The 15 Most Popular Languages in the World
For many of us, the languages we speak help form and influence our sense of self, and affect the way we are seen by others. In a sense, being able to speak a language makes you a member of the tribe, whether it's a native tongue or one you’ve learned in school or as an adult.
Some of those tribes are quite small: there are only about 50 speakers of Sarcee left, a language spoken by members of the Canadian branch of the Tsuu T’ina tribe. And many other languages have gone extinct, including Cornish, Dalmatian, Utaha, and Manx, all of which are no longer spoken by native or fluent speakers.
In contrast, many languages are thriving, as this list, taken from the World Atlas, shows. Here are the world’s most popular languages, calculated by considering all speakers – meaning both native speakers and those who’ve acquired one or more languages. Keep in mind that estimating how many people speak a language is quite difficult, so the statistics are reasonable estimates, not exact figures.
Rounding out our Top 15 list is Persian, spoken by 121 million people. You may be more familiar with this language by its other name: Farsi. It’s spoken in Iran, Afghanistan, and Tajikistan, and developed out of Old Persian, a language first spoken in the Achaemenid Empire (550 – 330 BC).
No doubt due to its age, it has an extensive literary history, with many notable pieces of literature written in Persian, including the works by the poet Rumi.
The national language of Japan is spoken by 129 million people. It’s a mysterious language, its origins so far lost in history, but it emerged in Chinese writing in the 3rd century.
Japanese has four distinct forms of writing, and is not directly related to any other language spoken in the world today. Unlike many other Asian languages, Japanese is not tonal which makes it somewhat easier to learn.
Around the world, 129 million people speak German. It’s an official language for many countries, not just in Germany, but also in Austria, Switzerland, the South Tyrol area of Italy, Belgium, and Lichtenstein.
It won’t surprise you to learn that German is the most widely spoken language in the European Union, and the most widely taught foreign language in the EU at the secondary level. An interesting fact about German is that it has three genders: male, female and neuter.
The Punjabi language is spoken by 148 million people in the Punjab region, which extends from northwest India through eastern Pakistan. In fact, it’s Pakistan’s most widely spoken language.
Punjabi is spoken widely elsewhere; in Canada, it is the 5th most commonly spoken language. In Punjabi, the way the voice is pitched helps to convey the meaning of the speaker, making it a challenging language to learn.
150 million people in the world speak Hausa, the ancestral language of the Hausa people of Central Africa. It’s spoken throughout Niger, Nigeria and Chad, and developed into a lingua franca throughout northern Africa as a language used in trade.
The language is widespread enough in Africa that news organizations such as the BBC broadcast using it.
Another Romance language on our list is French, with 229 million speakers.
French reflects influences from German, Latin, and the Gaulish language, and is spoken throughout France, Belgium, Luxembourg, Switzerland, Canada, Haiti, and other countries.
French has also aided in the development of several other languages, including various forms of Creole.
Portuguese is also considered a beautiful language; it’s a Romance language, part of a group of Indo-European languages that developed from Latin.
Portuguese is, of course, associated with Portugal, but its 229 million speakers also hail from Angola, Brazil, Cape Verde, and Mozabique among other countries.
English has borrowed quite a few words from Portuguese, including marmalade, which once referred only to a Portuguese quince paste.
At over 261 million speakers, Bengali is 8th on our list. It’s spoken widely in India, the Sierra Leone, the United States, and the United Kingdom, and is the official language of Bangladesh.
It’s derived from Sanskrit and Persian, and emerged between 1000 and 1200 CE. Bengali is often called one of the most beautiful spoken languages in the world.
Russian is the first Slavic language to make this list. Over 267 million people speak Russian, which is the official language of not just Russia but also Ukraine, Latvia, Armenia, and several more countries which were once part of the Soviet Union.
It is the largest native language in Europe, with nearly 150 million native speakers.
Malay is also called Indonesian, which tells you right away that it is spoken in Indonesia, as well as Malaysia, Brunei, and Singapore.
It is the sixth most spoken language, with 281 million speakers, and its origins are thought to be in the island of Borneo.
Malay can be written in a Latin or an Arabic script, although the Arabic version is in decline. Efforts are being made in Malaysia to preserve it.
With 422 million speakers, Arabic is the lingua franca of the Middle East. It’s spoken in Saudi Arabia, Iraq, the United Arab Emirates, Yemen, Sudan, Quatar, Iran, Afghanistan, and Indonesia.
It’s one of the oldest languages on this list, emerging around the Iron Age (1200 – 1000 BC) in northwest Arabia. In the Middle Ages, Arabic was a more global language, the default mode of expressing scientific and mathematical theories and concepts, which, along with vigorous trade, helped it spread to Europe.
This language may seem unfamiliar to you, but it actually refers to Hindu and Urdu, two languages that are similar in grammar but different in how they are used within Northern India and Pakistan, as well as other countries where they are spoken.
“Hindustan” is the historic name for the northern and northwestern regions of South Asia. Approximately 544 million people speak Hindustani.
The language of Spain, Mexico, and many Latin American counties is spoken by 661 million people worldwide. It’s also called Castilian, and, like English, is considered a global language, one that is spoken by a large number of people all over the world as a second language.
It’s one of the six official languages of the United Nations, as well. Interestingly, about 75 percent of modern Spanish is derived from Latin, while 8 percent comes from Arabic.
2. Mandarin Chinese
With 1.15 billion speakers, Mandarin Chinese is second on our list. While it’s usually associated with China, people in Taiwan, Singapore, and Malaysia also speak Mandarin Chinese.
This language is actually comprised of several different dialects, including the Beijing dialect, which forms the basis for Standard Chinese, the official language of China.
Interestingly, a given dialect within Mandarin Chinese is often not understood by speakers of a different dialect, yet Mandarin is still considered one language.
Spoken by nearly 1.4 billion people, English tops this list because it is the most frequently acquired language by non-native speakers. Many people learn it because it’s the most popular language in several of the world’s largest countries: the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom.
English is spoken widely elsewhere, in Ireland, Australia, Namibia, and Nigeria, for example. It’s also the most common language in film and television so it is consumed around the world.
English is one of our most diverse languages, as it has roots in many cultures and borrows and adapts words from other languages frequently.