Without considering the thousands of dead languages that were forever lost to time, it is currently estimated that there are more than 7,000 actively spoken languages in the world. However, of these lot, only 23 of these are spoken by more than half the world’s population.
Lucky languages get to pick the pace of current events, economic transactions, and international talks. But determining which are the most spoken languages isn’t as easy as it sounds. Dialects and local linguistic variants make it difficult to determine the real population of speakers, as the very definition of language and dialect often overlap (and as many sociolinguists point out, a language is just a dialect with an army and navy).
Complicating things further, establishing a difference between native and non-native speakers might also not be as easy a task as it seems. For example, non-native speakers are the reason English is at the top of the charts if the absolute number of speakers is your main metric. But when we prioritize native speakers over non-native ones we find that English only comes third on the list!
In any case, the numbers speak for themselves, and you can draw your own conclusions. And although you will in all likelihood be familiar with most languages in this list, there might be a few surprises ahead.
Total number of speakers: 1,132 million
Native speakers: 379 million
Non-native speakers: 753 million
English is regarded by many as the Latin or lingua franca of modern times, a universal language that became the default for international relations, politics, tourism, technology, and science. Think of this fact: if you are a bilingual person who happens to speak both English and Spanish, you will be able to easily read and understand over 60% of all content ever published online. And nowadays, if you are an English speaker, it is way more likely that you speak it as a second language, seeing the disparity in numbers between native and non-native speakers.
2. Chinese (Mandarin)
Total number of speakers: 1,117 million
Native speakers: 918 million
Non-native speakers: 199 million
Mandarin is the second most widely spoken language in the world, and the most widely spoken if you only count native speakers. The disparity between native and non-native speakers, however - especially when compared to English - illustrates just how difficult learning Mandarin proves for many, even when there is a vast pool of native speakers to spread the language around.
Total number of speakers: 615 million
Native speakers: 341 million
Non-native speakers: 274 million
As one of the most populated countries in the world, you probably already guessed the main official language of India would be high on this list. However, the enormous linguistic diversity in the region (there are more than 1,600 coexisting languages) explains its high rate of non-native speakers, who use it as a bridge language for trade and other economic activities.
Total number of speakers: 534 million
Native speakers: 460 million
Non-native speakers: 74 million
In terms of native speakers, Spanish is the second most widely spoken language in the world, right after Chinese. Most South American countries speak Spanish, but it is also spoken in some regions of Africa and Asia. And due to immigration, the US is the second country with the largest number of Spanish speakers in the world.
Total number of speakers: 280 million
Native speakers: 77 million
Non-native speakers: 203 million
As with many other European countries, France managed to further its influence in the world mainly through its colonies, and the French language was the little gift it left everywhere for those under its rule. Because of this, today it is the official language of 29 countries on different continents.
Total number of speakers: 274 million
Native speakers: 245 million
Non-native speakers: 29 million
Arabic is a hot contestant among the up-and-coming languages in the world. Serving as the liturgical language of one of the main religions of the world, it reaches beyond just the Arab world and tight communities of immigrants.
However, just like Chinese, Arabic has so many different dialects that it is not always easy for native speakers to fully understand each other, depending on the region where they were born and the associated dialect.
Total number of speakers: 265 million
Native speakers: 228 million
Non-native speakers: 37 million
With a whopping 265 million speakers, Bengali is the official language of Bangladesh, a small country almost completely encircled by India - except by a tiny shared border with Myanmar. It is also one of the official languages of India and Burma, and although it isn’t as widely spoken as Hindi, the extreme population density of this region makes up for its lack of outward projection.
Total number of speakers: 258 million
Native speakers: 154 million
Non-native speakers: 104 million
No one who ever saw Russia on a map would be surprised by the presence of the Russian language in this top ten. However, being the official language of the single largest country in the world (the Russian Federation spans 11% of the world’s landmass!), one could expect it to be further up in the list. Also, former countries of the Soviet Union usually include Russian as one of their official languages.
Total number of speakers: 234 million
Native speakers: 221 million
Non-native speakers: 13 million
Another European language that spread throughout the world during the colonial period, nowadays Portuguese is the official language of nine countries in the world, with speakers in Europe, America, Africa, and Asia. However, Brazil is by far the country with the largest amount of native speakers.
Total number of speakers: 198 million
Native speakers: 43 million
Non-native speakers: 155 million
Notice the discrepancy between native and non-native speakers. Indonesia is a country with more than 200 languages, and as such official Indonesian is not the native tongue of most Indonesians. It serves mostly as a local lingua franca, vital for transactions and general understanding.
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