What Are The Most Spoken Languages In The World?

By Emma Caplan on August 30 2020 in World Facts

Technology has allowed us to break down language barriers and communicate with people around the world. Image credit: cybrain/Shutterstock
Technology has allowed us to break down language barriers and communicate with people around the world. Image credit: cybrain/Shutterstock
  • English is the most spoken language in the world, with nearly 1.13 billion speakers.
  • Three of the 44 romance languages are in the top ten most spoken languages: Spanish, French, and Portuguese.
  • The top five to ten spoken languages in the world are very close in number of speakers, ranging from 199-280 million speakers.

Languages have historically spread through trade, conquests, colonization, immigration, and cultural interactions. English is the most spoken language in the world, with nearly 1.13 billion speakers (of whom about 379 million speak it natively). That being said, English does not rank first in terms of the number of native speakers. Rather, it has gained prominence mostly from its popularity as a foreign language subject, and the. Here is an analysis of the world's most popular languages in terms of both native speakers and those who have learned the language.

1. English - 1.13 billion speakers

The earliest forms of English were introduced to Britain by a succession of invaders. From Germanic tribes, Celts, and Vikings to Normans, English developed from several linguistic influences. From Britain, the language spread through colonizing conquests, trade, and interactions.

Today, English is the language of international business and is the primary official language of the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Nigeria, Australia, and Namibia, among other countries. Mostly thanks to globalization and the popularity of American and British media, the use of English has been further increasing, particularly among younger people.

2. Mandarin - 1.12 billion speakers

Mandarin Chinese is the second most popular spoken language in the world with a total of 1.12 billion speakers. Mandarin is part of the Sino-Tibetan linguistic family which stretches across much of Asia. From their origin in China, the five main Chinese languages (Mandarin, Yue which includes Cantonese, Min, Wu, and Hakka) are also widely spoken in Taiwan, Singapore, and Malaysia.

The Chinese languages consist of several dialects, which can vary considerably from one another. They can be written with traditional characters, but a government initiative from 1949 designed to make the languages easier to learn resulted in more simplified characters.

Written Mandarin Chinese learning materials. Image credit: James Stuart Griffith/Shutterstock

3. Hindi - 615 million speakers

Hindi's roots go back to Sanskrit, an early language spoken by Aryan settlers in northwest India about three thousand years ago. Over the centuries, Hindi was influenced by Dravidian, Turkic, Portuguese, Persian, Arabic, and English. With 615 million speakers worldwide, Hindi is the dominant language in India, and it is also spoken in Nepal, the US, South Africa, Yemen, and Mauritius.

4. Spanish - 534 million speakers

Spanish emerged in the Iberian Peninsula (today, Spain and Portugal) from interactions between the Celtic-speaking Celtiberians and the Latin-speaking Romans. After the invasion of the North-African Arabs and Germanic tribes, the Castilian dialect emerged which brought about standardized Spanish. Spanish is the official language in Spain and numerous Latin-American countries such as Argentina, El Salvador, Chile, Mexico, Guatemala, and Costa Rica. In fact, countries like Mexico and Columbia, former Spanish colonies, have more native speakers of Spanish than Spain itself, where dialects like Catalan and Basque are also spoken.

5. French - 280 million speakers

The Romance language of French is spoken by about 280 million people worldwide. Historically, French was adopted by the invading Germanic group of Franks, and it was influenced by Germanic elements, Latin, and the Gaulish language. Aside from its origin in France, French is also spoken in Belgium, Luxembourg, Switzerland, Canada, Ivory Coast, Mali, and Haiti. French is a common second or even sometimes first language in many African countries because of extensive colonization there. 

6. Standard Arabic - 274 million speakers

Standard Arabic is part of the Semitic languages which originated in the Arabian Peninsula. Nomad tribes in the Arabian Peninsula facilitated the spread of this language as they moved from one region to another. Arabic is widely spoken in the Middle-East and several Asian countries, including the United Arab Emirates, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Sudan, Qatar, Afghanistan, Iran, and Indonesia. There are also many dialects of Arabic besides Standard Arabic that are spoken in different regions. If all those dialects were included in the count, the number of Arabic speakers is higher than 274 million.

7. Bengali - 265 million speakers

Bengali is spoken by about 265 million people throughout the world. This language is Indo-Aryan and descended from the Sanskrit and Magadhi Prakrit dialects spoken in Bengal. Bengali is the official language in Bangladesh and is widely spoken in India and Sierra Leone as well as in the UK, the US, and the Middle East.

Ancient Sanskrit text etched into a stone tablet. Sanskrit is an ancient language and the ancestor of Bengali and Hindi. Image credit: Nila Newsom/Shutterstock

8. Russian - 258 million speakers

The Russian language is Slavic, from the Indo-European linguistic family. It developed from the Polanian dialect, which was popular in Kyiv, the capital of the first East Slavic state 1,000 years ago, Kyivan Rus. Russian is the official language of Russia and is also spoken in Ukraine, Latvia, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Lithuania, countries of the former Soviet Union.

9. Portuguese - 234 million speakers

Portuguese is the ninth most commonly spoken language in the world. Portuguese is a Romance language that developed in the western region of the Iberian Peninsula (now Portugal and Spain). It is the official language in Portugal as well as Angola, Brazil, Cape Verde, East Timor, Mozambique, and Guinea-Bissau as a result of Portuguese colonization.

10. Indonesian - 199 million speakers 

Indonesian is a dialect of Malay and the only one from the Austronesian family of languages to appear on this list of the ten most spoken languages. For centuries was used in the Indonesian archipelago as a Lingua Franca, meaning a language used for native speakers of different languages to communicate. In 1945, when Indonesia was declared independent from the Netherlands, Indonesian became the country's official language. It is typical to hear and see Indonesian in larger urban areas, whereas the rural areas and towns tend to use one or more of the country's local languages.

It can be easy to forget that there are thousands of languages in the world, when so many of us in English-speaking countries are lucky to know two, let alone three. In New York City alone, it is estimated that over 800 languages can be heard. Many Indigenous languages are also in danger of dying out because of a lack of native speakers to keep it thriving, and the domination of languages like English or Spanish in those regions. Committing to learning a language, either a language of your ancestors or just one of interest, is an enriching and beneficial activity.

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