It’s almost the end of 2018 and there are currently 7.7 billion people on Earth. We needed 200,000 years of human history to reach 1 billion and only 200 years more to reach 7 billion. But wait! Don’t get blown away just yet! 2.7 billion people come only from China and India although there are 197 countries in the world (Taiwan and Kosovo included). Now try and guess how many languages are there? Ethnologue, the mighty dictionary of languages (as we like to call it) says there are 7,097 living languages worldwide. Didn’t expect that either, didn’t you? Naturally, now we shall ask ourselves what is the most spoken language in the world? English? Chinese? Maybe Hindi, Spanish or Arabic? Read on to discover the most spoken languages in the world by number of native speakers and by total number speakers (native & non-native).
1. Most spoken language in the world: Chinese
With around 1.2 billion native speakers, Chinese steals the crown of our list of languages. Not unexpected, isn’t it? Of course, there’s a great deal of variation in the numbers, but China also has the biggest population on Earth. What needs to be reminded is that Chinese is a macrolanguage consisting of other thirteen languages – Mandarin being the most widely spoken. All these languages are considered “Chinese” due to a shared writing system and literature. Other well-known examples include Wu and Cantonese.
N.B.: When talking about the most popular languages, our mind usually goes straight to English and that is not entirely wrong. By number of total speakers, English is the most spoken language in the world (with more than 1 billion speakers all around the world – various sources give different numbers). In the past, this was due to the colonial influence of the British Empire, but nowadays, the spread of the American culture is the one responsible for this matter.
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With 442.3 million native speakers and 512.9 million total speakers worldwide, Spanish ranks second in our top 15 most spoken languages in the world (by native speakers) and forth in the most widely spoken languages top by total number of speakers.
As you might expect, Chinese falls in the second place when talking about total number of speakers. While English is spread all around the globe, Chinese is rather concentrated in Asia.
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At around 378.2 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, common language, trade language, auxiliary language, vehicular language, or link language). You are reading this article right now, so you are probably either an English native speaker or you learned it as a second or third language in school. So we could say that English is pretty notorious around the world. Or should we say “Universe”? Because even aliens speak English in the movies, don’t they? (hahaha 👽)
Third place for most spoken language by total number of speakers goes to Hindustani (Hindi-Urdu) with some 700 million speakers.
As the 2018 21st edition of Ethnologue puts it, Arabic is now occupying the fourth place (315 million native speakers) in our list of most common languages by number of native speakers. It seems that various online sources share this place between Arabic and Hindi, frequently putting Hindi first. But since Ethnologue is the most authoritative resource on languages of the world, we tend to trust it.
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260 million native speakers put the Hindi language in the fifth place. So no, we are not talking about Hindustani, which incorporates both Hindi and Urdu – two very similar languages that Ethnologue regards as different. If you are asking yourself what is the difference between the two, here is some clarification: Hindi is written in the Devanagari script and uses more Sanskrit words, whereas Urdu is written in the Perso-Arabic script and uses more Arabic and Persian words. Back to the occupant of this place – Hindi is the most spoken language in India.
The fifth place for most spoken language by total number of speakers goes to Arabic.
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Rather outdated sources put Portuguese before Bengali, but it seems that recent numbers award Bengali the sixth place with no less than 243 million native speakers. Maybe you didn’t expect this, but yes, Bengali made the list! 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.
The sixth and final place we are going to mention for the most spoken language by total number of speakers (native and non-native) goes to French (finally!). After this one, things are getting a little bit complicated and many sources seem to contradict each other on the matter.
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 223 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.
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The language of tsars and tsarinas, of Tchaikovsky, Dostoevsky, and magical fairy tales occupies the eighth place with 154 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 in Eastern Europe. If you want to learn Russian, you’ll have to get acquainted Cyrillic alphabet.
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With 128 million native speakers, Japanese or (日本語) Nihongo (transliteration) is the ninth most widely spoken language in the world. Its 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.
Writing system: Chinese characters (kanji) and Kana (hiragana, katakana)
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This may come as a surprise, but 119 million native speakers put Lahnda higher than German or French on our list of top most spoken languages in the world. The same source – Ethonologue – regards Lahnda as a macrolanguage that includes four other individual languages that have at least one million speakers: Northern Hindko, Pahari-Potwari, Western Punjabi, Saraiki (individual languages listed in the macrolanguage are considered members of the macrolanguage). Largely spoken in Pakistan, Lahnda uses the perso-arabic writing system (shahmukhi alphabet).
The eleventh place is occupied by Javanese with 84.4 million native speakers (not to be confused with the Japanese language).
The countries in which you will hear Javanese are Indonesia, Malaysia (especially in the states of Selangor and Johor) and Singapore.
Writing system: Latin script, Javanese script, Pegon scrip (Arabic script)
78.5 million native speakers place Turkish in the twelfth place. 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.
Writing system: Latin (Turkish alphabet).
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Korean prides itself with 77.2 million native speakers in North Korea, South Korea, and China. It is also spoken by some minorities in Japan, Russia, and some other places around the world.
Writing system: Hangul/Chosŏng’gŭl, Hanja/Hancha.
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Ah! French! The language of love! Although being placed the sixth in “the most spoken languages by total number of speakers” top, French falls the fourteenth in the “native speakers” top with 76.8 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).
Writing system: Latin (French alphabet).
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The least spoken language in our top of most spoken languages is German. The same as French, German is a very notorious language worldwide. Some 56 million people were brave enough to learn it, while 76 million others are lucky enough to be German natives. It is the most widely spoken and official or co-official language in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, South Tyrol (Italy), the German-speaking Community of Belgium, and Liechtenstein. It is also one of the three official languages of Luxembourg.
Writing system: Latin (German alphabet).
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Number of native speakers: 74.8 million
Spoken in: India
Writing system: Telugu alphabet
Number of native speakers: 71.8 million
Spoken in: India
Writing system: Devanagari (Balbodh)
Number of native speakers: 69.2 million
Spoken in: India and Pakistan
Writing system: Urdu alphabet
Number of native speakers: 68 million
Spoken in: Vietnamese and Czech Republic (where is recognized as a minority language)
Writing system: Latin (Vietnamese alphabet), Chữ Nôm
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Number of native speakers: 66.7 million
Spoken in: Southern India, Tamil Nadu, Sri Lanka, Malyasia, Singapore, Canada, South Africa, Mauritius
Writing system: Tamil alphabet (Brahmic), Arwi Script (Abjad)