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What’s the most spoken language in the world? What’s the lingua franca of humans on Earth? Considering the plethora of different resources offering very different numbers and opinions, it’s hard to make even a top 5, let alone a top 15 most spoken languages in the world. For one, there is the issue of multiple dialects being accounted for under the same language, of the ever-growing population and of course, the most pressing matter: the date of the last data collection. Despite that, when it comes to first place, the conclusion is quite clear. With over 1.3 billion native and non-native speakers, English seems to be the winner – for now.
Aliens speaking English in all the Hollywood movies doesn’t seem so far-fetched now, does it? Nevertheless, those aliens should better get Mondly and learn Chinese while they still can because English seems to lose ground pretty quickly.
Now bearing in mind the ever-growing population of almost 8 billion people, how many languages do you think are there in the world? Ethnologue, the dictionary of languages, claims there are 7,139 known living languages worldwide. That’s one language for every 1.1 million people. Nonetheless, according to the UNESCO Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger, there are some 240 languages with less than 20 speakers left. Considered critically endangered, these are basically the least spoken languages in the world.
But it’s the most spoken languages you’re interested in, so let’s get back to that. First, we are going to explore the top languages with the most native speakers. And second, the top most spoken languages by total number of speakers (native and non-native).
Most spoken languages in the world by number of native speakers
Here are the languages with the most native speakers in the world according to data from Ethnologue.
1. Mandarin Chinese — 921 million native speakers
With a total of 1.3 billion native speakers and counting, Chinese is the most spoken language in the world by number of native speakers. But what needs to be reminded is that Chinese is in fact a macrolanguage consisting of 13 dialect groups – Mandarin being the most widely spoken – and hundreds of local varieties. Other well-known examples include Wu and Cantonese with over 80 million speakers each.
All these languages are considered ‘Chinese’ due to a shared writing system. However, many of them are not 100% mutually intelligible so they can’t be considered a single language.
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2. Spanish — 471 million native speakers
Along with English, Spanish is one of the most widely spoken languages in the world. With over 543 million speakers (native and non-native), Spanish is also the third most used language on the internet after English and Russian and one of the most taught foreign languages worldwide together with English and French. Additionally, Spanish is the primary language in 20 countries worldwide and one of the easiest languages to learn by a native English speaker.
Taking everything into account, if English is your native language and you want to add a second language under your belt, Spanish surely is one of the best choices.
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3. English — 369 million native speakers
At around 369 million native speakers, English is widely considered the official language of business, travel, and opportunity. The same as Greek and Latin in Antiquity, English is today a lingua franca (a bridge language, a common language, a trade language, a vehicular language, or a link language).
You are reading this article in English right now, so you are probably either an English native speaker or you learned English as a second or third language in school.
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4. Hindi — 342 million native speakers
Not to be confused with Hindustani, which incorporates both Hindi and Urdu, Hindi is the official language of the Government of India, along with English.
While some still argue if Hindi and Urdu are one language or two different dialects, it’s important to emphasize the fact that Hindi is written in the Devanagari script and uses more Sanskrit words and Urdu is written in the Perso-Arabic script and uses more Arabic and Persian words.
Making contact with English has also enriched Hindi. Many English words, such as ‘button’, ‘pencil’, ‘college’, and ‘petrol’ are fully assimilated into the Hindi vocabulary.
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5. Arabic — 315 million native speakers
The 21st edition of Ethnologue puts Arabic in fifth place with 315 million native speakers. Various online resources share this place between Arabic and Hindi, frequently putting Hindi first. But things are a little more complicated than that.
The same as Chinese, Arabic has multiple varieties spoken in countries of the Arab League, minorities in neighboring countries and some parts of Asia, Africa and Europe.
If we were to look at the figures for Modern Standard Arabic only, the total number of speakers would be around 274 million.
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6. Portuguese — 232 million native speakers
Thanks to the Portuguese traders and conquerors from the colonial period, Portuguese is now spread in many areas of the globe with a total of 232 million native speakers. It is also the only official language in 7 countries: Portugal, Brazil, Mozambique, Angola, Cape Verde, Guinea-Bissau and São Tomé and Príncipe.
In addition, Portuguese is the second most spoken language in Latin America (after Spanish) and one of the ten most spoken languages in Africa. While many people claim it is mutually intelligible with Spanish, some even believe they are the same language. This is probably one of the most common language-related misconceptions.
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7. Bengali —228 million native speakers
The Bengali language is an Indo-Aryan language primarily spoken by the Bengalis in the Indian subcontinent. It is the official and most commonly spoken language in Bangladesh.
Recently added to Mondly’s language portfolio, Bengali has developed over the course of more than 1,300 years and its literature is one of the most prolific and diverse literary traditions in Asia. Written from left to right, the Bengali script has a total of 50 letters, 11 vowels and 39 consonants.
