman Islands, and of course, 130-odd million Bangladeshis. With about 229 million native speakers, it’s predicted that these figures are set to double over the next century.
Even though the West might not be familiar with the Bengali script, it’s the world’s fifth most-used writing system!
#8 – Russian
Around 154 million people speak Russian as their native language, making it the 8th most spoken language on earth. This language is well known for its mysterious grammar and Cyrillic script. It’s still one of the United Nations’ six official languages and made names like Pushkin, Nabokov, and Gogol famous around the globe.
All foreign astronauts must know a preset amount of Russian if they want to travel to space. This is because Russia has such a dominant presence in space tech.
#9 – Japanese
Japan is home to almost all of the language’s 126 million native speakers, making it the most highly geographically concentrated langue on this list. Even though some native Japanese speakers live outside of Japan in the United States, the Philippines, and Brazil, it’s a language rich in geographical influence. Japanese uses hiragana and katakana writing styles and Chinese Kanji characters, which makes it a little easier to learn than its Chinese counterpart.
Japanese is obviously the de facto language of Japan, but it’s also the only country in the world where Japanese is the official language.
#10 – Lahnda (Western Punjabi)
The last spot on this list goes to Lahnda, which has some 118 million native speakers. This Pakistani macrolanguage is one-half of the Punjab language, which was sliced in half when the British settlers left. Punjab is Pakistan’s most spoken language, and its numbers are comparable with that of the Hausa language. It’s also the fourth most common language in Britain.
Punjabi is considered a distant cousin of the English language because its tonal variation distances it from its other Indo-European language family.