Almost half of the world’s population claims one of 10 languages as their mother tongue.
Determining which are the most spoken languages in the world is a more difficult task than you might imagine. We can confidently say that Mandarin, English, Spanish, and Arabic (in roughly that order) will appear, but there are also some surprises!
Would you have guessed that Bengali is among the top 10 most spoken languages?
A small caveat: it is practically impossible to assign hard data in the form of “X million native speakers” to any of these languages. A language or dialect is a hotly contested matter. It is very troubling that what we refer to as “Chinese” is actually an entire language family conveniently lumped into one category. “Hindi” is also used as a catchall term that covers many dialects and sub-dialects. We have yet to agree on the reliability of data sources collected by different organizations at different times. The numbers below are compiled by Ethnologue, which is widely regarded as the most complete language data source in existence.
But then again, who doesn’t love a good list? So we have compiled two versions for you.
Most spoken languages
Top 10 languages by number of native speakers
These are the most spoken languages in the world when calculated by the number of native speakers.
1. Chinese — 1.3 billion native speakers
Map of China
The numbers vary widely – Ethnologies’ puts the number of native speakers at 1.3 billion, of whom about 1.1 billion speak Mandarin – but it is undoubtedly the most widely spoken language in the world. If you want to learn a language spoken by one in six people in the world, this is for you. Since Chinese is a tonal language that uses thousands of logograms, it will keep you busy.
2. Spanish – 471 million native speakers
Spain, Mexico, Guatemala, Colombia, Venezuela, El Salvador, Panama
If we look only at native speakers, Spanish is ahead of English with about 471 million speakers. If you want a language that opens up entire continents to you, Spanish is your best bet. As with all the languages on this list, the politics of language and its associated identity are highly contested: ask Catalan or Quechua speakers if Spanish is their local language, and you’ll get a very different answer. But it’s certainly the primary language of most of South and Central America, Spain, and, ahem, large parts of the United States.
3. English — 370 million native speakers
Map showing English-speaking countries: UK, USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand
If you’re reading this article, you’re probably one of the 370 million-odd English speakers or one of the 978 million people who speak it as a second language. It represents the remarkable success of English as a language of business, travel and international relations. Because English (especially when compared to Chinese) is relatively simple, the pervasive soft power of American culture means that English will continue to dominate the world stage for the foreseeable future. For some, English is still synonymous with opportunity and a better quality of life.
4. Hindi — 342 million native speakers
Map of India, highlighting regions where Hindi is spoken
India has 23 official languages, of which Hindi/Urdu is the most important. Whether it is one language – Hindustani – or two dialects is still hotly debated. Hindi, spoken mainly in northern India and parts of Pakistan, uses the Devanagari script, while Urdu uses the Persian script. If you ever travel to the Indian subcontinent, a little Hindi will go a long way. And, it’s this language that gave us Shampoo, Jungle, Jodhpur, and Bangla — what’s not to love?
5. Arabic – 315 million native speakers
Map of Arabic-speaking countries in the Middle East and North Africa
The latest numbers put the number of Arabic speakers at around 315 million. But this is another example of how numbers don’t tell the whole story: Arabic, like Chinese, is so diverse in its respective dialects that there are effectively several languages that are lumped together for convenience. Modern Standard Arabic is primarily a written form closely related to the classical Arabic of the Qur’an. However, in Oman and Morocco The Arabic languages spoken are so different that two philosophy professors from these countries can discuss the intricacies of ancient texts while struggling to order lunch.
6. Portuguese — 232 million native speakers
Map showing countries where Portuguese is spoken: Portugal, Brazil, Angola, Mozambique
It is another language that owes a lot to its colonial past. Beginning in the 15th century, industrious Portuguese traders and conquistadors brought their language to Africa, Asia, and the Americas. The spread of the Portuguese language may have been initially linked to European colonization, but the colonial countries developed their own vibrant cultures that changed the language forever. Today, Portuguese is spoken by 232 million native speakers in countries such as Brazil, Goa, Angola, Mozambique, Cape Verde, Guinea-Bissau, Sao Tome, Principe, and Macau. It is also the language of Machado de Asis, Bosa Nova, Mia Guto, Fernando Pessoa, and Aguilera.
7. Bengali – 229 million native speakers
Most Spoken Languages – Bengali
Admit it: You wouldn’t expect Bengali to be on the list of most spoken languages. The Partition of Bengal by the British in 1947 separated (predominantly Hindu) West Bengal, now part of India, from its (predominantly Muslim) East Bengal, now Bangladesh. It’s Kolkata, the Andaman Islands, amazing desserts, and the language of 130 million Bangladeshis – many of whom are extremely vulnerable to climate change. Over the next century, the population is expected to double, while 15 percent of the land area is expected to disappear beneath rising seas.
8. Russian – 154 million native speakers
Map of Russia
With approximately 154 million native speakers, Russian is the eighth most spoken language in the world. Famed for its unintelligible grammar and extremely beautiful Cyrillic script, it is one of the six languages spoken by the United Nations and has produced literary figures such as Dostoyevsky, Nabokov, Chekhov, Gogol, Tolstoy and Pushkin.
9. Japanese – 126 million native speakers
Map of Japan
Almost all of the 126 million native Japanese speakers live in Japan – certainly the most geographically concentrated of all the languages on this list. Japanese has two distinct writing systems, hiragana and katakana, and makes extensive use of the Chinese kanji alphabet. The largest groups of Japanese speakers living outside of Japan are found in the United States, the Philippines, and Brazil.
10. Lahanta (West Punjabi) — 118 million native speakers
Map of India and Pakistan, highlighting the area where Punjabi is spoken
With varying estimates of around 118 million native speakers, last on the list goes to… Lahanda, a Pakistani macrolanguage that primarily includes West Punjabi! (Sorry, German — you were kicked out of the world’s top languages a few years ago.) That doesn’t even include Eastern Punjabi, which is spoken in India. When they left Punjab was cut in two by the British and millions were forced to abandon their homes, businesses and families. But they are slowly getting their revenge, Bollywood style: Punjabi songs now top 50 percent of the charts. It’s a comeback if we’ve ever seen one.
Top 10 languages by total number of speakers
Calculated by the total number of people speaking the top 10 most spoken languages (whether the language is their mother tongue or not), eight of the 10 languages from the above list still appear, but with some major language differences: English narrowly overtakes Chinese to take the top spot, Japanese and Punjabi lose their places, and French and Indonesian languages join the top 10 because more people speak it as a second language than as a mother tongue.
1.348 billion total speakers
2. Mandarin Chinese
1.120 billion total speakers
A total of 600 million speakers
543 million total speakers
5. Standard Arabic
274 million total speakers
268 million total speakers
267 million total speakers
258 million total speakers
258 million total speakers
230 million total speakers
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