The Mezzofanti Guild Language Learning Made Simple

The 12 Most Spoken Languages In The World (+ A Few Extras)


Ever wanted to know what the most spoken languages in the world are?

The list might surprise you (it did me).

But before we get into the list of the most spoken languages in the world, there are few points we have to take into consideration.

1. Let’s define who the speakers of the languages are.

When you say “French speakers” for example, are you talking about native French speakers? Or does that include native + non-native French speakers (people who speak it as a second language)? You get some very different answers depending on your definition of “speakers”! 🙂

2. Are regional varieties or dialects included or are they separate?

As you’ll see below with languages like Arabic, there can often be many different regional dialects or flavors of the language. In some cases, there’s even dispute over whether or not they’re dialects or completely separate languages.

Regardless, today we’ve gathered up a bunch of the most recent data on linguistic demography to give you the answers you’re looking for.

Keep reading to see the most spoken languages in the world. 🙂

In a hurry? Here’s a quick list (TL;DR):

Language # of speakers
English 1.13 billion
Mandarin Chinese 1.11 billion
Hindi 615 million
Spanish 534 million
Arabic 420 million
French 280 million
Bengali 265 million
Russian 258 million
Portuguese 234 million
Indonesian 200 million
Urdu 170 million
German 132 million

Table of contents:

  1. English
  2. Mandarin Chinese
  3. Hindi
  4. Spanish
  5. Arabic
  6. French
  7. Bengali
  8. Russian
  9. Portuguese
  10. Indonesian
  11. Urdu
  12. German

 

Here are the 12 most spoken languages in the world

1. English (1.13 billion)

# of speakers: 1.13 billion
Language name: English
Language family: Germanic

English is the most spoken language on earth.

It may surprise some people to know that English is actually a Germanic language and shares close etymological history with German, Dutch and Frisian. Although it is Germanic, English also draws heavily on French, Latin and even Greek.

Some of the Germanic tribes that migrated to the British Isles centuries ago were called the Angles, and it’s from their name that English derives itself.

English is the global lingua franca of the world – the common language that is used almost everywhere due to English colonialism, American media and the Internet.

Recommended reading: I wrote a detailed post on the history of Australian English. Well worth a read! 🙂

2. Mandarin Chinese (1.11 billion)

# of speakers: 1.1 billion
Language name: 普通话 (putonghua)
Language family: Sino-Tibetan

What a lot of people don’t realize is that Chinese isn’t a language. The People’s Republic of China (+ Taiwan and Singapore) is far from homogeneous – it’s huge! It covers a vast area that includes many different people groups and languages (which all under the umbrella term Chinese). It’s a group of languages, the main one being Mandarin (spoken by over 70% of the Chinese population).

The language we call ‘Mandarin’ which originated in the northern part of China is actually called 普通 (putonghua) by native speakers, which literally means “ordinary” or “common” (referring to speech).

It’s spoken by people all over the world and the main language of the Chinese diaspora (also taught in many Western schools as a foreign language).

You’ve probably come across the two main “versions” of Chinese writing (used by Mandarin speakers) – traditional and simplified. The traditional version is used a lot in places like Taiwan and Hong Kong, whereas the simplified version is more common in mainland China.

Resources: See my Mandarin Chinese resources page where I list all my personal favorites for learning the language.

3. Hindi (615 million)

# of speakers: 615 million
Language name: हिन्दी话 (hindi)
Language family: Indo-Aryan

Technically, Hindi and Urdu (number 11) are the same language (minor differences) and both fall under an umbrella term called Hindustani. Under this term, there are also other geographically distant variations such as Fijian Hindi and Suriname Hindi.

For the sake of clarity, I’ve separated them for this list.

Hindi is widely believed to be the official language of India but it’s not – it’s just one of the most dominant and well-known.

The language is written in the Devanagari script, an ancient writing form going back thousands of years.

Resources: See my Hindi resources page where I list all my personal favorites for learning the language.

4. Spanish (534 million)

# of speakers: 534 million
Language name: español
Language family: Romance

Of the European languages that spread via colonialism, Spanish was a fairly close second to English in terms of its far-reaching dominance.

In addition to Spain, it’s the official first language in most of Central and South America, parts of Africa and even SE Asia.

