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Most Widely Spoken Languages in the World

Updated April 9, 2020 | Infoplease Editor

The modern lingua francas

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. Find out which languages keep us connected and keep the world running.

These rankings 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. We've provided estimates for secondary speakers, but in some cases the data are incomplete. There are no widely published data on third-language speakers and beyond.

Chinese is the Most Widely Spoken Language in the World
Mandarin is the world's most spoken language. 

Note: Figures given are in millions

Rank
Language
Primary
Secondary
Total
1
Mandarin Chinese1
918.0
199.1
1,120.1
2
Spanish
460.0
74.2
537.9
3
English
379
753
1.268
4
Hindi2
341
274
615
5
Arabic3
315
132
447
6
Bengali
242.6
19.2
261.8
7
Portuguese
222.7
13
236.5
8
Russian
153.9
110.4
264.3
9
Japanese
128.2
.131
128.3
10
W. Punjabi4
119
(unknown)
>119

Source: Ethnologue 2018 & 2019 and World Atlas.com.

The Top Performers

Perhaps it comes as no surprise that Chinese tops the list, as China is the world's most populous country. Mandarin is the most common of more than 30 Chinese languages/dialects, and is sponsored by the government as the official language of China. Officially, for the purposes of cultural and political unity (as we discuss below), the different Chinese languages are considered dialects of a single Han Chinese parent language. 

Spanish isn't nearly as common as its closest competitors in raw numbers, but it's the primary language of over twenty countries. Most countries of the Western Hemisphere speak Spanish as a first language, as well as Spain and Equitorial Guinea in the Eastern Hemisphere. 

English isn't even in the same ballpark as Chinese in terms of primary speakers, but if we include estimates of secondary speakers, then English comes very close. English is commonly used around the world as a trade language or diplomatic language, and is widely spoken and taught in over 118 countries. 

Due both to shifting definitions and growing populations, Hindi has overtaken Arabic in terms of primary language speakers and secondary language speakers. It is now the fourth most common primary language, and the third most popular language overall. 

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 U.S. 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.

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 called dialects (despite being farther apart than English and German)? 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 Hindi and Urdu languages is largely motivated by the desire to differentiate their cultures and their states. The Kurdish languages are often 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.

 
1. Chinese comprises 13 different Sino-Tibetan languages of at least 1 million speakers, and at least 18 smaller ones. Mandarin is a subgroup of 13 Sino-Tibetan languages. 
2. Arabic includes upwards of eighteen different Semitic languages (or dialects) used mostly across Muslim-majority countries.
3. Hindi is sometimes considered a dialect of a broader Hindustani language, the language of much of India and Pakistan. Hindi is mutually intelligible with Urdu, a language primarily spoken in Pakistan that uses Persianized writing instead.
4. Western Punjabi refers to a closely related linguistic family in northern India and Pakistan, centered around the Punjab region. If all Punjabi languages were considered together, then they would outrank Japanese.  
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