The following list shows number of people speaking a language either as their first or second language. It is taken from Nicholas Ostler’s ‘Empires of the Word’, a detailed (and long!) history of the main world languages.
1. Mandarin Chinese (1,052m)
2. English (508m)
3. Hindi (487m)
4. Spanish (417m)
5. Russian (277m)
6. Bengali (211m)
7. Portugese (191m)
8. German (128m)
9. French (128m)
10. Japanese (126m)
11. Urdu (104m)
12. Korean (78m)
13. Wu Chinese (77m)
14. Javanese (76m)
15. Telugu (75m)
16. Tamil (74m)
17. Yue Chinese / Cantonese (71m)
18. Marathi (71m)
19. Vietnamese (68m)
20. Turkish (61m)
It would be interesting to know how the popularity of these languages is evolving. These figures are nearly 10 years old so in that time the Chinese speaking population has probably increased by around 40 million, for example. Rate of population increase must be the strongest factor in determining whether a language is currently moving up or down this list.
I suspect this list may under-estimate the power of English by not counting those who speak English very competently and use it on a regular basis, but have learnt it as their third or even fourth language. That may sound improbable if you are a native English speaker, but for some it is a necessity. As one example, This post on A Wide Angle View of India blog explains that in many parts of India children grow up learning three languages, of which one is English.
English is currently the most popular choice as language of international communication, but will there come a point where another language becomes so widely spoken that it overtakes English as second language of choice? It may happen sooner than you think.
Update: compiling a list like this involves difficult decisions. The most obvious question is ‘why is Arabic not on this list?’. If included it would come around 5th place. See Ostler’s remarks in the comments below on why he considered Arabic dialects as separate languages. As an alternative view, this post from The Linguist Blogger incorporates different sources of information as well as Ostler’s list.
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About the authorLucy