There are more than 7,000 languages registered around the world. More than 7,000. Can you even wrap your mind around that? In Papua New Guinea alone, the country with the most languages, there are more than 800! The data just isn’t good enough (and probably never will be) to list all of them, let alone put them in any kind of order according to number of speakers. But today we’re revealing the top 10 most spoken languages, which is a pretty good start if you ask us!
Some Languages Aren’t So Lucky…
Like I said before, people around the world speak over 7,000 languages. Some, like the ones you’ll find in the list below, are very widespread languages, counting millions (if not billions) of speakers.
Other languages are spoken by only a few people, and are at “severe risk of extinction.” Take Ayapaneco, for instance. This language, born in the present-day territory of Mexico, supposedly had just two fluent speakers left in 2011. And according to a Guardian article, they aren’t on speaking terms right now! The article tells the sad story of how this language became so critically endangered, and the measures people are taking to save it. (Disclaimer: since the article was published, other sources have criticized the news outlet for spreading false information.)
Controversy aside, there’s no denying that languages, like the people who speak them, are constantly changing and evolving. It’s sad, but, like animals, languages can go extinct. An extinct language means that there are no living speakers left.
UNESCO’s endangered languages
UNESCO has a way of classifying endangered languages with few speakers left. They categorize languages by status:
- vulnerable (“most children speak the language, but it may be restricted to certain domains”),
- definitely endangered (“children no longer learn the language as mother tongue in the home”),
- severely endangered (“spoken by grandparents and older generations; while the parent generation may understand it, they do not speak it to children or among themselves”)
- critically endangered (“the youngest speakers are grandparents and older, and they speak the language partially and infrequently”)
- and extinct (“no speakers left”)
There are also “safe” languages – like the languages with the most speakers in the world in the list below! The organization counts over 200 extinct languages, but there are likely more that we don’t even know about. About 1/3 of all languages fall under the endangered listing. On the flip side, 50% of the world’s population speaks just 23 languages! So let’s get back to our main topic and see what some of those are.
Top Languages Worldwide
Other MosaLingua language lists
We’ve already written about the most useful languages, especially in the business world. We came up with that list by looking at the diffusion of languages around the world, their economical and political interests, as well as geographical proximity to their country of origin.
We’ve also taken it upon ourselves to find out the most studied languages in the world. If you’ve already read that article (and if you haven’t, bookmark it to read after this one!) you’ll know that the most studied and most spoken languages are not necessarily the same. We were able to find pretty good data about public language education, but the numbers don’t take independent learners (like our app’s users) into account.
Now, we’re going a step further by ranking the most spoken languages in the world. Creating this list wasn’t simple. Among all the scientists who have tried taking on this task, very few agree on the 4th-, 6th- and 10th-place languages… Also, since this classification is based on number of speakers, the data varies quite regularly. People are born and pass away constantly, and not all countries and languages are growing at the same rate.
To make things a little easier, we’ve chosen to rank languages according to the number of speakers who consider them as their first language, also called their mother tongue or native language. In other words, the language they heard from birth and learned before any other language.
The Most Spoken Language in The World is…
As much as we would have liked to create a bit of suspense, the result is no surprise. One of the many Chinese languages was bound to be in first place, since China has more than one billion inhabitants (although not all speak the same dialect). Close to 860 million people* in roughly 33 countries around the world (mostly in Asia) speak Mandarin, the first language on our list.
Although it is the most popular language, Mandarin Chinese can be rather challenging to learn. But of course, nothing’s stopping you from taking on the challenge! Just know that you’ll have to have quite a bit of motivation and patience to master it.
Did you know?
- Mandarin is the official language of the People’s Republic of China.
- If you learn to read and write Mandarin, you might have an easier time learning Japanese. Many Japanese characters are “borrowed” from Chinese, although they are pronounced differently. (Learn more about Japanese kanji here.)
- Chinese is one of the 6 official UN languages and is celebrated on April 20th. Can you guess what the other five are?
Attempt to Make a Top 10 of The Most Widely Spoken Languages in the World
This is just an attempt, not an official top 10. Because like we said, when ranking the most spoken languages it can somehow be difficult to get everyone to agree…
So, here are MosaLingua’s top 10 most spoken languages:
Mandarin Chinese, as already seen.
People speak Spanish in 31 countries, mostly around Latin America (and Spain, of course!). It boasts around 400 million native speakers. And nearly as many non-native speakers! Here are a few interesting facts about Spanish:
- If you’re thinking about picking up a second language, Spanish is a good choice. Not only can you use it to communicate with many native speakers, but it’s also a fairly easy language to learn. That’s because it is very phonetic, meaning that it is pronounced the way it looks.
- Miguel de Cervantes wrote the first modern novel, Don Quixote, in Spanish. If you don’t read Spanish at a very advanced level, you’re in luck. After the Bible, it is the second most-translated book. You can read it in over 145 languages (not including the multiple translations into the same language).
