List by total number of speakers (also sortable by first-language or second-language speakers only)
List by first-language speakers
Which language has the most speakers?
What language is #1?
Simple question, but the answer is not quite so simple.
So for one thing, it’s, well, how do you define what a language is?
Where do you draw the line between languages, versus groups of related languages?
So there’s a lot of grey area there.
And then, of course, how do you measure speakers?
Is it native speakers those who learn the language as babies, or is it the total number of speakers?
So there’s certainly no end to the possible debates and disagreements that could be had if there was a contest for language with the most speakers, and, you know, how the ranking would be laid out.
But here are some possible rankings.
So here we can see there is a list according to the, well, according to three different possible numbers.
We can get the number of first-language speakers, those who learn it as babies, L1.
Second-language speakers, those who learn it as children or adults, L2.
And then we have the total of anybody who speaks the language, whether learned as a baby or later.
So here it is sorted according to total number of speakers.
And we see here that, not surprisingly, the #1 language is English.
Of course, if we had to pick the most popular language in the world, the language that I’m speaking right now, is English.
And that is clearly spoken by the most number of people in the world, here suggested at almost one and a half billion.
And then we see #2, although not too far behind, is what is being called Mandarin Chinese.
So here it is, this particular form of the language called Chinese.
There’s a lot of debate about where you draw the line with Chinese, since there are many different languages, or what are usually considered different languages, that are all related within this Sino-Tibetan language family, and they’re all written using the Chinese writing system, but they are usually considered to be separate languages, not all part of one Chinese language.
Although often they are considered just all put together and called Chinese.
In this case, it’s referring to Mandarin Chinese the official language of the People’s Republic of China.
And this is what’s also called Standard Chinese.
But also this particular list excludes other varieties.
So here we see, even with other varieties of Chinese excluded from this count, we still get a count that is quite close to English as a #2.
So certainly English and Chinese can be considered to be the #1 and #2 languages in the world when it comes to total number of speakers.
When we go off to #3, there’s quite a drop off, almost to half, down to only 600 million.
And this is where we have Hindi, the language, one of the many languages, of India.
Where once again, now we have another issue of exclusion, because we have Urdu, the language of Pakistan, the primary language of Pakistan.
And Hindi and Urdu are very close languages.
Many would say effectively the same language.
But because they are spoken in two separate countries, they’re written with different writing systems, there’s cultural divide, they’re often treated as separate languages, even though, from a purely linguistic point of view, they’re similar enough to possibly be considered one language.
So and if you actually combine them together, you would see a greater number.
But even excluding Urdu, Hindi makes a, you know, comes in clearly as #3.
And it is closely followed by Spanish, another one of the great world languages, where it has just slightly less than Hindi in terms of total speakers.
Though it’s interesting to see the difference between first and second language.
You can see that Hindi has a large number of second-language speakers, probably mostly in India, the many other languages, regional languages, within India, but Hindi is one of the most popular for, you know, the lingua franca or common language to be spoken.
So in many regions of India, there would be many second-language Hindi speakers.
But it’s interesting to see, with Spanish, you have actually more first-language speakers, but there’s a much smaller number of speakers learning Spanish as a second language.
And down in fifth place, we have French.
And so this language, you know, a major language, distributed in many parts of the world.
But you can see here, the numbers are shrinking rapidly.
There’s certainly not an even distribution of languages in the world.
After you come down to – the first few are very prominent in numbers – and these numbers are rapidly coming down.
So already, you know, we’re at, this is, French is at about half the level of Spanish.
And it’s almost exactly matched by what here is listed as Modern Standard Arabic.
But here we again have a problem, because you’re excluding the Arabic dialects.
Well, Modern Standard Arabic is a formal, official dialect or language that is, you know, used for official purposes.
But through the Arabic world, it is local Arabic dialects that are spoken.
So this number, now, it’s now listed as having zero first-language speakers.
So speakers in the Arabic world would speak a dialect of Arabic and then learn Standard Arabic as this official shared language.
So this language is now listed as being entirely composed of second-language speakers.
So you can see the difficulties here in drawing the line between languages.
Certainly we could get a different picture if we combined all the Chinese languages, we combined Hindi and Urdu, and we combined Standard Arabic with all local varieties of Arabic.
It would give a different picture.
