The world’s Top 10 languages, spoken by native speakers
I battle to speak one language, English, and can barely order my lunch in Thai. And, whilst studying French for 7 years at school, I can only ask a French-speaker for the time or order coffee. Sacre Bleu! The world’s most common languages changes over time and a world interlinked on the internet and aviation, like never before, is making profound changes to the way we communicate, as a species..
You can be sure the ‘conversation’ will stir some heated debate over which is the most spoken languages, generally, and natively. But the numbers win (which we have updated from statistics in recent years).
For pop culturalists, we’re sad to report that neither ‘Klingon’ (used by the Star Trek foes) or ‘Minionese’ have made it into the top 10 most spoken languages in the world.
When tallied, according to number of native speakers only, the following are the most spoken languages in the world, the languages people learn as their primary spoken tongue. When you count the Top 10 most spoken languages – the total number of people who actually speak them natively and as a second or third language, English is just slightly ahead of Chinese as the most spoken language in the world.
But here are the Top 10 languages, as spoken by native speakers…
1. Chinese, 1.3 billion Native Speakers
1.3 billion native speakers, roughly 918 million of whom speak Mandarin Chinese. It’s definitely the most spoken language in the world with 1 in 6 of the world’s population being a native Chinese speaker. Seeing as Chinese is a tonal language that uses thousands of logograms, it will certainly keep you busy. Even if you only count the speakers of Mandarin Chinese, it still has more than twice the number of native speakers than the second most spoken language. China’s other main dialect is Cantonese, generally the lingua franca of southern Chinese.
2. Spanish, 460 million Native Speakers
Looking at native speakers, Spanish is just ahead of English with about 460 million native speakers. If you want a language that will open up entire continents to you, Spanish is considered a good choice. It is certainly the main language of the majority of South and Central America, Spain, and even large swathes of the US.
3. English, 380 million Native Speakers
You may have already noticed that this article is written in English, so you’re one of the 380 million native English speakers. An additional 754 million people speak English as a second or third language, not necessarily fluently. English has had success as the lingua franca (common language) of business, trade, travel, aviation and international relations. The pervasive cultural power of the US in the second half of the last century means that English still dominates the world stage, for now anyway. For people in developing nations, ‘English’ means ‘opportunity’ and a ‘better quality of life’.
4. Hindi, 340 million Native Speakers
To complicate matters, India has 23 official languages, with Hindi and Urdu leading the way. It is widely debated if these two dialects are separate or just one big language, Hindustani. It is spoken mainly in northern India and parts of Pakistan. At the moment there are moves to have Hindi displace English in the southern Indian states as the primary language of official communication. You probably didn’t know it, but you already speak Hindi when you use the words bungalow, shampoo, jungle, bandana, pyjamas, cashmere, punch (the drink) and jodhpurs.
5. Arabic, 317 million Native Speakers
Arabic, like Chinese, is again broken up into numerous dialects that some could even describe as separate languages just lumped together the sake of convenience. Modern Standard Arabic is a primarily written form, closely related to the Classical Arabic of the Quran.
6. Bengali, 228 million Native Speakers
Huh, what? That’s a language? Yep, and it’s number 6 on the list. People who speak Bengali are principally in the western parts of today’s India and Bangladesh. The Partition of Bengal by the British in 1947 separated West Bengal, now part of India, from its counterpart East Bengal, now Bangladesh. Bengali is the language of Kolkata, the Andaman Islands and 160 million Bangladeshis. The country is almost completely surrounded by Indian territory and faces the Bay of Bengal.
7. Portuguese, 220 million Native Speakers
Thanks to some intrepid explorers in the 15th century, Portuguese is spoken in a few colonial outposts and not just in Portugal. Portuguese traders and conquerors brought their language to Africa, Asia and the Americas. Apart from Portugal, the language is natively spoken in Brazil, Goa, Angola, Mozambique, Cape Verde, Guinea-Bisseau, São Tomé, Príncipe (all former Portugues colonies) and, interestingly, Macau.
8. Russian, 154 million Native Speakers
Russian remains one of the 6 languages spoken in the United Nations, and responsible for the literary classics of Dostoyevsky, Nabokov, Chekhov, Gogol and Tolstoy. Not a lot of Russian words have become commonly used in English, except maybe ‘Vodka’. Hmmmm.
9. Japanese, 128 million Native Speakers
Japanese speakers mostly live in Japan, one of the most ethno-centric cultures in the world. Japanese boasts two distinct written forms – hiragana and katakana, and makes extensive use of Chinese Kanji characters. Some Japanese speakers also live in the US, the Philippines and Brazil.
10. Lahnda, 118 million Native Speakers
Lahnda (Western Punjabi), is a Pakistani language that primarily includes Western Punjabi. The Punjab was sliced in two by the British when they left, and millions of people were forced to abandon their homeland. But they’re slowly taking their revenge, Bollywood-style. Punjabi music now account for 50% of Indian chart-toppers.
French? German? Indonesian? You get a chance in this next list, the most commonly spoken languages by the total number of people who speak them.
1. English, 1.134 billion total speakers
2. Mandarin Chinese, 1.118 billion total speakers
3. Hindi, 615 million total speakers
4. Spanish, 534 million total speakers
5. French 280 million total speakers
6. ‘Standard’ Arabic, 274 million total speakers
7. Bengali, 265 million total speakers
8. Russian, 258 million total speakers
9. Portuguese, 234 million total speakers
10. Indonesian, 199 million total speakers
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