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8. Russian — 153 million native speakers
The language of tsars and tsarinas, of Tchaikovsky, Dostoevsky, and magical fairy tales occupies eighth place with 153 million native speakers. Russian is one of the six official UN languages and the official language of Russia, Belarus, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan. It is also widely spoken as a second language and lingua franca in some parts of Asia and Eastern Europe. If you want to learn Russian, you’ll have to get acquainted with the Cyrillic alphabet which consists of 33 letters – just 7 more than the Latin alphabet.
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9. Japanese — 126 million native speakers
With 128 million native speakers, Japanese or (日本語) Nihongo (transliteration) is the ninth most widely spoken language in the world and the hardest language to learn by a native English speaker along with Arabic, Chinese and Korean. The FSI (Foreign Service Institute) of the US Government claims that an English speaker would need about 2200 hours of study to achieve Japanese fluency.
Japanese speakers live in Japan, but also in some emigrant communities and former colonies (Taiwan, Korea, China, Philippines, and various Pacific islands). As a result of annexation or partial occupation, many elderly people from these countries can still speak Japanese.
The Japanese writing system uses three types of scripts – hiragana (ひらがな), katakana (カタカナ) and kanji (漢字) – in combination with each other.
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10. Yue Chinese — 84 million native speakers
The name Cantonese is often used instead of Yue Chinese, but linguists prefer to reserve that name for a specific variety used in Guangzhou (Canton), Wuzhou (Ngchow), Hong Kong and Macau.
Yue Chinese is regarded as a separated language group because it is not mutually intelligible with other varieties of Chinese.
11. Marathi — 83 million native speakers
Making a surprise appearance to our topmost spoken languages, the Marathi language is native to Maharashtra, India. It is the official language in the Maharashtra state of Western India and one of the 22 scheduled languages of India. Starting 1950, it is being written in the Balbodh style of Devanagari.
12. Telugu — 82.5 million native speakers
Spoken by Telugu people living in the Indian states of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana (where it is also the official language), the Telugu language is a Dravidian language (family of languages spoken mainly in southern India and northern Sri Lanka). Telugu is one of six languages designated a classical language of India by the country’s government and ranks fourth among the languages with the highest number of native speakers in India.
13. Turkish — 82.2 million native speakers
Turkish is the most widely spoken of the Turkic languages, with native speakers in both Southeast Europe and Western Asia (mostly in Anatolia). Outside Turkey, there are smaller groups of speakers in Greece, Macedonia, Germany, Bulgaria, The Caucasus, and other parts of Europe and Central Asia.
The earliest proof of a Turkish alphabet goes back to the 7th century when the Orkhon script was used. Then, for over 1,000 years, the Turkish language was written using a Turkish form of the Arabic script. That is also probably why some people believe that Turks speak Arabic. Today, the Turks use the 29-letter Latin script to write Turkish.
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14. Wu Chinese — 81 million native speakers
Wu Chinese is primarily spoken in Shanghai, Zhejiang Province, the southern half of Jiangsu Province and surrounding areas.
Major Wu varieties include those of Shanghai, Suzhou, Wuxi, Changzhou, Ningbo, Hangzhou, Shaoxing, Wenzhou, Jinhua and Yongkang.
15. French — 79 million native speakers
Ah, French, the language of love! Although being placed seventh in the most spoken languages by total number of speakers, French falls the last in the “native speakers” top with 79 million native speakers worldwide.
French is an official language in 29 countries across five different continents. Most of these countries are also members of the Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie (OIF).
According to a demographic projection led by the Université Laval and the Réseau Démographie de l’Agence universitaire de la Francophonie, the total number of French speakers will reach roughly 650 million by 2050. For this reason, learning French might be a good investment in yourself in the long run.
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Most spoken languages in the world by total number of speakers
According to 2021 fresh data from Ethnologue, the most spoken languages in the world by total number of speakers are:
- English — 1.3 billion speakers
- Mandarin Chinese — 1.1 billion speakers
- Hindi — 600 million speakers
- Spanish — 543 million speakers
- Standard Arabic — 274 million speakers
- Bengali — 268 million speakers
- French — 267 million speakers
- Russian — 258 million speakers
- Portuguese — 258 million speakers
- Urdu — 230 million speakers
- Indonesian — 199 million speakers
- German — 135 million speakers
- Japanese — 126 million speakers
- Marathi — 99 million speakers
- Telugu — 96 million speakers
Equally as interesting is the distribution of the most popular language in every country. As you can see, due to the past colonial influence of the British Empire, English is spread all around the globe, whereas Chinese is rather concentrated in Asia.
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