Although, since we have within the Arabic world there tends to be this diglossia or sort of a double language situation, where most speakers would have both a local Arabic dialect and standard Arabic, so the number should be something around there.
Now, going down the list a bit, we see a few more languages that are roughly of the same order.
So we have, you know, 270s, down to 230s.
So finishing up the top 10 list are this set of languages with sort of roughly on the same scale.
We have Bengali, which is a language related to Hindi and Urdu, in the same language family, but a separate language of India, spoken in eastern India and Bangladesh.
We have Russian.
And then another of the Latin languages, after Spanish, we have Portuguese.
Well, after Spanish and French, Portuguese.
And then we have here’s Urdu, which was being excluded from the Hindi count, but which also adds 230 million to itself.
And then you can see some others coming later, including these are all other, these are very major languages of their own, this second set of 11 to 20, more major languages, and then goes down from there.
But still these can be considered certainly giants among languages.
Certainly if you look at, I bet you could really take the top hundred languages, and, you know, you could call these the giants.
But they’re now, you know, dropping below 100 million.
You know, by the time you get to #15, you’re already below 100 million total speakers.
So you can see how these numbers are rapidly dropping off.
So that’s looking at things by total number of speakers.
But now imagine, if we forget about people learning these languages as second language, but only count babies.
So this is the baby contest now.
It’s only babies can compete, and you must learn the language as a baby in order to count for your team.
So here we now sort by first-language speakers, and here we see a modified picture.
You can see the rank numbers here.
These are still ranked by total number, so you can see how this shifts the ranking.
If we focus only on first language learners, now we see that Mandarin Chinese is by far the #1 language in the world.
This is why these debates can never end.
If we look at total number of speakers, we can see English is #1, but if we look by number of native speakers, we can see that Chinese is #1.
And it’s really quite dominant, like really almost twice, it’s almost twice the count for the next-largest language, and much more than twice of English.
So next we have, with half of it, Spanish would clearly take the place as #2 among first languages, and English is all the way down at #3.
So it’s really the second-language English speakers that bring its total up to be #1 total.
Then we have Hindi, and we see Bengali here, Bengali, which had been lower down, is now #5 in the list, because it doesn’t have a large proportion of second-language speakers, but, yeah, within eastern India and Bangladesh, has a large number of native speakers.
This term “native speaker” is another term for first-language speaker, L1, speakers who learn as a baby.
Or you could also call them mother-language speakers.
We also see that Portuguese, which also has a very small number, relatively, of second-language learners, comes up at #6 if we look only at first-language speakers.
And we’re already down to 230 million, so, you know, these numbers are coming down quickly when we look compared to the total number of speakers.
And, you know, this number is almost entirely in the country of Brazil.
So that country, you know, by itself is helping to bring Portuguese up to #6.
Then we have a big drop off to #7 here, Russian, down to only 150 million.
And then we actually have, well, we have Japanese here, which has a very small number of second-language learners, but here over 100 million native speakers, almost entirely in the country of Japan.
And so already we then drop below 100 million, and we get to our first variety of Chinese, Yue Chinese, which is a language of southern China, which includes, most famously, Cantonese.
And already they’re below 100 million.
And you can see these languages, and then Vietnamese as well, with very similar numbers.
And you can see these languages have almost no second language learners.
They’re really what they could be called local or regional languages, although certainly major regional languages, because they have a large number of speakers in an area who speak it, but then very few people learn it.
So it’s really the the languages that are favored by second-language learners are languages that tend to have, you know, more application over a wider area, whereas local languages tend to be, you know, you’re born with it, and there may be a large number of speakers in the area who learn it, but then others don’t tend to.
And on down from there.
You see the next level includes some other major languages.
We see French is surprisingly low down.
And we see another variety of Chinese as well.
And a couple more languages in India.
We see Telugu, Tamil, and Gujarati, as well as Urdu here, all languages of India.
So India with quite an impressive collection of very large languages that many people don’t even hear about.
But you have these languages, you know, with over 50 million native speakers, that are well below its #1 language, Hindi.
All right, so now let’s look at the languages that have the most second-language learners.
And this is a very different picture.
Whereas with the first language, we’re seeing languages that are locally powerful, languages where a large number of speakers are born into that language, learning it, local population, regional population, learning these languages.
