Only ten languages are spoken natively by about half of the world’s population.
Identifying the world’s most widely spoken languages is more challenging than you may think. We can predict that Mandarin, English, Spanish, and Arabic will all place at the top (in about that order), but there will also be some surprises! Would you have realized Bengali is one of the most widely spoken languages in the world?
One caveat: assigning concrete data to any of these languages in the form of “X million native speakers” is almost impossible. The definition of a language or dialect is a contentious issue. Even more concerning is the fact that “Chinese” refers to an entire family of languages that have been easily grouped together. The term “Hindi” is sometimes used as a blanket phrase to refer to a vast variety of languages and dialects and even sub-dialects. We haven’t even considered the potential inaccuracy of data sources collected by various institutions at various periods of time. The figures below were gathered by Ethnologue, which is largely regarded as the most comprehensive language database currently available.
Who doesn’t enjoy a nice list, after all? As a result, we’ve created two versions.
Top 10 Languages by the Number of Native Speakers
These are the most widely spoken languages in the world based solely on the number of native speakers.
- Chinese — 1.3 Billion Native Speakers
The number of native speakers varies significantly — Ethnologue estimates 1.3 billion native speakers, with around 1.1 billion speaking Mandarin — but there’s little doubt it’s the most commonly spoken language on the planet. This is the language to study if you want to learn a language spoken by one in every six people on the planet. Because Chinese is a tonal language with hundreds of logograms, studying it will keep you occupied for a long time.
- Spanish — 471 Million Native Speakers
If we solely consider native speakers, Spanish has a slight lead over English, with 471 million speakers. Spanish is the greatest language to learn if you wish to travel across continents. The politics of language and related identity are fiercely disputed, as they are for all of the languages on this list. Ask Catalan or Quechua speakers if Spanish is their native tongue, and you will receive a totally different answer. However, it is the predominant language of the vast majority of South and Central America, Spain, and, ahem, big swaths of the United States.
- English — 370 Million Native Speakers
If you’re reading this, you’re probably one of the 370 million or so native English speakers out there or one of the 978 million who speak it as a second language. This demonstrates English’s incredible success as the global language of business, travel, and international relations. Because of the relative simplicity with which English may be learned (particularly as compared to Chinese) and the ubiquitous soft power of American culture, English will continue to rule the international stage for the foreseeable future. For some, English still connotes possibility and a higher standard of living. That is not to say that English is easy to learn: the English language is rife with rules. Whether they’re grammatical or used in spelling, here are many of them. And there are many ways for these rules to get modified, refuted, or proved wrong.
For example, English students learned to say “I” before “E” except after “C.”
When it comes to most English words, such as “friend” and “believe,” this rule stands true. There are, however, exceptions, such as “science” and “weirdness.”
In another example, when it comes to sentence order, there are several rules to follow that are often confusing to English language learners, whereas native speakers have an intuitive knowledge of how to order those words because they sound right.
- Hindi — 342 Million Native Speakers
India has 23 official languages, the most common of which are Hindi and Urdu. It’s still up for dispute whether this is one language — Hindustani — or two. Hindi, which is spoken mostly in northern India and portions of Pakistan, is written in Devanagari script, whereas Urdu is written in Persian notation. A little Hindi will get you a long way if you ever travel to the Indian subcontinent. What’s not to like about a language that brought us shampoo, jungle, jodhpurs, and bungalow?
- Arabic — 315 Million Native Speakers
According to recent estimates, Arabic has over 315 million native speakers. However, here’s another example of stats not revealing the whole story: Arabic, like Chinese, is so diverse in its dialects that it is practically a collection of languages gathered together for convenience’s sake. Modern Standard Arabic is predominantly a written language that is closely connected to the Quran’s Classical Arabic. The spoken forms of Arabic in places like Oman and Morocco, on the other hand, are so dissimilar that a pair of philosophy professors from these nations would be able to discuss the finer points of ancient literature, yet unable to order lunch.
- Portuguese — 232 Million Native Speakers
Another language whose spread is largely due to its colonial history, Portuguese traders and conquerors carried their language to Africa, Asia, and the Americas beginning in the 15th century. Although Portuguese expansion was initially linked to European colonization, the conquered nations created their own dynamic cultures, which forever changed the language. In nations such as Brazil, Goa, Angola, Mozambique, Cape Verde, Guinea-Bisseau, S. Tomé, Principe, and Macau, Portuguese is spoken by 232 million native speakers. Machado de Assis, Bossa Nova, Mia Couto, Fernando Pessoa, and Agualusa were all native Portuguese speakers.
