Ever wondered what the most widely spoken languages are in the world? Although there are currently more than 7,000 languages, more than half of the world's population speak 23 of them only.
Whether it's the melodic tones of Spanish, the rich intricacies of Mandarin, or the rhythmic cadence of English, mastering these top tongues will open doors to new cultures and opportunities
Knowing this information is essential to understand if you’re planning a global expansion strategy and levelling up in the business world. Additionally, whether in the workplace or personal development, knowledge of more than one language offers us new horizons and the opportunity to expand our cultural understanding.
From the languages that English speakers will find easy to learn, to the more difficult languages, we've compiled this all-encompassing list for you based on real data.
So keep reading to find out what the most spoken languages are.
Editor's note: This post was originally published in July 2021 and has been completely updated and revamped for accuracy and comprehensiveness as of 2023.
1. English (1,452 million speakers)
- First language: 372.9 million
- Total speakers: 1.4+ billion
According to Ethnologue, English is the most-spoken language in the world including native and non-native speakers.
Like Latin or Greek at the time, English has become the world's common language. It is the default language in international business, tourism, technology, and much more.
2. Mandarin (1,118 million speakers)
- First language speakers: 929 million
- Total speakers: 1.1+ billion
Looking at total speakers, Mandarin is the second most widely spoken language in the world. However, it's the most spoken language in the world if you count only first-language (native) speakers due to China's significant population.
Mandarin is not actually a language, but a set of dialects of the Chinese language. What unifies these dialects under the same name is that their speakers can understand each other.
3. Hindi (602+ million speakers)
- First language speakers: 343.9 million
- Total speakers: 602+ million
Hindi is, along with English, one of the 22 official languages of India, the second most inhabited country in the world. India’s incredible linguistic diversity (more than 121 languages coexist) explains the high rate of non-native speakers who use it as a lingua franca. In addition to India, Hindi is spoken by over a quarter of the population of Nepal!
4. Spanish (548+ million speakers)
- First language speakers: 474.7 million
- Total speakers: 548+ million
Spanish is the second most widely spoken language globally in terms of native speakers. In addition, it is the most spoken of the Romance languages and the third most used on the internet.
Spain’s enormous colonial expansion took this language not only to the Americas but also to Africa and Asia. Today, there are 21 Spanish-speaking countries in the world, with dozens more that have a significant Spanish-speaking population. Interestingly, the United States is the second country with the largest number of Spanish speakers in the world!
5. French (280 million speakers)
- First language speakers: 79.9 million
- Total speakers: 274+ million
Like Spanish and English, French spread throughout the world along with the French colonial empire. Today, there are 29 French-speaking countries all around the world!
If English is the language of business, then French is considered the language of culture. Its enormous importance is also reflected in the fact that it is the third language with the largest number of non-native speakers.
6. Modern Standard Arabic (274 million speakers)
- First language speakers: 0 million
- Total speakers: 274 million
Did you know that Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) is the only language on this list without native speakers? Indeed, Arabic is a large language with many different dialects, and all Arabic speakers grow up speaking a local dialect, like Egyptian Arabic, Levantine Arabic, Mesopotamian Arabic or another local variety.
So, how does MSA have so many non-native speakers? That’s because MSA is commonly used in newspapers, TV broadcasts, and movies, but people don’t speak it with each other. It’s an academic language that you’ll find in literature in politics, but not in everyday life. As such, if you’re interested in learning Arabic, you’re better off starting with one dialect and then learning MSA to widen your horizons.
7. Bengali (272+ million speakers)
- First language speakers: 233.7 million
- Total speakers: 272.7 million
Bengali is the official language of Bangladesh and is also spoken in some areas of India and Burma. It may come as a surprise that a language spoken in such a small region appears in a list of the most spoken languages in the world. However, it makes sense when you think about the population density of that region.
8. Russian (258+ million speakers)
- First language speakers: 154 million
- Total speakers: 258.2 million
Less surprising is the inclusion of Russian among the most widely spoken languages globally considering that Russia is the largest country in the world by territory. Plus, while Russian is the official language of only four countries, it’s widely spoken in 19 countries. Did you know that it’s also the language with the highest number of native speakers in all of Europe?
