What are the Most Spoken Languages in the World?

With that being said, it’s possible to come up with some rough rankings. Here’s the best estimate, at the time of writing, as to the most-spoken languages in the world – going by total number of speakers, not just natives.

The Top 10 Most Spoken Languages in the World

1. Mandarin Chinese (1.1 billion speakers)

Number of native speakers: 897 million
Number of non-native speakers: 193 million
Total speakers: 1.09 billion
Name in the language itself: 普通话 (Putonghua)
Language family: Sino-Tibetan
Related to: Cantonese, Tibetan, Burmese

People sometimes speak of “Chinese” as if it’s a single language. It’s actually a group of related languages, of which Mandarin Chinese is by far the biggest. It’s an official language in the People’s Republic of China, the Republic of China (Taiwan), and Singapore.

The native name for Mandarin, Putonghua, literally means “common speech”, although in Taiwan people call it Guoyu – “national language”. Historically, it was also called Guanhua – “the speech of officials”. Since Mandarin is more common in northern China, it’s  sometimes referred to as beifanghua (北方话) – “Northern Dialects”.

Mandarin is written using Chinese characters (sometimes called “Han characters”), an ancient pictorial system where each symbol represents a different word. There are two main versions – “traditional” characters, used in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macau, and “simplified” characters, used in China, Singapore, and Malaysia. It’s estimated that you need to learn 2,000-3,000 characters to read a newspaper – an educated Chinese person will know about 8,000!

2. English (983 million speakers)

Number of native speakers: 371 million
Number of non-native speakers: 611 million
Total number of speakers: 983 million
Language-family: Germanic, a sub-family of Indo-European.
Related to: German, Dutch, Frisian
Name in the language itself: English. But you already knew that.

Thanks to the historical dominance of the British Empire – and, more recently, the economic and cultural clout of the United States – English is well-established as the world’s lingua franca (if only there were other contenders for an international language), and is the second most spoken language in the world.

The name “English” comes from the “Angles”, a Germanic people who settled in Britain in the first millennium A.D.. They ultimately derived their name from Anglen, a region in northern Germany, and of course they gave their name to the area now known as England.

At its core, English is a Germanic language. Its vocabulary and sentence structure are closest to modern languages like German and Dutch. However, it’s been heavily influenced by other languages throughout its strange history. Much English vocabulary is Latin in origin, having been introduced by the French-speaking Normans who conquered Britain in the 11th century A.D.

3. Hindustani (544 million speakers)

Number of native speakers: 329 million
Number of non-natives: 215 million
Total number of speakers: 544 million
Language family: Indo-Aryan, a sub-family of Indo-European.
Related to: Bengali, Punjabi, Marathi, Kashmiri, Nepali
Name in the language itself: हिन्दुस्तानी or ہندوستانی

Hindustani is the collective name for Hindi and Urdu – two dialects of the same language. The name comes from Hindustan, a historical term for the north/north-western part of the Indian subcontinent.

Hindi is spoken across northern and central India, and is the official language of the Indian government. Urdu is primarily spoken in Pakistan. While Hindi and Urdu have differences in vocabulary and pronunciation, speakers of either language can easily communicate with each other.

A notable difference between Hindi and Urdu is that they use different writing systems. Hindi is usually written in in Devanagari script – called “देवनागरी” in the script itself. Urdu, on the other hand, is written right-to-left with a script that’s closely related to the Arabic alphabet. The name “Urdu” itself is written “اُردُو”.

4. Spanish (527 million speakers)

Number of native speakers: 436 million
Number of non-native speakers: 91 million
Total number of speakers: 527 million
Language family: Romance, a sub-family of Indo-European.
Related to: French, Portuguese, Italian, Romanian
Name in the language itself: español or castellano

¡Sí señor! By number of native speakers, Spanish is the second biggest language in the world (behind only Mandarin). By total speakers, it’s at number four.

The language now known as Spanish originated in the Castile region of Spain. For this reason, it’s sometimes referred to as “Castilian” – castellano in the language itself. Since then, Spanish explorers and conquistadores have spread their language all around the world. It’s spoken all across South and Central America and the Caribbean, with pockets of speakers in Southeast Asia and even Africa.