The USA is fast becoming one of the largest Spanish-speaking nations on earth with large Latin American communities spread across the country.

Resources: See my Spanish resources page where I list all my personal favorites for learning the language.

Recommended reading: See these brilliant posts on how to learn Spanish numbers and verb conjugations.

5. Arabic (460 million)

# of speakers: 460 million
Language name: العربية (al-3arabiya)
Language family: Semitic

Arabic’s a tricky language to quantify.

The reason why I say this is because of the ongoing disagreements over whether or not Arabic is one single language or many individual languages.

It covers a wide range of dialects stretching from the Arabian peninsular all the way across to Morocco. 26 countries have it as their official language!

You have Modern Standard Arabic, which is the standard “media” Arabic (and language of politics), but then each country has its own dialects and sub-dialects. Some of these dialects are so different that speakers from far away can barely understand them.

The language is significant not just to ethnic Arabs but Muslims all over the world from all ethnicities as it’s the language of the Quran (most Muslim believers are not actually Arabs and don’t know Arabic). For Muslims, they tend to learn Classical Arabic (from which Modern Standard Arabic is derived) in order to read their holy text.

Resource: Take a look at TalkInArabic.com (a popular resource for learning 8 different dialects of spoken Arabic).

Recommended reading: See my post where I explain how to learn Arabic (from over 15 years experience).

6. French (280 million)

# of speakers: 280 million
Language name: français
Language family: Romance

French derives itself from the Germanic tribe of the Franks in Europe centuries ago.

Despite its Germanic origin, French is actually classified as a Romance language and is very closely related to other Latin-based European languages like Italian and Spanish. It also has inherited vocabulary from Gaulish, the indigenous Celtic language of the region during the Roman Empire.

French has heavily influenced English so there are many words present in English that are the same or very similar.

Like other European countries, France was very active during the colonial period sailing around the world and spreading French influence. For this reason, many countries around the world today still speak French as a first or official language (including places like Tahiti and West Africa).

Resources: See my French resources page where I list all my personal favorites for learning the language.

7. Bengali (265 million)

# of speakers: 265 million
Language name: বাংলা (bangla)
Language family: Indo-Aryan

After Hindi, Bengali is the next most common language in India and (of course), the native/official language of Bangladesh.

It actually has its own alphabet which is called (surprise) Bengali script and is one of the most common and widely-used writing systems in the world.

8. Russian (258 million)

# of speakers: 258 million
Language name: русский (ruski)
Language family: Slavic

Russia’s a massive country (in case you haven’t noticed!). 🙂

It’s geographically the largest country on earth which means there are a multitude of different people groups and languages within its borders (I lived in Tatarstan for example where Tatar is the official local language).

But Russian is the official language of the country (and few other neighboring countries). It’s also the largest Slavic language (closely related to other Eastern European languages).

It’s written in an alphabet called Cyrillic which is somewhat similar in appearance to Greek.

Resources: See my Russian resources page where I list all my personal favorites for learning the language.

Recommended reading: See this post on how to start learning Russian.

9. Portuguese (234 million)

# of speakers: 234 million
Language name: português
Language family: Romance

Portuguese is obviously the native language of Portugal in Europe and is also the first and official language of Brazil in South America.

As well as Brazil, there are various parts of South-East Asia, India and even Africa that speak Portuguese today. This is a result of Portuguese colonialists who sailed all over the world at the time that other European countries were doing the same.

Brazil is the only country in South America that has Portuguese as an official main language instead of Spanish.

That being said, Portuguese is very closely related to the Spanish language.

Resources: See my Portuguese resources page where I list all my personal favorites for learning the language.

Recommended reading: See this post on the difference between European and Brazilian Portuguese.

10. Indonesian (200 million)

# of speakers: 200 million
Language name: bahasa
Language family: Austronesian

Bahasa Indonesian, the official language, is one of a staggering 700 languages spoken in Indonesia.

It’s very closely related to nearby Malay languages (it’s a variety of Malay), though the languages have each received very different European influences (some being more heavily influenced by English whereas Indonesian has been influenced by Dutch).

It even shares a distant connection to New Zealand Maori. 🙂

Resource: Check out IndonesianPod101 if you want to learn this language.

