Most Widely Spoken Languages in the World

Arabic is one of the most widely spoken languages in the world
The window of a shop in the Fatih district in Istanbul. Source: AP Images

There are over 7,000 languages in the world, each with their own histories and sounds. All of these should be celebrated. But, some languages are much more widely spoken than the rest. Chinese1 is far and away the most common, with over one billion speakers. English is the third most common, with 335 million. Those numbers only reflect primary or native speakers. It is estimated that roughly half of the world's population is multilingual, and so the absolute numbers for people who are capable of speaking those languages is much higher.

LanguageApprox. number
of speakers
% of Population
1. Chinese11,197,000,00016.6
2. Spanish414,000,0005.8
3. English335,000,0004.7
4. Hindi2260,000,0003.6
5. Arabic3237,000,0003.2
6. Portuguese203,000,0002.8
7. Bengali193,000,0002.7
8. Russian167,000,0002.3
9. Japanese122,000,0001.7
10. Javanese84,300,0001.2

What Counts as a Language?

It may seem like a silly question, but it's quite a serious one. The dividing line between languages and dialects is blurry—why are Dutch, Frisian, and Afrikaans considered different, but Chinese languages are considered variations on the same? Some people claim that the difference is mutual intelligibility (speakers of one understand the other). But, Dutch speakers may understand Afrikaans more easily than speakers of Shanghainese would grasp Meixian Chinese. Or, a bit more asymmetrically, American English speakers may have trouble understanding a Scottish English speaker, while the Scottish speaker may understand the American perfectly.

The real difference between languages and dialects is political, as often as not. Common language has been seen as a defining feature of the nation-state. The desire to call Norwegian and Danish languages is largely motivated by the desire to differentiate their cultures and their states. The Kurdish languages will be classified together to construct a more unified culture, in contrast to surrounding cultures, despite being mutually unintelligible. With that in mind, one must be aware that the raw numbers here aren't perfect representations of what or of how people speak. They are a thorough approximation.

Languages in the United States

Although the United States prides itself on the diversity of its population, by measures of linguistic diversity it's actually quite average. At its most basic, linguistic diversity is measured in the number of languages spoken in daily living, and the number of people speaking them. By such a standard, if an entire population of people came from different places but spoke the same, they would be considered relatively homogeneous. This is an especially important distinction when discussing matters like media consumption or political communication.

The US doesn't have an official language, but English is the most common in the United States by a huge margin, as well as the de facto language of government. Roughly two-thirds of the country speak English as a primary language. Spanish is the next most common, with about ten percent of the population. Trailing behind at just shy of one percent are Chinese, French/French Creole, and Tagalog.

Compiled from The Atlantic Monthly, Ethnologue, The Washington Post, and World Atlas.com.



Source: Ethnologue, 2014.
1. "Chinese" encompasses 13 Sino-Tibetan languages with at least 1 million speakers, and numerous smaller ones. The state-recognized standard is Mandarin, but over a hundred varieties exist. These may alternately be considered dialects of "Chinese" or a family of closely related languages.
2. By contrast to Chinese or Arabic, which are collective terms for regional languages and dialects, Hindi is one of 22 official languages in India. States in India select their own official languages. If one were to categorize Indo-Aryan languages together (Hindi, Bengali, Punjabi, etc.) the numbers would be comparable to Chinese.
3. "Arabic" includes 18 individual languages with at least 1 million speakers.


Writing & Language


Writing & Language