What are the most widely spoken languages in the world? Or, if you are contemplating learning a second language, which will get you the most new conversation opportunities for your effort?
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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70 comments for “Top 20 Languages of the World”
Nicholas Ostler’s book is called ‘Empires of the Word’ not ‘Empires of the World’ as stated here.
Interesting list, though why is Arabic excluded? It has over 300 million speakers worldwide!
Katharine – thanks a lot for pointing that out. I have corrected the post.
Kase, Riad – Ostler excluded Arabic from this list because he considers the spoken dialects (as opposed to classical Arabic which is used as lingua franca) to be mutually unintelligible in some cases. Other lists I have seen do contain Arabic though and obviously it would come in quite high on this list.
What do you think? It would be interesting to compare the differences in Arabic dialects with differences in some others which, although similar, are definitely considered to be separate languages (eg Spanish / Portuguese, Hindi / Urdu)
In response to arabic, a lot of the English dialects of the world are unintelligible in some cases. Carribean, and African dialects are completely different from western version.
Am I to understand that you excluded all African and Caribbean nations from this list?
Judging by the number of English speakers(508m) I’d say they were included.
I’m minoring in Arabic at the UofArizona and they are teaching us FusHa, or classical Arabic and we’re always asking, “how applicable is this?” but are constantly assured that classical and colloquial Arabic are mutually intelligible and since, as you said, classical is the lingua franca, it is used in mass media, and I’d be able to go to pretty much any Arabic speaking country and be understood, and be able to pick up on local dialect with relative ease. The Egyptian dialect is understood throughout the MidEast because the most popular movies originate there, and the Levantine dialect (Palestine, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon) are just as easily understood because most pop music in the region comes from Lebanon.
As I understand it, it’s basically the equivalent of someone learning Oxford English and trying to make sense of any American dialect.
(Sorry this was so long and boring)
Court – This is a good point. I can’t find any information on whether African and Caribbean nations are included in the list. As you say, the number of English speakers is high though.
Thanks for quoting the book. Perhaps it would help if I add a few comments on Arabic and English as they appear (or not) in this list. This was a list of languages listed by the total of their first- and second-language speakers. (Hence the relatively high figures for English, and Hindi.) In principle, therefore, Caribbean dialects of English will be included. Arabic has lost out in the pecking order, since modern standard Arabic, or FusHa, although it straddles all the Arabic dialect areas, is not at the command of most of their speakers. I added as a footnote:
(the largest Arabic dialect) … Egyptian Arabic, with 46 million speakers, … ranks … no higher than 23rd. The different “dialects” of Arabic, of which there are over 25, offer quite solid barriers to mutual intelligibility, so they are well cast in this list as distinct languages. If they are consolidated as a single hyper-language community, united by the élite’s use of Classical Arabic as a lingua franca, they would amount to something over 205 million, placing them between Bengali and Portuguese.)
In general I gave short shrift to dialect differences in the book, even where they’re substantial. Culturally, no doubt, all these Arabic-speakers feel part of the same language community, and those communities were what I was writing about in the narrative sections of the book. So I could have tried to sum the Arab language community. But they are comparable in difference of intelligibility, I would suggest – contra Kase above, not to English but to Chinese dialects – and these are treated as separate languages in this statistical chapter. (My main source of data was the SIL Ethnologue – and SIL are notorious as ‘splitters’ rather than ‘lumpers’ in their approach to languages.)
there are NO italians in the list!!!!!
i would like to know what the level of fluency required is to make it on the list.
for instance, i dont know a whole lot of spanish, but mixing words around (with horrible grammar, i am sure) i can often get my point across. could i have a conversation about aristotle or some sports team in spanish?
i aslo think the level of english has probably raised quite a bit, with the internet. the majority of sites, games, movies etc are in english, and with china, india, japan, germany, france and im sure many others having english be a near-requirement in many schools and universities, a basic understanding of the language has probably gone up by at least 30% more than just the population growth.
Hi Haddon. This list counts people speaking the language either as their first or second language, so they are probably pretty fluent.
I agree with you that there are probably a lot of people who can use a given language for communication (without being fluent) who aren’t counted here, especially in English.
Modern Standard Arabic is understood by people of all dialects and regions. It is true that regional dialects play a huge part in the different ethnicity of Arab nations and regions (i.e. Levantine, Egyptian, etc.) – however, the Arabic that is in the mass media, on television, newspapers, textbooks, school lesson plans, is all universally understood.
No matter where you are in the Arabic world, MSA can be easily understood and picked up regardless of dialect.
(and this is not even mentioning Quranic Arabic, which is not only understood by the 250+ million in the Arab world but nearly universally by the nearly 1 billion Muslims around the world!)
Arabic is the 5th.
