Languages are the spice of life, and there are so many more in the world than you may realize! With over 6,500 languages, it would be impossible to encounter each one, making one just as surprising as the next. But the most surprising is the most spoken language in the world — see if you can guess what it is!
How to Define a Language
According to Ethnologue, a database for world population, a language must be two things:
- Linguistic: focused on lexical and grammatical differences, or on variations within speech communities
- Social: focused on cultural or political factors, as well as heritage and identity
There is also a set criteria for language measurements, called ISO 693-3, which ensures that languages are counted for more than just their linguistics.
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Origins of the Most Spoken Languages
The most spoken languages in the world can be split into 9 language families:
- Indo-European has 42 distinct languages such as English, Hindi, Spanish, French, Bengali, Russian, Portuguse, Italian, Polish, Dutch, Afrikaans, Bavarian, Czech, and more.
- Afro-Asiatic is made of 15 languages which includes 12 different types of Arabic as well as Amharic, Somali, and Hausa.
- Niger-Congo origin includes 12 languages such as Swahili, Yoruba, Zulu, and others.
- Sino-Tibetan languages include 8 Chinese languages including Manadarin, as well as the Burmese language.
- Austronesian has 9 languages, including Indonesian, Vietnamese, Javanese, Filipino, Tagalog, Malay, and others.
- Dravidian languages are spoken in areas of India and are lesser known to the western world. These include Telugu, Tamil, Kannada, and Malayalam.
- Turkish languages include Turkish, Uzbek, Azerbaijani, and Kazakh.
- Kra-Dai includes two Thai languages (Thai and Northeastern Thai).
- Koreanic origin only has one language, Korean. Similarly, Uralic origin has only one language, Hungarian. Japonic origin also has just one language, Japanese.
Most Spoken Languages in the World
Known as the official language of business, English is the most widely spoken language in the world, with the highest number of speakers, and the highest number of countries where it is spoken.
- Total Number of Speakers: 1.26 billion
- Number of Native Speakers: 378 million
- Official Language in: The US, The UK, Canada, Ireland, Australia, and many countries in Asia, Africa and the Pacific.
- Regional Language in: Bay Islands of Honduras, Micronesia, Saint Maarten, Saint Eustatius, and Saba Islands
- Widely Spoken in: Cyprus, Indonesia, Israel, Ethiopia, Switzerland
2. Mandarin Chinese
There are almost 300 languages in China that are currently being spoken, but when it comes to the most spoken language, Mandarin Chinese takes the cake. Mandarin Chinese also has the highest number of native speakers in the world!
- Total Number of Speakers: 1.13 billion
- Number of Native Speakers: 918 million
- Official Language in: China, Singapore, Taiwan
- Widely Spoken in: Malaysia
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3. Hindi, Hindustani
Hindustani is the name for both Urdu and Hindi languages, which come from Sanskrit. Hindi is spoken by a variety of people, while Urdu (further down on the list) is mosty spoken in Muslim communities.
- Total Number of Speakers: 637 million
- Number of Native Speakers: 260 million
- Official Language in: Fiji and India (Hindi)
The Spanish language made its way around the world during the conquistador era, and is commonly found in South and Central America. The highest number of Spanish speakers are in Mexico, in North America.
- Total Number of Speakers: 538 million
- Number of Native Speakers: 450 million
- Official Language in: Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Equatorial Guinea, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, Spain, Uruguay, Venezuela
- Regional Language in: Andorra, Belize
- Widely Spoken in: Philippines, United States
Did you know that many English words are based on the French language? And French isn’t spoken only in France alone. Its reach spreads throughout the Middle East, Africa, and North America.
- Total Number of Speakers: 277 million
- Number of Native Speakers: 77 million
- Official Language in: France, Belgium, Canada, Haiti, and many countries in Africa including Burkina Faso, Central African Republic, Chad, Cameroon, Congo, Guinea, Ivory Coast, Madagascar, Mali, Niger, Rwanda, and Senegal
- Widely Spoken in: Southern United States, Northwestern Italy
Arabic started as a nomadic language, allowing for tribes to communicate with one another. It is widely spoken in the Middle East and North Africa, and often spoken in Muslim communities.
