Recently, we took a look at how many languages there are in the world
today. The answer was quite astounding and proved that there are even more languages out there than we can imagine. Many of these languages, however, have very few remaining speakers. While many of the world's endangered languages have increasingly fewer speakers, the world's largest languages continuing growing. In fact, the difference is so great that the world's most spoken language has over one billion speakers while some of the world's least spoken languages are down to only a handful.
So what are some of the world's most spoken languages, and what has contributed to their growth?
I decided to discover the 15 most spoken languages in the world and take a look at their total number of speakers, their geographic location, and what has made them so important in the world today.
Despite all of the information available, this was not an easy task, because no sources seem to agree upon the total number of speakers since this information isn't readily available for many languages. In the end, I opted for the information provided by SIL International's Ethnologue
, an online publication dedicated to researching the world's languages, along with the information provided by the 2010 Swedish Nationalencykopedin
It is important to note that identifying a language and its constantly changing number of speakers is a nearly impossible task, and all of these numbers are educated estimates. In order to determine the total number of speakers, these sources provided the estimated number of native speakers (speakers who learn X language as their first language), and non-native speakers (speakers who learn X language as a foreign language).
Let's take a look at 15 of the world's most spoken languages, their estimated number of speakers, where they are spoken, and what has made them such widely spoken languages.
Note: All numbers have been updated according to the SIL International Ethnologue study in 2019.
The 15 Most Spoken Languages
1. Mandarin Chinese
- Native speakers (2019): 917.8 million
- Non-Native speakers: 198.7 million
- Widely spoken in: China, Taiwan, and Singapore
Mandarin Chinese takes the cake as the world's most spoken language based on its tremendous number of native speakers. As the standard official and literary form of Chinese based on the Beijing dialect and one of the official languages of the United Nations, Mandarin is the second most popular online language, and it continues growing. A recent British Council report
cited Chinese as one of the top 10 most important languages of the future.
- Native speakers (2019): 379 million
- Non-native speakers: 753.3 million
- Widely spoken in: the United Kingdom (England, Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland), Republic of Ireland, Africa (as a lingua franca, official or educational language in 20 countries), the Americas and the Caribbean (Canada and the United States as well as in 15 Caribbean countries), Asia (India, Pakistan, the Philippines, Singapore and Sri Lanka), Australia and the Pacific Islands (Australia, New Zealand and over 15 pacific islands)
The wide spread of English around the globe and its presence in some of the world's most economically influential countries have given English its place as the world's second most spoken language. It is the most used language on the internet and one of the United Nation's official languages. It is interesting to note that the number of non-native English speakers nearly doubles the number of native English speakers, making it the world's most learned and spoken foreign language. The number of native speakers in 2019 has only slightly increased since 2017, while the number of non-native speakers continues increasing steeply.
- Native speakers (2019): 460.1 million
- Non-native speakers: 74.2 million
- Widely spoken in: Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Equatorial Guinea, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Puerto Rico, Spain, Uruguay, and Venezuela, and widely spoken in over 20 more countries
The prominence of Spanish in the Americas and Europe has led Spanish to become one of the world's most spoken languages with over 460 million native speakers and a growing number of non-native speakers. It is also one of the official languages of the United Nations. It's an official, national, or widely spoken language in 44 countries, including the United States. Believe it or not, the United States has recently been cited as the second largest Spanish-speaking country in the world, after Mexico.
- Native speakers (2019): 341.2 million
- Non-native speakers: 274.2 million
- Widely spoken in: India, Nepal, Fiji, and Pakistan
The standard and Sanskrit register of the Hindustani language known as Hindi is one of India's official languages, and its large population of Indian speakers has led Hindi to become one of the world's most spoken languages. According to linguistic standards, Hindi and Urdu are the same language; however, due to some key differences between their writing systems and vocabulary, they will be considered separately for the sake of this list.
- Native speakers (2019): 273.9 million
- Non-native speakers (estimated): 132 million
- Widely spoken in: Algeria, Bahrain, Comoros, Chad, Djibouti, Egypt, Eritrea, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, United Arab Emirates, Yemen, Palestine and Western Sahara
While it is difficult to narrow down exactly how many Arabic speakers there are in the world today, it's estimated that there are over 422 million speakers total, 273.9 million of which are native speakers. As an official language of the United Nations and the liturgical language of over 1.6 billion Muslims, Arabic is without a doubt one of the world's most spoken languages and has even contributed over 4,000 loan words to the Spanish language.