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In a similar list I had seen before, Turkish was 13th. I dont know how accurate that is but I know for a fact that Turkey has over 70m citizens and even though not all of them may not be speaking Turkish, the numer of Turkish speaking people has to be over 61m. …Many people in Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan and Georgia speak Turkish too. Oh also , if I am not wrong, some other countries after Yugoslavia’s division has Turkish as one of their official languages.
The Turkey number looks low to me as well. This list was written around 10 years ago, and it looks as if the main difference is the Turkish population, which has grown around 10m in that time.
Of course the place in the rankings depends on how much the others grew as well. This list also differs from other rankings (and this is one of the reasons I found it interesting) in that it tries to count 1st and 2nd language speakers – many other rankings count only 1st language speakers, which I think has less practical relevance.
I’m not an expert to be able to say whether Azeri counts technically as the same language, even if it is perfectly mutually intelligible with Turkish (well, maybe apart from uçak du?uyor ?) But you are right that there are at very least a few million speakers outside Turkey.
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ARABIC? THAT’S WHAT I ASKED MYSELF. WHY ISNT IT THERE ON THE LIST.
Where is the arabic language which is spoke by about 400 million people as their first langauge?
Even though Arabic in it self isn’t a language, rather a language group like Chinese, Standard Arabic is still widely spoken language that almost all Arabs do speak besides their regional tongue.
Liz, Turkish and Azeri are almost entirely mutually intelligible just as Romanian and Moldovan are.
As for English Variants in Africa and the Caribbean, this is what I consider to be an intellectual trap. Most people will assume that the creole languages are dialects of english and mistaken them for the actual dialects of english spoken in those countries.
So no, Jamaican English is not a separate dialect of English, but Jamaican Creole is a separate language.
yeah english is considered to be a universal language, i think it’s an asset to know more than one language. it would be interesting to know what would take the place of the popularity of english as a second language.
what is the status of Punjabi language?
I am not a native speaker of Arabic but I don’t think the Arabic variants are THAT different from each other. Foreigners might treat them as different languages but to Arabs, there is no such thing as standard Arabic because it is basically formal Arabic, whilst the different dialects are just Arabic in colloquial forms. Sure they might seem mutually unintelligible but still, if one knows formal Arabic, it is REALLY easy to catch up phrases from the colloquial dialects. For example, it would only take several weeks for a Lebanese who has never been exposed to Moroccan Arabic to absorb the dialect if he/she immerses him/herself into the dialect. But in general, all Arabs understand each other’s dialects through watching tv in the different dialects or through traveling and etc. What i mean is that Arabic should not be divided into different dialects but just as one whole group because seriously the dialects aren’t that different from each other and even though I agree that they may be considered to be separate languages (eg Spanish / Portuguese, Hindi / Urdu) but for an Arab it’s just all Arabic and we should not take it from a foreigner’s point of view when we judge a language because clearly the Arabic language is meant to be the tool that unites all Arabs together. And most Arabs will treat these “dialects” as just accents. It’s just like in the US, they say band aids and in the UK, they say plaster. It’s no different from Arabic—- in order to “learn” another dialect, it’s JUST a matter of learning new vocab and accents but you would have to work harder if you want to learn the dialects in the Maghreb as they are pretty different from the Eastern dialects but still, if one already knows ANY dialect of Arabic, he/she will absorb another dialect, including the very different ones, in NO time and I mean NO time.
It’s hard to quantify such an evolving and fluid definition of language-ability, so kudos to Mr. Ostler for the scholarship involved in creating his list. I’ll try to find his book.
That being said, it can sometimes be more revealing to see 2 or more lists side by side–and understand how their (potentially) different results were generated. For example, one commonly cited source is the Ethnologue, which lists over 200 million Arabic speakers of all dialects, so it would have made the list. However, it notes that only 100 million have proficiency in standard Arabic, so it becomes an editorial call how to list it. It goes on to list all primary dialects of Arabic for nerds like me.
Again when seeing “Top” lists like this, the point is to understand how they were put together. Having dual lists from different sources could drive this point home.
I’m a year late in posting this–will anybody read it?
It’s a good book (especially if you have nerd tendencies) and very comprehensive in general. Some languages get more in-depth coverage than others which I suppose is inevitable in a work of this breadth. There was also a bit too much on ‘dead’ languages for my taste but that’s a question of personal preference of course.
I agree with you about the limitations of this kind of list. I chose to use Ostler’s because he had obviously put a lot of thought (and research) into where to call the differences but as you say it’s very much open to interpretation.
its really helpful…but how can chinese be the most spoken language? not everyone khows
Chinese is the highest because of it’s population. Not many people learn it as a second language because it’s a total of about 50,000 characters to learn. Even asian children struggle to learn it compared to other children learning different languages. Someone estimated that it takes about 3,000-4,000 characters to read a newspaper. Compare that to English (26 letters) and you see why it’s challenging.