(Trivia tidbit: Equatorial Guinea is the only country in Africa to have Spanish as an official language.)

Spanish is also the second most-common language in the United States, which is home to a whopping 40 million native speakers. This makes the U.S. the second-biggest Spanish-speaking country in the world, behind only Mexico – and it’s predicted that, within our lifetimes, it’ll overtake Mexico and become the largest.

5. Arabic (422 million speakers)

Number of native speakers: 290 million
Number of non-natives: 132 million
Total number of speakers: 422 million
Language family: Semitic, a sub-family of Afro-Asiatic.
Related to: Hebrew, Amharic, and Aramaic.
Name in the language itself: العَرَبِيَّة‎‎ (al-ʻarabiyyah)

Arabic is the official language of 26 countries, although some have argued that it’s not really one language, but several.

If we leave this aside and assume that there’s a single tongue called “Arabic”, then it’s a massive language, with over 400 million speakers. It originated on the Arabian peninsula, and has since spread all across the Middle East and North Africa.

Arabic is also, of course, the language of Islam. While most Muslims are not native Arabic speakers, the language is of special importance to the world’s second-largest religion. Islam holds that God (via the angel Gabriel) literally spoke in Arabic when he dictated the Quran to Mohammed.

That was 1400 years ago, and modern Arabic dialects have changed a lot since the “Classical Arabic” of the Quran. As well as their local dialects, many Arabs also speak “Modern Standard Arabic”, an academic dialect that’s based on Classical Arabic.

6. Malay (281 million speakers)

Number of native speakers: 77 million
Number of non-natives: 204 million
Total number of speakers: 281 million
Language family: Austronesian
Related to: Javanese, Tagalog
Name in the language itself: bahasa melayu

Malay is an official language in Singapore, Brunei, Indonesia, and Malaysia. You can also hear it being spoken in parts of Thailand and the Philippines. It’s by far the largest of the Austronesian languages – a family that’s thought to have originated in Taiwan.

The area in which Malay is spoken is extremely linguistically diverse. Indonesia alone is home to more than 700 living languages! Bahasa melayu, as it’s known, has a long history in the region as a lingua franca, the language of government and trade.

Except Indonesians don’t call it bahasa melayu (Malay), they call it bahasa indonesia(Indonesian). Malaysians call it bahasa malyasia (Malaysian). These dialects are mutually intelligible, and shouldn’t be considered separate languages.

Just whatever you do, don’t call it “Bahasa”! For some reason, foreigners often call it this, but the word bahasa simply means “language”. Malay isn’t called “Bahasa” any more than Spanish is called “Idioma”. You have been warned.

7. Russian (267 million speakers)

Number of native speakers: 153 million
Number of non-natives: 113 million
Total number of speakers: 267 million
Language family: East Slavic, a sub-family of Indo-European
Related to: Ukrainian, Belarusian
Name in the language itself: ру́сский язы́к, (rússkiy yazýk)

The largest of the Slavic languages, Russian is the official language of four countries (Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan). It’s also widely spoken in many other countries of the former Soviet Union, and has official status in numerous sub-national territories.

Russian’s closest relatives include Ukrainian and Belarusian. The three are all descended from the language that was spoken in the medieval state of the Kievan Rus. More distantly, they’re related to other Slavic languages like Polish, Czech, Slovak, Bulgarian, and Serbo-Croat.

By number of native speakers, Russian is the biggest language in Europe. Like many of the Slavic languages, it’s written with the Cyrillic alphabet (see here for some tips on how you can learn it.)

8. Bengali (261 million speakers)

Number of native speakers: 242 million
Number of non-natives: 19 million
Total number of speakers: 261 million
Language family: Indo-Aryan, a sub-family of Indo-European.
Related to: Hindustani, Punjabi, Marathi, Kashmiri, Nepali
Name in the language itself: বাংলা (Bangla)

Sometimes known in English by its native name Bangla, Bengali is the official language of Bangladesh and of several Indian states. In fact, it’s the the second most widely spoken language in India.

Like Hindustani (mentioned above), Bengali is an Indo-Aryan language. This is a branch of the Indo-European family; other branches include the Romance and Germanic languages. In other words, Bengali and Hindustani are (believe it or not) distant cousins of English.