- Standard Malay native speakers (2019): 43.3 million
- Indonesian native speakers: 155.3 million
- Widely spoken in: Indonesia, Brunei, Malaysia, Thailand and Singapore
Malay is found in the Austronesian language family and is spoken throughout the Malaysian peninsula. While there are about 18 million people who speak Standard Malay, there are over 170 million people who speak Indonesian, which is a close form of Malay.
- Native speakers (2019): 77.2 million
- Non-native speakers: 202.6 million
- Widely spoken in: Europe (France, Belgium, Luxembourg, Monaca, Switzerland), Africa (spoken in over 26 countries, including Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco), the Americas and the Caribbean (Canada, Haiti, French Guiana, Martinique, and Guadeloupe), and in three Pacific Islands
French is the official language of over 29 countries throughout the world and is the second-most widely spoken first language in the European Union. The colonial history of France has helped spread this language throughout the world and, like in the case of English, has led to a situation in which there are more non-native French speakers than native speakers. French is also one of the United Nations' six official languages.
- Native speakers (2019): 220.7 million
- Non-native speakers (2019): 13.4 million
- Widely spoken in: Brazil, Portugal, Mozambique, Cape Verde, Angola, Guinea-Bissau and São Tomé
Of the nearly 220.7 million native Portuguese speakers, over 150 million speak Brazilian Portuguese, the most common variation, due to Brazil's large population. Apart from Portugal and Brazil, Portuguese colonization also led the language to be spoken in several African countries.
- Native speakers (2019): 228.3 million
- Non-native speakers: 36.7 million
- Widely spoken in: India and Bangladesh
Bengali is the second most widely spoken language in India and is primarily spoken in the easternmost states of the country, as well as in Bangladesh. There is a strong history of Bengali nationalism that has led to its rich literary tradition and cultural diversity.
- Native speakers (2019): 153.7 million
- Non-native speakers: 104.4 million
- Widely spoken in: Russia and countries that occupy the former Soviet Union (Armenia, Azerbaijan, Byelorussia, Estonia, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Ukraine)
Russian is an official language of the United Nations due to the historical power of the Soviet Union. Estimates of the number of Russian speakers around the world vary, but sources indicate between 200 and 260 million native speakers. This number is, however, slowly decreasing thanks to the breaking up of the Soviet Union and the consequent rising number of speakers of other languages in former Soviet Union countries.
- Native speakers (2019): 76 million
- Non-native speakers: 56 million
- Widely spoken in: Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Belgium and Luxembourg
As the most populated county in the European Union, the vast majority of the world's German speakers live in Germany, but other German speakers can be found in nearby European countries such as Austria, Belgium, Switzerland and Luxembourg. Interestingly, non-native speakers make up nearly two thirds of the world's German speakers.
- Native speakers (2019): 128.2 million
- Non-native speakers (estimated): 131,000
- Widely spoken in: Japan
As one of the world's fifteen most spoken languages, Japanese is the most geographically concentrated language since over 124 million of its total speakers live in Japan and the Okinawa island group. The dense population of these areas contributes to its large number of speakers.
- Native speakers (2019): 92.7 million
- Widely spoken in: Pakistan and India
Lahnda is the collective name given to the group of languages and dialects primarily spoken in the Punjab region of Pakistan and India also known as Punjabi. It is the only living Indo-European language that is a fully tonal language.
- Native speakers (2019): 68.2 million
- Widely spoken in: Indonesia and Suriname
Javanese is an Austronesian language spoken by over 68 million people in Indonesia and Suriname. As the most populated island on earth, Java is home to more than 124 million people, over half of which speak Javanese as a native language.
- Native speakers (2019): 82 million
- Non-native speakers: 11 million
- Widely spoken in: India
Telugu is India's third most used language with over 82 million total native speakers and about eleven million non-native speakers. It is mainly spoken in the southern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh, where it is an official language.
- Native speakers (2019): 77.2 million
- Widely used in: The Korean Peninsula
Korean is the official language of the Republic of Korean and the Democratic Republic of Korea, although each nation uses different forms. Apart from being spoken in North and South Korea, there is also a large population of Korean speakers in China. The standard language in both regions is based on the Seoul dialect.
It's Time to Start Learning
As of 2017, these fifteen languages were spoken by nearly half of the entire world. As an English speaker, you can statistically communicate with about 12% of people around the globe, but by learning another one of the world's most spoken languages, you could drastically increase your networking abilities, professional opportunities, personal skills and travel opportunities.
So what are you waiting for? Start learning one of the world's most spoken languages today
and open up a whole new world of possibilities.