But with second languages, here there’s very different motivations for learning a second language versus learning a first language.
These are, you know, these are languages that tend to have more reach, that tend to be maybe more international, that are spoken in more major urban centres, places where many people like to travel to, places that are economically powerful, that attract people.
And so, of course, it’s no surprise that when we get to second-language learners, by far the #1 language is English.
You can see that it has almost four times as many second-language learners as its next largest competitors, you might say.
And so being the language that is closest to something that could be called an international language, international lingua franca, or a common language of the world, as disputed as that is, English certainly has the strongest case to make for being a language of the world.
And because of that, the value of learning English as a second language is very strong.
Learning English, English can be used throughout the world in a wider distribution than any other language.
And of course, it’s also connected with a lot of centres of wealth, power, economic possibilities, and so on.
So it’s no surprise that it attracts a very large number of second-language learners.
In fact, here, a billion.
So there’s no question there in the second-language contest.
And the next level, we have sort of a set here that are really of a second order below.
So we’re going down to almost a quarter of the size.
But here we have Arabic.
Now this can be, this is a little bit misleading, as Arabic, because of course of the unique situation of Arabic as having sort of a double language situation, where you have local Arabic dialects, but also this shared official standard dialect of Arabic shared throughout the Arabic world.
So I think it could certainly be disputed whether this would be called a second language.
Many Arabic speakers would consider this to be the same language, and perhaps a different version, or a register, or a different application of the same language, possibly.
They might not consider it to be a second language.
But according to this classification, it is.
So this is an official kind of standard version of Arabic that most speakers of Arabic dialects will learn, and for that reason, it’s placed #2 on the list.
#3 we have Hindi.
Now this is, we looked at some of those other languages of India.
India, a country with many languages of many speakers, but the most prominent of the languages of India is Hindi.
And so many of those speakers of other languages, like Bengali, Telugu, Gujarati, they will be learning Hindi as well for that sort of common-language use, to communicate with more speakers from different regions of India.
And so this is a very popular language to learn as a second language.
And next at #4 we have Chinese.
So by far #1 in native speakers, but only #4 when it comes to second-language speakers.
So certainly a popular language to learn.
Many of these speakers will be in other regions of China, speaking other Chinese varieties, such as Cantonese.
And it will be very useful for them to learn what is called Standard Chinese.
Mandarin Chinese, or Standard Chinese, the standard language of the country, so that is of use for any kind of official work within the country, work with other regions of China, making it a very popular second language.
And here we see french.
French stands out as interesting, with a somewhat lower level of first-language speakers, but we see that French is a very popular language to learn amongst second-language learners.
This may be related to its use in many parts of the world, perhaps as a colonial language, and there are many places where it remains an official language, even though there are other native languages more popularly spoken.
So French really contains, really has a strong worldwide presence, despite having as native speakers a relatively modest, only 80 million.
But it has that global reach with second-language speakers.
You also see this with Urdu, and this would be similar dynamics that we looked at with Hindi.
So just as Hindi is the primary Indian language, language within the country of India, Urdu – which is a very, very similar language to Hindi, if not the same – is the primary language of Pakistan.
So speakers of other languages within Pakistan would certainly do well to learn Urdu in order to do any kind of official work within Pakistan or in other regions of Pakistan.
And again, we see similar with Indonesian.
Indonesian, in the country of Indonesia, Indonesia includes many different languages, but the official language is this Indonesian which is close to Malay.
Again, it can be debated how close.
But Indonesian, the official Indonesian language, here excluding Malay.
Anytime you have an official language, it becomes something that’s popular as a second language.
Because if you want to do any kind of official work, government business, major cities, these tend towards using official languages, standard languages, and they become popular targets for second-language learning.
You see the same thing with Nigerian Pidgin, which is an interesting, an English-based creole language, sort of mixing of languages.
And once again there are many languages within Nigeria, and this would be a shared language for official use within that country.
And again on down the list.
So this is just one version of the list of most populous world languages.
This is compiled by Ethnologue, which is a fairly respected source, and it’s recent.
But there’s certainly, as we looked at, many decisions that have to be made about how you are going to divide languages?
How are you going to count speakers?
What counts as being a speaker?
And so on.
So we get a sense of who some of the top contenders are in the world.
But of course, there’s still the debate as to which language is #1 probably will never end.