- Total Number of Speakers: 274 million for Standard Arabic
- Number of Native Speakers: 310 million for all varieties
- Official Language in: Algeria, Bahrain, Chad, Comoros, Djibouti, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, Oman, Palestine, Qatar, Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Somaliland, Sudan, Syria, United Arab Emirates, Yemen
- Regional Language in: Israel
- Widely Spoken in: Cyprus, Niger, South Sudan, Tunisia, Eritrea, Indonesia, Philippines
Almost 100 million people speak Bengali in Bangladesh; the rest speak it throughout areas of India. This language has also spread to areas with high numbers of Indian and Bangladeshi immigrants such as the UK, the US, and the Middle East.
- Total Number of Speakers: 265 million
- Number of Native Speakers: 230 million
- Official Language in: Bangladesh
- Regional Language in: India
Russia is a large piece of land with a large population, and the Russian language is spoken around an even larger area of land, throughout what was formerly the USSR, before its collapse.
- Total Number of Speakers: 258 million
- Number of Native Speakers: 154 million
- Official Language in: Abkhazia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, South Ossetia, Transnistria
- Regional Language in: Moldova
- Widely Spoken in: Israel, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Ukraine, Latvia, Estonia
While they may hail from a physically small country, the effect of Portuguese colonizers was huge. Their language spread throughout Brazil, the United States, and parts of Africa.
- Total Number of Speakers: 252 million
- Number of Native Speakers: 222 million
- Official Language in: Angola, Brazil, Cape Verde, East Timor, Equatorial Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Macau, Mozambique, Portugal, Sao Tome, and Principe
- Widely Spoken in: Andorra, Spain
Indonesian is a standardized version of Malay. It is surprisingly easy to learn, and one of the most polite languages there is.
- Total Number of Speakers: 199 million
- Number of Native Speakers: 43 million
- Official Language in: Indonesia
- Widely Spoken in: East Timor
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Urdu is considered a sister language to Hindi — as they both come from Hindustani. It is heavily influenced by Arabic as well as Turkish languages. Urdu is commonly spoken among Muslim communities in India and Pakistan.
- Total Number of Speakers: 171 million
- Number of Native Speakers: 68 million
- Official Language in: Pakistan, India
- Widely Spoken in: United Arab Emirates
The German language is sometimes called the language of the writers and thinkers. Its word structure is complex and words can be made to be incredibly long and specific.
- Total Number of Speakers: 132 million
- Number of Native Speakers: 100 million
- Official Language in: Germany, Austria, Liechtenstein, Switzerland and Luxembourg
The Important Difference Between the Two Top Languages
The top two languages, English and Mandarin Chinese are not only different in their character sets and origins, but also in the way they manifest in the world.
Mandarin Chinese is high on the list due to its high number of native speakers, therefore most of the world’s Mandarin speakers are highly concentrated in China.
In contrast, there are more second language English speakers than native speakers. English is spread out and spoken in more physical locations in the world.
Languages You Didn’t Realize Were Widely Spoken
Telugu: 93 million speakers
- Region: India
Telugu dates back to the 6th century and is the largest of the Dravidian languages. It is currently spoken in central southeastern India.
Tamil: 84 million speakers
- Region: Singapore, Sri Lanka, India
This language of Indian origin is spoken in the state of Tamil Nadu. It is also spoken in other areas as well — reaching as far as Fiji and South Africa.
Hausa: 73 million speakers
- Region: Niger, Nigeria
Hausa are a native people in Niger and Nigeria, and are the largest ethnic group in western Africa. Their native tongue called Hausa is spoken by millions.
Javanese: 68 million speakers
- Region: Indonesia
On the highly populated Indonesian island of Java, the native language is Javanese and most of the 100 million inhabitants speak this language.
What About Second Languages?
Almost half of the world is bilingual — and with constantly changing borders and increased travel opportunities, it’s no surprise that’s the case. Most would assume that English is the most popular second language, as it is considered the language of global business.
English is a very popular second language, but surprisingly, so is Swahili and Indonesian. In fact, 82% of Swahili speakers are second language speakers and 78% of Indonesian speakers have learned it as their second language.
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Keeping Languages Alive
Languages are a part of culture, and are constantly changing and evolving, like all other parts of culture. Therefore, it is a challenge to keep some of the older and less spoken languages alive. It’s important to keep cultural and indingenous languages alive, because within the language, you find key parts of a culture that we don’t want to lose.
Overall, the most spoken languages in the world are English and Mandarin Chinese, which is no surprise to most. While it may be tempting to learn common languages, it is also extremely important that we preserve the languages of our past. If you have grandparents that speak a less common language, take steps to learn a bit about that language and you can be a part of saving the culture.