11. Urdu (170 million)

# of speakers: 170 million
Language name: اُردُو (urdu)
Language family: Indo-Aryan

As I mentioned above, Urdu is under the Hindustani umbrella and mutually intelligible with Hindi. I’ve separated the languages for this list but technically, they could be listed under one name.

Urdu is the official language of Pakistan (it’s really just a national and religious divide that separates it from Hindi).

One of the chief differences between Urdu and Hindi is the writing system – Urdu stands out because it uses a Persian-derived script (very similar to Arabic in appearance).

12. German (132 million)

# of speakers: 84 million
Language name: Deutsch
Language family: Germanic

German’s the official and native language of… you guessed it… Germany. 🙂

As well as Germany, it’s also spoken in Austria, Switzerland, parts of Italy, Belgium, Luxembourg and other small pockets of Europe.

While not as widespread as other colonial languages, it may surprise some to learn that German is still widely used in Namibia (Africa), although it’s been persecuted to some extent in the post-apartheid era.

Another fun fact is that North and South Dakota (USA) still have strong German-speaking communities and heritage.

Resources: See my German resources page where I list all my personal favorites for learning the language.

Recommended reading: See our post on learning German using English cognates.

 

Other languages that are enormous and close contenders to the most spoken languages mentioned above

So we’ve covered the 12 most spoken languages in the world above.

But there are just so many languages in the world with enormous numbers of speakers – many of which most people haven’t even heard of and couldn’t locate on a map!

So here are a few more widely-spoken languages for good measure that you may not have heard of.

Japanese

# of speakers: 128 million
Language name: 日本語 (nihongo)
Language family: Japonic

The prehistory of the Japanese language has long been debated, as it’s not actually related to Chinese (despite using Chinese characters in writing).

It has many similarities in style and structure to Korean but there is disagreement over whether or not Korean and Japanese share any common origin.

Currently it’s not actually the “official” language of Japan but is de facto official.

There are native and non-native speakers all over the world and Japanese remains one of the most popular foreign languages to learn.

Recommended reading: Take a look at my FluentU review which is a really popular platform for learning Japanese.

Resources: I have an up-to-date Japanese language resources page that you should visit if you want to learn the language!

Swahili

# of speakers: 98 million
Language name: kiswahili
Language family: Niger-Congo

Swahili is the common language (lingua france) of an enormous chunk of the African continent, including countries such as Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda and Rwanda (to name a few).

The Swahili language, although not a Semitic language, is heavily influenced by Arabic and has many loan words.

Resource: I highly recommend SwahiliPod101 if you’re interested in learning Swahili.

Marathi

# of speakers: 95 million
Language name: मराठी (marathi)
Language family: Indo-Aryan

Marathi is native to the Marathi people of Maharashtra in India where it’s the official language.

Fun fact: Marathi has some of the oldest discovered writing of any Indian language, dating all the way back to 600 BC.

It uses the Devangari script.

Telugu

# of speakers: 93 million
Language name: తెలుగు (telugu)
Language family: Dravidian

Telugu’s a Dravidian language (a family of languages spoken in southern areas and places like Sri Lanka).

The Telugu language has its own unique and distinct writing system and is one of 6 official ‘classical’ languages designated by the Indian government.

Lahnda (Western Punjabi)

# of speakers: 93 million
Language name: پنجابی (punjabi)
Language family: Indo-Aryan

Lahnda literally means ‘western’ in Punjabi and is spoken in the north-west of Pakistan in the Punjab region.

Two fun facts: a) Punjabi is tonal like some of the East Asian languages and b) it’s one of the largest languages in the UK, as so many Pakistanis have migrated to Britain in recent decades.


So there you have it.

If you’re anything like me, you’re probably surprised by some of these languages (perhaps you never even heard of one or two of them!). 🙂

It just goes to show how big this world and its many people groups are.

Aside from travel, it’s also a good reminder that learning these languages can be a great career move for you (I wrote about careers and foreign languages once before). Being able to communicate with so many people can open up all kinds of new possibilities for you.

Share this article with your readers if you found it interesting.


Have I missed any or made a factual error with the numbers?

Comment below and let me know!

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