The World’s Top 20 Languages

I remember once being told by a former boss that if you could speak Mandarin Chinese, Spanish and English then you could communicate with anyone on the planet. That didn’t seem right to me then and it seems even less correct now. English is definitely the world’s current Lingua Franca but will only get you so far; Mandarin Chinese and Spanish also have hundreds of millions of speakers but seem to be limited to only certain places and contexts. This got me thinking about what languages one would need to know in order to speak to just about anyone on the planet. I think a good place to start is finding out the world’s top 20 languages. I got my information from Ethnologue, Encarta and Nicholas Ostler’s Empires of the Word: a Language History of the World.

Mandarin Chinese
Depending on your sources, this language has between 873 million and 1.3 billion native speakers. Because the PRC has been pushing it so much for the past fifty years Mandarin is also becoming the language you hear most in the China towns of every major city of the world. It is also an official or very widely used language in Singapore, Taiwan and Malaysia.

As a first language English has between 322 and 358 million speakers in Great Britain, the USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. The location of those countries make English well distributed geographically, however, in terms of numeric size it is still at very distant second place when compared to Mandarin Chinese. This changes a bit when the number of people who speak English as a second language or as a creole (like in Nigeria, India and Jamaica) are added to the total. Then it has anywhere from 500 million to 1.5 billion speakers who live in almost every country in the world.

Finding an exact number for Hindi is rather difficult. There are certain dialects of Hindi that are not mutually intelligible with others so even though they count themselves in this group, they probably shouldn’t. Then there is Urdu, which is completely intelligible to the average Hindi speaker, but Urdu speakers don’t like to be grouped with Hindi speakers even though they probably should be. This puts the number of speakers anywhere from 181 million to 422 million native speakers with another 155 million that speak it as a second language. Most of these people live in India and Pakistan.

Thanks to the Spanish conquerors of the 1500’s and mass immigration in the 20th century you can find Spanish speakers just about anywhere in the Americas and Western Europe. There are between 322 and 400 million native speakers with another 100 million that speak it as a second language.

Russian would be down farther on this list, with 144 million native speakers, if it hadn’t been for the USSR. With its second language speakers found all over the Ukraine, Kazakhstan and other places, Russian has somewhere between 255 and 277 million speakers.

This is a remarkable language considering its humble origins. Over 500 years ago tiny Portugal set off to get rich in the spice trade and extended its influence all over the world. Today there are between 190 and 230 million speakers of this language in South America, Africa, Western Europe and even in some small communities of the South Pacific and Far East.

This is another tricky one. Arabic is a wide spread language that varies greatly from place to place. There are about 25 main groups of Arabic dialects. Not all dialects are mutually intelligible so Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) acts as a sort of artificial but standardized way of writing and speaking among educated Arab countries. The problem is that a huge percentage of Arabic speakers have a limited understanding of MSA. If you only count the mutually intelligible dialects then there could be as few as 45 million Arabic speakers. If all dialects are counted together and supposedly unified by MSA then there are as many as 323 million speakers.

I bet you thought that you’d see this language higher up on the list didn’t you? This is the original Lingua Franca, in fact, Lingua Franca literally means French Language! French has only 64 to 65 million native speakers but counting the people that speak it as a second language all over the world the number can be as big as 250 million.

This language is spoken in Western India and, of course, Bangladesh as well as in many Indian communities in Great Britain, the USA and Canada. There are between 171 and 211 million Bengali speakers. For as many speakers as it has it’s a wonder to me that it’s not more commonly known.

It is amazing to me that this language is not more influential than it is. The Germanic tribes sacked Rome and took over most of Western Europe but left very little linguistic impact on most of these places. Although this is also a language with quite a bit of dialectal variation it is also spoken by a people who are generally well educated and are proficient in the standard way of speaking. There are between 100 and 128 million native German speakers, mostly in Germany and Austria.

In spite of Japan’s many attempts to conquer neighboring countries, the Japanese language was never in any place outside of Japan for very long. The fact that Japan has intentionally closed itself off from the world for centuries at a time doesn’t help much either. With between 122 and 126 million speakers to date Japanese has a good chance to grow in the future due to its cartoons and economic influence.

Wu Chinese
This is one of those pesky Chinese dialects that refuses to go away. Most of the 77 million Wu speakers live in and around the area of Shanghai China and from what I’ve heard (i.e. not a scientific observation) most of the Wu speakers that are younger than 50 also speak very fluent Mandarin.

This is another one of those little languages that just refused to give up. In spite of centuries of being occupied by foreign powers this language isolate (i.e. nothing like any other language) is alive and strong. With between 71 and 78 million speakers and a robust economy, Korean could very possibly go on to be one of the more important world languages.