I liked this chart. Very informative.
Anybody else notice that the middle editions of Ethnologue don’t work? I kinda need them :/
Good question! Take a look at this post, which tries to explain a bit
There are many Chinese speakers, but they are (mostly) all concentrated in China. If you’re not in China, you’re more likely to meet someone who speaks a different language.
Thanks for visiting!
you have to say that arbic is the hardest language in the world
Arabic is the best language and the hardest language in the world. كنت حد ذاتها
TELUGU DESERVES MUCH A BETTER PLACE AND AM PROUD TO BE A TELUGU
telugu is the best language and i am proud to be a telugu speaking person
TELUGU IS BEAUTIFUL,MELODIOUS,MUSICAL LANGUAGE ALSO KNOWN AS ITALIAN OF THE EAST.
TELUGU IS UNIQUE IN ITS ANTIQUITY AND QUALITY EACH WORD ENDING IN/WITH A VOWEL,ONE OF THE CLASSICAL LANGUAGES OF INDIA,2ND HIGHLY SPOKEN LANGUAGE OF INDIA AFTER HINDI.JAI TELUGU THALLI,JAI TELANGAANA THALLI.
Oh my god, i can not believe you left Arabic ! … body, you are not qualified to speak about global top languages !
come on liz, Arabs would accuse you of being a raacciisstt!
There is 80 million people in turkey how can turkish be 61m?
I think spanish comes second after chineese
what is chanda in english?
what is the english translation for the word impukunun?
how tamil is behind telgu?? telgu is primarily spoken only in the indian state of andhra pradesh but whereas tamil is one of the official language of singapore, malaysia and srilanka.
Ya vidya thats correct tamil is 1st then telgu
tamil is best language
I know right
“All languages beginning is *TAMIL*”
“tamil is best language
“how tamil is behind telgu?? telgu is primarily spoken only in the indian state of andhra pradesh but whereas tamil is one of the official language of singapore, malaysia and srilanka.”
its all true guys!!
See im form bangalore i like to speak tamil,i love tamilians
Wow! I’m awesome I speak English, Spanish, Mandarin (Chinese), Malay, Japanese, Korean, Penang Hokkien and Teochew fluently and a little bit of French and Cantonese.
I think Arabic and Persian are two others fashionable languages that the list did not mention them. thank you
Egyptian is spoken by mostly all the Egyptian population which is around 85 millions 🙂 maybe some old Nubians in upper Egypt and some old siwans in the western delta are the only exception. it definitely should be in the list
correction: western desert I meant
Official language of Indonesia is Indonesian or Bahasa Indonesia… but if we talk about native speakers from Wikipedia we can said that there in Top 20 Spoken is Javanese… by the way Indonesian is very cool and easy language 🙂
All languages beginning is *TAMIL*
Persian is the oldest language in the world, where is it???
arabic is Popular, it isn’t in tje list…
this list is not correct…
I think after 5years BENGALI Langouse top 3 in the world.BENGALI langouse is Sweet and good in the world.
Where is Arabic?
come on where is Arabic ?
turkish is best
On the basis of first and second language speakers or mutual intelligibility, I suppose English should be the first on the list. As regards Arabic, though mainly Maghreb (Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya) nations have some difficulty, all Arabic speaking communities understand each other and literate people can speak modern Arabic. Modern Turkish is indeed a dialect of Turkic language group (according to Wikipedia spoken by some 170 million people). In particular Turkish, Azeri, Uyghur, Uzbek and Turkmen are close dialects, that a speaker of one could easily understand and speak other in a short period of time.
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Hi Alice! Thanks for your comments. I’m really happy you like it. We are especially happy when people from different parts of the world want to share their culture on PocketCultures.
then where’s Persian(Farsi)?
the population of Iran is about 75M and they’re all speaking in Persian.
an other point is that Iranians aren’t the only Persian speakers, people of Tajikistan and Afghanistan also speak in Persian and Persian is their official language.
Hi dear friends tamil language is sweets language,All languages beginning is *TAMIL* Only!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Top 10 Tamil
Farsi and Arabic, are very important though than many languages cited in the list !
It is not true persian is a language which is spoken in three countries over 150m people speak in this language where is it.Iran.. Afganistan..Tajikistan
Worlds verry oldest historic language is “TAMIL” 10,000 years old!…….
Guys, this list is from very way back, so it’s going to be a bit off.
Arabic is split because some forms of it are inentelligible (that how it’s spelled?) to other forms, so they are considered different languages. Maybe Farsi is the same? (Persian)