- Bengali — 229 Million Native Speakers
You didn’t expect Bengali to be among the most widely spoken languages, did you? The British partitioned Bengal in 1947, dividing (primarily Hindu) West Bengal, which is now part of India, from East Bengal, which is now Bangladesh, making 1300 million Bangladeshis speak it.
Bengali has a rich history and immense cultural impact both in its immediate geographical region and around the world.
Tollywood: Bengali On Screen
Something very interesting about the Bengali language is that there is an entire film industry, nicknamed “Tollywood”, that makes films in Bengali. Tollywood dates back to the 1890s, way before Bollywood came into existence. In fact, the name “Bollywood” was inspired by Tollywood. Tollywood is based in Tollygunge in West Bengal, thus the name that combines “Hollywood” with Tollygunge. Many of the films that have come out of Tollywood have been nationally and internationally acclaimed, some even winning awards. They have had a great influence as well on the most well-known Indian film industry, Bollywood, as well as the film industry in general.
- Russian — 157.14 Million Native Speakers
Russian is the world’s eighth most spoken language, with around 157.1 million native speakers. It produced literary greats such as Dostoyevsky, Nabokov, Chekhov, Gogol, Tolstoy, and Pushkin, and is still one of the six languages spoken in the United Nations.
- Japanese — 126 Million Native Speakers
The 126 million native Japanese speakers live almost entirely in Japan, making it the most geographically concentrated of all the languages on this list. Japanese has two unique writing systems, hiragana, and katakana, and uses Chinese Kanji characters extensively. Outside of Japan, the United States, the Philippines, and Brazil have the highest populations of Japanese speakers.
- Lahnda (Western Punjabi) — 118 Million Native Speakers
With varying estimates of around 118 million native speakers, the last spot on the list goes to… Lahnda, a Pakistani macrolanguage that primarily includes Western Punjabi! (Sorry, German — you got dumped from the top world languages a few years back.) Eastern Punjabi, which is spoken in India, is not included in this list. When the British withdrew, the Punjab was slashed in half, forcing millions of people to flee their homes, businesses, and families. But, in true Bollywood flair, they’re progressively exacting their vengeance: Punjabi music currently accounts for half of all chart-topping tracks. If we’ve ever witnessed a comeback, this is it.
Top 10 Languages By the Total Number of Speakers
When we look at the top ten most spoken languages based on the total number of people who speak them (whether or not it is their mother tongue), eight of the ten languages from the previous list appear, but with a few notable differences: Because more people speak them as a second language, rather than as native speakers. English just edges out Chinese for the top place, while Japanese and Punjabi fall out of the top 10, and French and Indonesian enter the top 10 for the first time.
349 billion total speakers
- Mandarin Chinese
125 billion total speakers
640 million total speakers
563 million total speakers
- Standard Arabic
276 million total speakers
278 million total speakers
286 million total speakers
269 million total speakers
288 million total speakers
253 million total speakers
Most of the languages on this list have been already discussed above with two notable exceptions: French & Indonesian languages.
286 million total speakers
Did you know that French is one of the world’s fastest-growing languages, with over half of all French speakers residing in Africa?
The French language is one of the most widespread in the world. While it’s still highly associated with France — the country where it was first formed — most French speakers live in other countries. The total volume of people who speak Mandarin, English, or Spanish is the most prevalent reason for learning these languages. The similar argument may be made for French, given the language’s projected increase over the next 30 years. Plus, who doesn’t want to learn one of the world’s most romantic languages?
198 million total speakers
The Indonesian language is one of the most widely spoken languages in the world, including native and non-native speakers. Despite this, practically all of the speakers are from the same country: Indonesia. The language has an interesting history that includes colonization, nationalism, and an attempt to unite the many cultures of the country. Because Indonesian is such an essential element of the Indonesian national identity, it is highly localized. It is one of the few nations that has succeeded in making its native language the official language after colonialism.
Knowing how many people speak Indonesian might motivate you to study the language, especially after you realize how many possible conversation partners you may have. There are, however, a slew of additional reasons! Though Indonesian is significantly different from English on a technical level, due to its easy grammatical rules and usage of the Latin alphabet, it may be one of the easiest languages for English speakers to learn.