Bengali is written in the Bengali alphabet, sometimes known as Eastern Nagari or Bengali-Assamese script. It’s related to Tibetan script. Natively, “bengali alphabet” translates to “bangla bôrnômala”. In the alphabet itself, that looks like this: বাংলা বর্ণমালা.

Bengali script is relatively unknown in the West, but it’s actually the fifth most widely-used writing system in the world. More people worldwide write in Bengali script than in Cyrillic!

9. Portuguese (229 million speakers)

Number of native speakers: 218 million
Number of non-natives: 11 million
Total number of speakers: 229 million
Language family: Romance, a sub-branch of Indo-European.
Related to: French, Spanish, Italian, Romanian
Name in the language itself: português

Portuguese developed from Latin and is closely related to modern Spanish. The name comes from “Portugal”, whose name in turn comes from Porto, the second-largest city in that country. But the word porto in Portuguese simply means “port”.

Someone who speaks Portuguese is called a Lusophone. This word comes from “Lusitania”, the Roman name for the area that’s now Portugal. The vast majority of Lusophones live in Brazil, which has more than twice as many Portuguese speakers than the rest of the world put together!

The Portuguese empire once stretched far and wide, from South America to Africa to as far as India and Southeast Asia. Today, Portuguese is an official language in nine countries, as well as in the Chinese territory of Macau.

Personally, I find Brazilian Portuguese to be an extremely beautiful language. That’s just one of many great reasons to learn it.

10. French (229 million speakers)

Number of native speakers: 76 million
Number of non-natives: 153 million
Total number of speakers: 229 million
Language family: Romance, a sub-branch of Indo-European.
Related to: Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, Romanian
Name in the language itself: le français

Rounding up the top 10 is French, another Romance language. It’s the official language of 28 countries, with the highest number of speakers in France, Canada, Belgium, then Switzerland (in that order). It’s also widely spoken in parts of Western and Central Africa, on several Caribbean islands, and even on the South American mainland (in the French overseas department of French Guiana.)

French is a Romance language, but over the centuries it’s taken on heavy influence from Celtic and Germanic tongues. In fact, the language (and country) are named after the Franks, a collection of tribes from the Middle Ages whose language, Frankish, was Germanic, not Romance.

Frankish is now extinct, but it’s believed to have contributed many words to modern French vocabulary. French, in turn, contributed many words to English vocabulary, largely thanks to the Norman invasion of Britain in 1066.

As well as the countries and territories that speak French today, many people worldwide speak French-based creoles – particularly in Haiti, where most of the population speak Haitian Creole as their only language. Haitian Creole is heavily influenced by French, but different enough to be considered a separate language.

5 Huge Languages That You Didn’t Realise Had So Many Speakers

Did any of the top 10 most spoken languages surprise you?

While researching this post, I spotted a few languages whose size surprised me – including some I’d never even heard of before. Let’s finish off with a quick look at some languages which don’t get much global attention, but nevertheless have a large number of speakers.

(Note that this isn’t a list of the 11th to 15th largest languages overall, although some of them are in that category.)

1. Hausa

Number of native speakers: 85 million
Number of non-natives: 65 million
Total number of speakers: 150 million
Language family: Chadic, a sub-family of Afroasiatic
Related to: Ron, Bole. More distantly: Arabic, Somali
Name in the language itself: Yaren Hausa or Harshen Hausa

Hausa just barely missed inclusion in the above list. By some estimates, it’s the 11th most spoken language worldwide – although Punjabi may be bigger (see below). By number of native speakers (85 million), Hausa is in twelfth place.

A member of the Chadic family, Hausa is the biggest language in Nigeria, and a national language of Niger. There are also many native speakers living in Chad. Across wide swathes of western and central Africa, Hausa is used as a trade language.

The Chadic languages are a sub-branch of the Afroasiatic family, meaning that Hausa is distantly related to Arabic. It’s normally written in a Latin-based alphabet called boko, although you can sometimes see it written in ajami, an alphabet that’s based on Arabic script.

