With more than 7000 languages in use today, you might be surprised to learn that almost half of us speak one of only 10 main languages as our native language.
Of course, the precise number of languages fluctuates constantly but almost a third of these are considered to be endangered due to so few native speakers.
However, determining which languages are the most spoken in the world is a tricky task; the Arabic language has diverse dialects which makes the language they speak sound quite different, and in Papua New Guinea, there are over 800 languages spoken.
This diversity in language can make precise calculations difficult, but there are 10 languages which are most common (based upon native speakers) and these are listed below:
- Chinese (Mandarin)
Just over 14% (1 billion people) of the world’s population speak Chinese as their first language, with Mandarin being the main branch of Chinese.
Throughout the UK and Europe, the popularity of learning Chinese has increased recently, in conjunction with the growth of China’s technological developments.
Learning a second language has numerous health benefits, and, as one in six people speak Chinese, you’ll easily find someone with whom you can converse!
There are around 400million native Spanish speakers around the globe at present, making it the second most spoken native language.
Large swathes of South and Central America, islands such as the Canary Isles, and of course, Spain itself, all claim Spanish as their native language.
However, language is closely linked to identity, so there may well be many native Spanish speakers who consider their regional dialect to be one step removed from Spanish, such as, Catalonians.
As with Chinese and Spanish, there are regional differences which can influence whether an individual considers English to be their first language. For instance, many Welsh or Scottish people may consider English to be their second language.
However, there are just under 400 million native English speakers around the globe, with many more claiming it as their second language – enough to make English the most widely spoken language in the world for native and non-native speakers, with around 1.2 billion speakers globally.
The popularity of the English language comes from the relative ease of learning, economic, political, and historic reasons.
Around 25% of all internet content is in English, with Chinese a close second at almost 20%.
Around 300 million people around the globe claim Hindi as their native language, even though India itself has more than 20 official languages. The dominant ones are Hindi and Urdu; Hindi is mostly spoken in the north, while Urdu is predominantly from the south (alongside English).
It is hotly debated as to whether Hindi and Urdu are dialects or languages, and there has been resistance from southern India to adopt Hindi as the official language.
There are thought to be around 250 million native Arabic speakers, however, as with Chinese, there are huge differences in regional dialects, which are so vast, they are almost separate languages.
Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) is the primary written form which is used in schools, media, and TV.
Modern Standard Arabic is based upon Classical Arabic which is now only used for religious purposes such as, in the Quran.
However, as Arabic is a pluricentric language (meaning there are numerous standard forms) an Arabic speaker from Morocco is likely to struggle to be understood in Dubai, and vice-versa.
Arabic dialects vary from region to region and have been influenced by languages such as Persian, English, French and Italian over time.
Just over 200 million people speak Portuguese as their mother tongue around the world today.
Like Spanish and English, Portuguese has travelled the globe in its colonial past and is therefore, spoken in large parts of the Americas, Asia, and Africa.
It is the official language of countries as diverse as Cape Verde and Portugal or Brazil and Goa.
Around 200 million people speak Bengali, 3% of the world’s population.
Bengal was divided by the British in 1947, when they separated West Bengal (now part of India) from East Bengal (now Bangladesh).
West Bengal was predominantly Hindu, while the East was mostly Muslim.
Approximately 160 million people are native Russian speakers, while another 100 million people speak it as a second language.
Russian is one of six languages spoken in the UN, alongside English, Arabic, Chinese, French, and Spanish.
With 125 million native speakers, and a population in Japan that corresponds almost exactly, it’s clear to see that the Japanese language is clearly concentrated in one main area. Outside of Japan, the largest concentration of native Japanese speaker reside in the Philippines, Brazil and the US.
There are two written systems operating in Japan; hiragana and katakana, which are phonetic lettering systems (the word hiragana literally means “ordinary” and katakana means “fragmentary kana”).
The Japanese language is not found in the top ten languages for total numbers of speakers (this includes native and second languages), as there are more people who speak French and Indonesian as second languages, than Japanese.
The tenth language with the most native speakers goes to Punjabi. It is also known as Lahnda and is spoken throughout large areas of Pakistan and India.
Punjabi and Lahnda are the collective name for a group of north-western Indo-Aryan language varieties which are similar in form.
When taking into account the number of people worldwide who speak not only their native language, but also a second language, the top ten alters slightly.
English becomes number 1 on the list, with Chinese a close 2nd, Hindi moves to 3rd place, Spanish into 4th, French moves into the list at number 5, with Arabic in 6th.
7th place now goes to Russia, Bengali in 8th, Portuguese in 9th, and finally Indonesian enters the list at number 10.
There are a couple of languages that you might expect to see on either list, for example German or Korean, but both of these just miss the top ten on both.