Java-what? No it is not the language of coffee brewers but the biggest language in Indonesia. There are between 75 and 76 million Javanese speakers.

Thousands of years ago the invading Aryans conquered the native Dravidians of India. Hindi is one of the descendents of the Aryan Indo-European languages that they brought with them. Southern India has kept a many of their original Dravidian languages and Telugu is one of them. These 75 million Telugu speakers might learn English or Hindi to do business or communicate with outsiders but it is unlikely that they will ever give up the language of their ancestors.

Close behind Telugu, with 74 million speakers, Tamil is the language of the southern tip of the Indian subcontinent and parts of Sri Lanka and Singapore. Tamil is also a classical Dravidian language that resisted being replaced by Aryan Indo-European (and therefore Sanskrit and Hindi) and English.

With India being the second most populated country in the world and having a very high birth rate it is no wonder that it is also home to several of the world’s biggest languages. Spoken commonly in Western India, Marathi is a distant cousin of Hindi and a descendant of the conquering Aryans referred to earlier in this post. There are around 71 million native Marathi speakers and another 20 million who speak it as a second language.

Cantonese (Yue Chinese)
Spoken in Guangdong Province China and many other places world wide, Cantonese has more tones than any other variety of Chinese. It has nine in case you were wondering. The native language of movie stars like Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan and Stephen Chow and 71 million other people, Cantonese is unlikely to be replaced by Mandarin anytime soon.

One of the few Asian languages to adopt a western alphabet, Vietnamese is spoken by between 64 and 70 million people in Australia, Canada, the USA, Cambodia and Vietnam.

Last in this list, but definitely not least of all languages, the language of the Ottomans is spoken by 58 to 61 million people, mainly in Turkey and the Balkans but also in many communities all over the world.

Well, there they are: the world’s top 20 languages. It was difficult ranking them. One could argue that English should be placed first and not Mandarin. One could also argue that English, Hindi and Spanish are all contenders for second place after Mandarin. There were other spots that were tricky but I ranked them as best I could. Assuming you didn’t already know which of these languages were in this list, is your view of the importance of different languages now changed after reading it? Notice that important languages like Hebrew, Farsi and Italian are not on this list. Does the number of its speakers determine how important a language is; does it have any influence at all?


14 Responses

  1. The number of native speakers alone doesn’t necessarily determine the importance of a language. It’s also worth considering such factors as the number of countries where they’re spoken, the economic strength of those countries, and the number of major fields in which the languages are used. You can find a breakdown of these factors on this site.

    The most important languages, according to that site, are: English, French, Spanish, Russian, Arabic, Chinese, German, Japanese, Portuguese and Hindi/Urdu.

  2. Omniglot,

    Thanks for the link and your participation on this site. The info from that link is interesting. As I wrote in the post after this one, I think that what makes a language truly important is largely individual, though the factors you mention are undeniably important. For example, as an American, and especially as someone from the South West, I have currently have very little use for French. If I were from Europe, or many places in Africa, that wouldn’t be the case. The people living in those places have little use for Thai and yet if you are Laotian, Cambodian or Vietnamese, Thai is a very important language to know. Then there is the issue of personal interest and motivation but if I’m not careful this comment could end up being as long as a post. In any case, this is a fascinating subject and one that I will probably visit again on the blog.

  3. I don’t think the number of speakers of a particular language has as much to do with its power as many other factors (i think it’s quite a bit player). If you are writing this list in terms of communicability with people in their native language, then this would be a good top 20. However if it is a list of “the 20 languages one should learn to be able to communicate with the most people” i think it would help to look at it a little differently. For example, I would likely remove hindi from this list. I have traveled in India and Hindi is not the unifying language of the subcontinent, English is. Look at this list above and see. We have: Hindi/Urdu in the north and northwest, Tamil in the extreme south, Bengali in the northeast, Telugu in the south, etc…These people would learn a common lingua franca (ie: English). Think about it from a cultural perspective: if you were a native Tamil speaker, Hindi may not be seen as a national language, it may considered a language of another group of Indian people culturally, historically, socially, etc different from yourself (potentially) – a stigma English may not have in the same manner. India is also one of the most educated countries in the world (if not the most educated, per capita). Because of this, and to help itself snag a spot in the global spotlight, India has focussed a great emphasis in teaching English from elementary school on all of which is obivously conducive to the spread of English in India as a common language.
    Another good example for how the economic/political throw a language’s speakers has vs. number of population would be the relationship between Mandarin and Cantonese in the past few decades. I am a university student studying socio-economic international development in Asia and East Asian comparative philology and I can say that it is very evident that there has been a recession of Cantonese in and around Guangdong province in China and even in Hong Kong – long held to be a bastion of the Cantonese language. This is all because The Party promotes is standardized, simplified Mandarin – Putonghua, as THE language of the mainland, and, while one may continue to speak Cantonese with friends and family, when barraged with a different language in school, on televesion and in other forms of media – especially when being pushed by such a ruthless government, it becomes inevitable that the new language will irk out a spot for itself. Just a few thoughts

  4. Colin: What a fascinating subject of study. It’s true: the mere number of people that speak a common language is not the only factor in determining its importance.

