Determining which are the most spoken languages in the world is a more difficult task than you might imagine. We can say with some confidence that Mandarin, English, Spanish and Arabic will appear (and roughly in what order), but there are also some surprises! Would you have guessed that Bengali is among the top 10 most spoken languages?
A small caveat: assigning hard data, in the form of “X million native speakers,” to any of these languages is virtually impossible. What constitutes a language or a dialect is a highly controversial issue. More troubling is the fact that what we call simply “Chinese” is actually a whole family of languages conveniently lumped into a single category. “Hindi” is also used as an umbrella term to cover numerous dialects and subdialects. We have not even recognized yet the unreliability of the data sources, compiled at different times by different institutions.
When counted only according to the number of native speakers, these are the most spoken languages in the world.
1. Chinese: 1.3 billion native speakers
The numbers vary widely: Ethnologue puts the number of native speakers at 1.3 billion native speakers, approximately 917 million of whom speak Mandarin , but there is no doubt that it is the most spoken language in the world. If you want to learn a language that is spoken by one in six people in the world, this is the one for you. Since Chinese is a tonal language that uses thousands of logograms, it will certainly keep you busy.
2. Spanish: 460 million native speakers
If we were only to look at native speakers, Spanish has its nose in front of English with approximately 460 million speakers. If you want a language that will open up entire continents, Spanish is your best option and studying in Spanish lessons for adults online is the solution. As with all the languages on this list, the politics of the language and associated identity are highly controversial: ask speakers of Catalan or Quechua if Spanish is their local language and you’ll get a very different answer.
But it is certainly the main language of most of South and Central America, Spain and, ahem, large swathes of the US, which is why taking online Spanish courses is so important these days.
3. English: 379 million native speakers
Although only 379 million native speakers speak English, more than 1 billion people have English as a second language. This indicates the remarkable success of English as the lingua franca of business, travel and international relations. The relative ease with which English can be learned (especially in comparison to Chinese) and the pervasive soft power of American culture means that English will continue to dominate the world stage for the foreseeable future. For some, English remains synonymous with opportunity and a better quality of life.
4. Hindi: 341 million native speakers
India has 23 official languages, including Hindi / Urdu. Whether it is one language, Hindustani, or two dialects, is still fiercely debated. Spoken mainly in northern India and parts of Pakistan, Hindi uses the Devnagri script, while Urdu uses the Persian notation. At the time of writing, the debate over its role in Indian education and society has flared up again: Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a Hindu nationalist, is seeking to have Hindi displace English in India’s southern states as the primary language of official communication. and education, a strategy that has met with resistance. If you ever travel to the Indian subcontinent, a little Hindi will take you a long way. Besides, this is the language that gave us shampoo, jungle, jodhpurs and bungalow – what’s not to love?
5. Arabic: 315 million native speakers
Recent figures put Arabic at around 315 million native speakers. But this is another example of numbers not telling the whole story: Arabic, like Chinese, is so vastly different in its respective dialects as to be effectively several languages, lumped together as one for convenience. Modern Standard Arabic is a primarily written form, closely related to the classical Arabic of the Qur’an. However, the spoken forms of Arabic in, say, Oman and Morocco are so different that a couple of philosophy professors from these countries could argue the finer points of the ancient texts while still struggling to order lunch.
6. Bengali: 228 million native speakers
Admit it: I didn’t expect Bengali to be on the list of the most spoken languages. The Partition of Bengal by the British in 1947 divided (mainly Hindu) West Bengal, now part of India, from its (mainly Muslim) counterpart of East Bengal, now Bangladesh. It is the language of Kolkata, the Andaman Islands, fabulous sweets and 130 million Bangladeshis, many of whom are extremely vulnerable to climate change. By the next century, the population is projected to double while 15 percent of the earth’s land surface will disappear below sea level.
7. Portuguese: 220 million native speakers
This is another language whose reach owes much to its colonial past. Beginning in the 15th century, avid Portuguese traders and conquerors took their language to Africa, Asia and the Americas. The expansion of Portuguese may have initially been linked to European colonization, but the colonized countries developed their own vibrant cultures that transformed the language forever. Today, 220 million native speakers speak Portuguese in countries such as Brazil, Goa, Angola, Mozambique, Cape Verde, Guinea-Bissau, Sao Tome and Principe and Macau. It is also the language of Machado de Assis, Bossa Nova, Mia Couto, Fernando Pessoa and Agualusa.
8. Russian: 153 million native speakers
With approximately 153 million native speakers, Russian is the eighth most spoken language in the world. Famous for its inscrutable grammar and rather charming Cyrillic script, it remains one of the six languages spoken at the UN and produced literary works such as Dostoevsky, Nabokov, Chekhov, Gogol, Tolstoy and Pushkin.
9. Japanese: 128 million native speakers
Almost all of the 128 million native speakers of Japanese live in Japan, undoubtedly the most geographically concentrated of all the languages on this list. Japanese has two distinct writing systems, hiragana and katakana, as well as extensive use of Chinese kanji characters. The largest groups of Japanese speakers living outside of Japan are found in the United States, the Philippines and Brazil.
10. Lahnda (West Punjabi): 118 million native speakers
With varying estimates of around 118 million native speakers, the last place on the list goes to… Lahnda, a Pakistani macrolanguage that includes mostly Western Punjabi! (Sorry, German, you were dropped from the world’s top languages a few years ago). That doesn’t even include Eastern Punjabi, which is spoken in India. Punjab was cut in two by the British when they left, and millions of people were forced to abandon their homes, businesses and families. But they are slowly getting their revenge, Bollywood-style: Punjabi songs now account for 50 percent of the charts. That’s a comeback if we’ve ever seen one.