What are the most widely spoken languages in the world? What language has the most native speakers? Our infographic below gives you the 9 most commonly spoken languages.
You might think that English tops the list, but it only ranks third. Of course, the number of people in the world who speak English is far greater than the number of people who have English as their first language.
In fact, over half a billion people alone have English as an L2. (If you have an L2 language, it’s your second language and is used in your country or region. In other words, just because you took German in high school doesn’t mean that German is your L2.)
As for what language has the most native speakers, that’s easy: Mandarin Chinese. It has close to 1 billion speakers of Mandarin in the world—most of them in China.
The Most Widely Spoken Languages
Below is additional information about the world’s most commonly spoken languages.
With more than 1.2 billion native speakers in the world, Chinese is the clear winner on our list of most widely spoken languages. However, Ethnologue lumps Mandarin, Hakkan, Min Nan, Wu, and others into the collective category of “Chinese.” Not all of these variants are mutually intelligible.
A few readers have pointed out that we shouldn’t have a macro Chinese category if, for example, a Hakkan speaker can’t understand a Wu speaker or vice versa. But Mandarin, with its 900 million native speakers, would still dwarf other languages on our list.
It’s not hard to see why Spanish is among the most commonly spoken languages worldwide. It’s used in approximately 30 countries—among them Spain, Mexico, Colombia, Argentina, Peru, Chile, and Uruguay.
Spanish is also the primary language in Puerto Rico, a territory of the United States. What’s more, Spanish can be heard in about 13% of U.S. households. This makes sense when you consider that as recently as 2014, over 16% of the domestic labor force was foreign-born.
Speakers of English might think that their language is the global leader. But while English is certainly a cultural force, its native speakers number “only” 335 million worldwide. That’s only about 5% of the world’s population.
Here’s another way to think about that: if you picked 100 people from around the world at random and put them in a room, 95 of them would speak a language other than English. Whoa!
Over 260 million people speak Hindi, making it one of the most widely spoken languages on the planet. In addition, it shares co-official status with 21 other languages in India.
Hindi, though, is the official language of the government of India. In fact, its constitution states as much—and specifies the required script (Devanagari).
Spoken in almost 60 countries around the world, Arabic has many dialects: Egyptian, Moroccan, Levantine, and Iraqi, for example.
The written form of Arabic is Modern Standard Arabic, or MSA. Arabic speakers in universities, for example, would all use this—whether they’re from Iraq or the UAE.
However, the spoken forms of Arabic can vary a lot. For example, vocabulary and word order may not be the same from one region to another.
If it weren’t for Portugal’s colonial past, Portuguese may not even appear on a list of the most commonly spoken languages.
Why? Because the number of native speakers of European Portuguese is much smaller than the number of Brazilian Portuguese speakers.
The population of Brazil is over 200 million, but the population of Portugal is just over 10 million. Portuguese is also an official language in the African nations of Mozambique, Angola, and Guinea-Bissau.
Right behind Portuguese is Bengali, the main language of Bangladesh (pop. 155 million) and one of India’s many official languages.
Like Hindi, Bengali may not immediately come to mind when Americans think of the most commonly spoken languages in the world.
This may be for one of several reasons (or a combination of them). First, Bangladesh is not a major actor on the world stage in terms of economic or military might.
In addition, schools in the U.S. don’t offer instruction in Bengali—and U.S. news outlets don’t pay South Asia much attention.
While most speakers of Russian are (surprise!) in Russia, the language has minority status in some two dozen countries, from Finland to Israel. This helps makes Russian one of the world’s most widely spoken languages.
With over 122 million native speakers, Japanese is one of the world’s most commonly spoken languages. The vast majority of Japanese speakers live in Japan.
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If you like this infographic, then read these 9 amazing facts about language, learn about words that we get from foreign languages, or see how many languages there are in the United States.
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