2. Punjabi

Number of native speakers: 148 million
Number of non-natives: negligible
Total number of speakers: 148 million
Language family: Indo-Aryan, a sub-family of Indo-European.
Related to: Hindustani, Bengali, Marathi, Kashmiri, Nepali
Name in the language itself: ਪੰਜਾਬੀ or پنجابی (panjabi)

Punjabi is named for the Punjab, a region in northern India and Eastern Pakistan. It has close to 150 million native speakers – more than Hausa, although by total number of speakers it’s not clear whether Hausa or Punjabi is bigger.

The most commonly spoken language in Pakistan, Punjabi is a member of the Indo-Aryan family. It’s also spoken by a wide diaspora – it’s the fourth most common language in the United Kingdom!

Punjabi, along with its fellow Indo–Aryan languages like Hindi/Urdu and Bengali, is a very distant cousin of English (All are part of the wider Indo-European language family). What makes Punjabi very unusual among its Indo-European relatives is that it’s a tonal language.

3. Telugu

Number of native speakers: 80 million
Number of non-natives: 12 million
Total number of speakers: 92 million
Language family: Dravidian
Related to: Tamil, Malayalam, Kannada
Name in the language itself: తెలుగు (Telugu)

I’ve already mentioned three South Asian languages: Hindustani, Bengali, and Punjab. Those are all from the Indo-European family. The next biggest South Asian language is Telugu, which is a Dravidian language (meaning that, unlike the first three, it has no known relation to English).

Telugu is the third most-common language in India, spoken mainly in the southeast of the country. It has about 75 million native speakers. That’s more than the population of the U.K.!

Telugu is the fifteenth most-spoken language worldwide, and has its own rather beautiful writing system. In the language itself, the alphabet is called “తెలుగు లిపి” (Telugu lipi).

4. Javanese

Number of native speakers: 84 million
Number of non-natives: negligible
Total number of speakers: 84 million
Language family: Austronesian
Related to: Malay, Tagalog
Name in the language itself: basa Jawa

I covered bahasa indonesia above. But Indonesia, with 260 million people spread over more than 17,000 islands, is home to some extraordinarily diverse cultures, and has over 700 living languages.

Most Indonesians speak a local language as well as Indonesian. The most common of those local languages is Javanese, which is spoken on (you guessed it) the island of Java. More than half of Indonesia’s population lives on Java, making it the most populous island not just in Indonesia but in the entire world.

Javanese is related to Indonesian, but not super-closely; they’re very much separate languages. As the Indonesian government only recognises Indonesian as the official language, this makes Java the largest language in the world not to have official status in any country.

5. Southern Quechua

Number of native speakers: 6 million
Number of non-natives: 1 million
Total number of speakers: 7 million
Language family: Quechua
Name in the language itself: Quechua

Southern Quechua has about 7 million speakers, which means it’s not nearly as big as some of the other languages I could have included. For example, Gujarati and Malayalam have far more speakers but I’ve covered enough Indian languages already.

So what makes Southern Quechua interesting? In my mind it deserves an honourable mention, because it’s the biggest of all indigenous American languages. Sadly, the Western hemisphere isn’t nearly as linguistically diverse as it used to be, but Southern Quechua is still going strong.

Note that people often call this language simply Quechua – but, to be precise, “Quechua” is more of a language family than one specific language. “Southern Quechua” is used to refer to the largest grouping of mutually intelligible dialects in the Quechua family. Its native speakers mostly live in Peru and Bolivia.

Another honourable mention should go to Guaraní. It has about 6 million speakers, so it’s not huge. But it has the distinction of being the only native American language to have official status in any country (specifically, Paraguay.) It’s also the only such language that’s widely spoken by a large number of non-native people – many Guaraní-speaking Paraguayans are of European, not indigenous, descent.

There are many other languages I could include on this list – such as Sundanese (spoken by 15% of the population of Java), or Kannada, which is spoken not in the country whose name it resembles but India. (Seriously, India is huge.) This all goes to show – you’ll never run out of languages to learn!

Are you surprised by any of the the most spoken languages? Are there any languages you were surprised weren’t included? Do you think this list is likely to change in the near future – which languages are shrinking, and which are growing? When deciding which language to learn, does it matter how many speakers it has? Let me know your thoughts in the comments.

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