  5. Hello. We did a post on this recently (unfortunately I didn’t see yours first!)

    My list was based only on Nicholas Ostler’s top 20. There was some discussion about why Arabic was not on the list and I think I agree with you that there is a good case for including it.

    It was also commented elsewhere that Bahasa Indonesia should be included. I don’t really know anything about that, maybe because its main role is as lingua franca and not a native language in its own right. Do you have any view?

    Glad I found your site – it’s very interesting.

  6. Wikipedia has a list that ranks languages by the number of native-language speakers, while including some data for second languages. The top languages, in this kind of ranking, are:

    1. Mandarin (Sino-Tibetan & Chinese)
    2. Urdu/Hindi (Indo-European, Indo-Iranian, & Indo-Aryan
    3. Spanish (Indo-European, Italic, & Romance
    4. English (Indo-European, Germanic, & West)
    5. Arabic (Afro-Asiatic & Semitic)
    6. Portuguese (Indo-European, Italic, & Romance)
    7. Bengali (Indo-European, Indo-Iranian, & Indo-Aryan)
    8. Russian (Indo-European, Slavic, & East)
    9. French (Indo-European, Italic, & Romance)
    10. Japanese (language isolate, or Altaic)
    11. German (Indo-European, Germanic, & West)

  7. […] world today, though many are on the verge of extinction and will be gone in twenty or thirty years. In a previous post, I talked about what the world’s top 20 languages were in terms of sheer number of speakers. […]

  8. […] comments below on why he considered Arabic dialects as separate languages. As an alternative view, this post from The Linguist Blogger incorporates different sources of information as well as Ostler’s […]

  9. Perhaps nitpicking, I would just point out that Mandarin is not the language you hear most in the Chinatowns of the world, but the language you’re likely to hear in most of the world’s Chinatowns. I think the more common language is Cantonese, or Hokkien, or Foochow, though you’re increasingly able to conduct public business in Mandarin, regardless of the dominant language of the neighbourhood.

    It also depends on how you define “Chinatown.” I tend to think of it as a dense neighbourhood in an urban centre, but a lot of newer suburbs (greater L.A., Silicon Valley, Texas) are indeed predominantly Mandarin-speaking Chinese and will have shops spread out over a much wider area.

    The reason Bangla and German aren’t more known or influential is that their speakers are mostly concentrated all in one place, and/or highly proficient at English.

  10. How about Bahasa. I heard somewhere that this language has quite a lot of speakers too.

  11. Yes, Malay (or Bahasa Indonesia / Bahasa Melayu, which are based on Malay) definitely needs to be on this list, probably between Bengali and German. It may not be the first language in all cases where it can be found, but you can travel across Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei and the Indonesian Archipelago and most people will be able to communicate in it. It is also understood in parts of southern Thailand and also has some speakers which have migrated to Australia.

  12. I’m Indonesian, and I really agree with this article. In Indonesia, most of 220 millons can speak Indonesian, but actually only less than 30 millons are native speakers. Why I say this? Because in Indonesia, there are more than 300 languages, including Malay creole and Indonesian creole (not standard Indonesian or Malay). The native speakers in Indonesian only probably found in some parts of Jakarta, Medan, Lampung, Samarinda, and some places in the city in the west Indonesian (remember, the native language of east Indonesian is not Indonesian, but regional language of Indonesian and Malay creole). You must remember too, in Jakarta there are many native speakers of Jakarta Indonesian (the dialect of Indonesian named Jakarta) than Standard Indonesian. And how about Javanese? Yes, there are many native speakers of Javanese than Indonesian. So, almost all of Indonesian people know and speak Indonesian, but more than 75% are not native speakers of Indonesian. They are only use it as lingua franca.

  13. Indonesian language by number of speakers (people):
    total: about 210-240 million

  14. I am an indian and i certainly do not accept the fact that languages become important based on number of speakers.

    Most of the north indian speakers ,who speak mainly hindi are either from poor family background or uneducated people.

    and people in south india are adamant and cold about other’s language, because they take pride in their own language and it is very rare to find a person who can speak more than 3 dravidian languages unless he lives in multilingual city such as Bangalore etc.

    so we could say that english plays an important role in binding people together rather than declaring hindi or tamil or telugu in india.

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