English, once again, not a big surprise.
There are between 330 and 350 million native English speakers spread out across the continents. Which is a small advantage to those that want to learn it (or already know it). Whether you’re in Africa, Asia, Oceania, or Europe, you’ll always come across at least one country that has English as one of its official languages. Get ready for a fun fact:
- Why’s that? English is the official first language of over a hundred countries. Although not the one you might think…
- English is not the official language in the United States; they don’t have one!
- English is one of the most influential languages in the world right now. Because apart from being spoken as an official language by millions of people, it is also “the first second language” chosen by many people around the globe.
Unlike English, people only speak Hindi as a first language in about seven countries (mostly in India and Nepal). Its success is mostly due to the sheer number of people living in these countries. Hindi counts 260 to 425 million speakers. Did you know:
- There are close to a hundred languages that are similar to Hindi, especially Urdu. And learning Hindi would make easier to learn any of these other languages! Well, relatively speaking!
- The Indian government has been trying to get Hindi recognized as an official United Nations language since 2009. To be successful, they would need the support of a majority of the other UN member states (there are 192 total) and roughly $14 million for translation and interpreting services.
Around 240 million people in close to 60 countries speak Arabic. Learn more about Arabic:
- Muslims consider it a sacred language (and believe that the Quran should only be read in Arabic).
- The thing is, it’s quite hard to learn. To make it even a little bit harder, it has numerous dialects, which sometimes make it difficult for people from different Arabic-speaking countries to understand one another.
- That being said, people can communicate in Modern Standard Arabic if they want to be understood by someone from another Arab-speaking country.
Like Hindi, people only speak Bengali as a native language in a handful of countries, mostly in India and Bangladesh. Despite this, 200 to 250 million people speak it, making it one of the 10 most spoken languages in the world. Here’s an interesting fact about Bengali:
- Both Indians and Bangladeshis sing their respective national anthems in this language (even though not all citizens speak it).
Portuguese made this list mostly thanks to the immensity of Brazil! But close to 200 million people in a dozen other countries (mainly in Africa) also speak Portuguese. Learn a few facts about Portuguese:
- Only 5% of Lusophones (people who speak Portuguese) actually live in Portugal, where the language originated!
- In 2009, the Portuguese government passed a reform that increased the alphabet from 23 to 26 letters (before this time, it didn’t include the letters “k,” “w,” or “y”).
People in 16 countries (at least 150 to 160 million) claim Russian as their native language. Did you know:
- If you dream of becoming an astronaut, you had better start brushing up on your Russian! All astronauts who go to the International Space Station have to know this Slavic language. NASA astronauts often live with Russian families to work on their language skills in preparation for their trip.
- MosaLingua recently added Russian to our family of language learning apps. Some people are scared off because of what they’ve heard about it being difficult to learn… Read what we have to say about that, and then make your own decision.
This is what we call an isolated language because it is only spoken in Japan (essentially) by nearly 130 million inhabitants. That’s somewhat of a record, really. Despite that, it’s still one of the top languages in the world! Here are some interesting factoids about Japanese:
- Japanese has thousands of onomatopoeia! These are words that represent sounds, and they are especially useful for manga, Japanese comics. Check out this non-exhaustive but still very thorough list.
- According to this French study, Japanese has a high syllabic rate but low information density, which basically means that it takes a lot of breath to get your message across!
So, What is The 10th Most Spoken Language?
German? French? Malay, Indonesian, Javanese, Punjabi…?
Unfortunately, we don’t really know because many languages are fighting to be the 10th most spoken language in the world. This position, just as the previous ones, often varies according to different factors. These factors themselves can also vary, such as the number of inhabitants, for example.
But Punjabi could be a safe choice because 2 sources we used agree on putting this language (mainly spoken in Pakistan) as the 10th most spoken language in the world. In any case, whether you choose one of the most spoken languages or not, bear in mind that it’s important to learn a language that will be useful for whatever your personal goals are. Maybe you want to learn a language for professional development, or maybe for leisure and travel. However, nothing’s stopping you from learning one or more of these languages (or others) just out of curiosity and for fun!
Most Spoken Languages in the U.S.
People often refer to the United States as a melting pot. People have come to begin a new life in the U.S. from all over the world and for a wide variety of reasons. The fact that there are hundreds of different cultures mixing and interacting is part of what makes American culture so great, and so purely American! Here is a list of the top 10 languages spoken at home in the United States, according to U.S. Census data:
- Chinese (includes several variations)
- French (includes French Creole)
Most Written Languages in the World
We’ve talked extensively about spoken languages, but the internet is so important these days that this article wouldn’t be complete without mentioning the languages people use to communicate on the web. Here is an estimate of the top 10 languages used online (as of December 31, 2017):
*Our data comes from several different sources. They can be found on the websites of Ethnologue (2015), l’Organisation internationale de la francophonie (2014) and Nationalencyklopedin (2010), as well as the various pages we’ve linked to within this article.
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