9. Portuguese (257+ million speakers)
- First language speakers: 232.4 million
- Total speakers: 257.7 million
Portuguese is another language that expanded worldwide during the European colonial period. Today, Portuguese is the official language of nine countries in Europe, South America, Africa, and Asia. Brazil is the largest country out of those nine and has the most Portuguese speakers. Brazil’s large population makes Portuguese the most widely spoken language in the Southern Hemisphere!
10. Urdu (231.3 million speakers)
- First language speakers: 70.2 million
- Total speakers: 231.3 million
Urdu is one of the two official languages in Pakistan and is also widely used in certain regions of India. The spoken part of Urdu is widely intelligible with Hindi, as both speakers can understand each other without much issue. However, Urdu uses a modified Persian script for its alphabet, while Hindi uses Sanskrit.
11. Indonesian (199 million speakers)
- First language speakers: 43.6 million
- Total speakers: 199.0 million
Bahasa Indonesian is the official language of Indonesia, the fourth most populous country in the world. Peculiarly, it’s not the native language of most of its speakers. Rather, it’s a second language necessary for mutual understanding in a country with more than 200 languages.
12. German (134.6 million speakers)
- First language speakers: 75.6 million
- Total speakers: 134.6 million
German is, of course, the official language of Germany. Unlike its other European counterparts, it’s mostly spoken in Europe, with only Austria, Liechtenstein, Switzerland, and Luxembourg having sizeable German-speaking populations. With that said, learning German is incredibly popular relative to its small population, ranking as the fifth most studied language in the world.
13. Japanese (125.4 million speakers)
- First language speakers: 125.3 million
- Total speakers: 125.4 million
Japanese is the first language on this list that is entirely spoken within one country. In fact, over 99% of Japanese people speak Japanese as their native language! With that said, learning Japanese is extremely popular among people who want to enjoy Japanese culture and do business with the third-largest economy in the world.
14. Nigerian Pidgin (120.7 million speakers)
- First language speakers: 4.7 million
- Total speakers: 120.7 million
Nigeria is one of the fastest-growing countries in terms of population. Indeed, it is estimated that the West African country will be the fourth-largest country in the world in terms of population by 2050 — just a hair behind the U.S. We can expect the Nigerian Pidgin to climb on this list in the coming decades following Nigeria’s population boom.
15. Marathi (99.1 million speakers)
- First language speakers: 83.1 million
- Total speakers: 99.1 million
Marathi is the third most common language in India, with most of its speakers concentrated in the state of Maharashtra. This language has existed in its current form for about 1,300 years, making it one of the oldest languages in the world!
16. Telugu (95.7 million speakers)
- First language speakers: 82.7 million
- Total speakers: 95.7 million
Telugu is the fourth most common language in India, right behind Marathi. Telugu is predominantly spoken in the Indian states of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, although it’s also the official language of several other states. It is a part of the Dravidian language family, which has been around for about 5,000 years.
17. Turkish (88.1 million speakers)
- First language speakers: 82.2 million
- Total speakers: 88.1 million
Turkish is the official language of — you guessed it — Turkey. What you may not know is that Turkish used to be written in a modified version of the Arabic alphabet until 1928, when it was replaced by the Roman alphabet. There are sizeable Turkish-speaking populations in Cyprus, Germany, Austria, Bulgaria, Greece and other European states.
18. Tamil (86.4 million speakers)
- First language speakers: 78.4 million
- Total speakers: 86.4 million
Tamil is the fifth most common language in India, with a sizeable presence in the state of Tamil Nadu. It’s also commonly spoken in Sri Lanka and Singapore by Tamil people. Tamil is considered the oldest living language in the world, with a history spanning more than 5,000 years!
19. Yue Chinese (85.6 million speakers)
- First language speakers: 85.2 million
- Total speakers: 85.6 million
Yueh Chinese is a group of closely-related Chinese dialects. The most popular of these dialects is Cantonese, which is spoken predominantly in the Guangdong province of mainland China as well as in Hong Kong and Macau. Cantonese is also popular among overseas communities, making it one of the most common dialects of Chinese outside of China.
20. Vietnamese (85.3 million speakers)
- First language speakers: 84.6 million
- Total speakers: 85.3 million
The Vietnamese language has six tones and is, of course predominantly spoken in Vietnam. However, did you know that it is also recognized as an official language in the Czech Republic, and can therefore be used in courts and official radio and television broadcasts?
There you have it! That’s the list of the 20 most spoken languages in the world. Are you inspired to open your world with language skills and culture? Discover all the languages Berlitz has to offer here.
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