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What is the world’s most spoken language? The answer depends on how you choose to measure. Some statistics are harder to measure than others; all should be taken with a pinch of salt. For example, estimates for how many people speak a language as a second language are often put forward by people with some political or financial interest in making a certain language appear more or less important. This can skew their estimates.

Even organisations that set out to present information as neutrally as possible are dependent on censuses and surveys for their information. For example, the EU’s Eurobarometer reports rely on asking people in which languages apart from their mother tongue they can hold a conversation. Self-assessment is notoriously tricky and people will hold themselves to different standards.

So, with that in mind, here are some statistics:

Most widely spoken language by number of native speakers

  1. Mandarin (1197 million)
  2. Spanish (406 million)
  3. English (335 million)
  4. Hindi-Urdu (260 million)
  5. Arabic (223 million)
  6. Portuguese (202 million)
  7. Bengali (193 million)
  8. Russian (162 million)
  9. Japanese (122 million)
  10. Javanese (84.3 million)

*updated June 2013

This information, based on number of native speakers, comes from Ethnologue, a widely-respected encyclopaedia of the world’s living languages. At the time of the last update, there were 7105 living languages, but that figure is likely to have decreased since then as languages become extinct. Since Ethnologue started counting in 1950, they calculate 6 languages have gone extinct each year.

When looking at the numbers, it is important to remember that the exact figures are difficult to measure. For example, when the US government asks about languages in a census, they state an approximate accuracy of 90%. In a country of (approximately) 312 million inhabitants, that’s a margin of error of (approximately) 31 million people. When it comes to measuring in India, home to two of the listed languages and over a billion people, the challenges are multiplied.

The world’s most spoken language by total speakers

Encyclopaedia Britannica suggests the following list, which seemingly combines native speakers with non-native speakers:

  1. English  (1,000 million)
  2. Mandarin (1,000 million)
  3. Hindi/Urdu  (900 milllion)
  4. Spanish (450 million)
  5. Russian/Belarusian (320 million)
  6. Arabic   (250 million)
  7. Bengali/Sylhetti (250 million)
  8. Malay/Indonesian (200 million)
  9. Portuguese (200 million)
  10. Japanese (130 million)

Estimating the number of second language speakers is extremely difficult and even the best estimates involve a fair amount of guess work. For example, the British Council suggests in The Future of English? that around 1.5 billion people in total speak English – a figure you will often hear – but that is 500 million more than the estimates used by Encyclopaedia Britannica. Half a billion people is a large discrepancy.

Most widely spoken by number of countries/dependencies where the language has official or de facto status

Compared to the list of total native speakers, this one is relatively easy to measure. Of the languages listed, Arabic provides the greatest challenge because the spoken languages that fall under the umbrella of “Arabic” are not all mutually intelligible. However, Standard Arabic is used as the written language in countries where dialects of Arabic are spoken.

  1. English (101)
  2. Arabic (59)
  3. French (51)
  4. Spanish (31)
  5. Russian/ Portuguese (11)

This list shows the influence of European colonial histories on the world’s linguistic map. Languages with a large number of native speakers like Japanese and Mandarin have not travelled far beyond Asia, unlike the Western European languages that colonists spread to all corners of the world.

One challenge with compiling this list is that some countries, for example the USA, do not have an official language (despite various attempts to introduce one). In these cases, the de facto languages of the country have been counted, which naturally raises questions of its own. In other places, measuring what counts as a de facto language can be a challenge.

Languages of the internet

An interesting way of looking at the development of international languages is via internet usage. Internetworldstats.com aggregates information from various sources to create a list of the internet’s top languages by number of users.

  1. English  (27.3%)
  2. Chinese (22.6%)
  3. Spanish (7.8%)
  4. Japanese (5.3%)
  5. Portuguese (4.3%)
  6. German (4.0%)
  7. Arabic   (3.3%)
  8. French  (3.2%)
  9. Russian (2.5%)
  10. Korean (2.1%)

The rankings are based on internet penetration per country and seem to assign a generous “value added” dollop of users to English for the many people who are assumed to speak English as a second language and use it for browsing the web.

But this doesn’t quite illustrate how central English is to the web. A recent piece of research by a pair of Googlers shows the percentage of links going to and from websites in various languages. Unsurprisingly, many more links are pointed at English-language sites from other languages than the other way around.

A more informal way of measuring the languages of the internet would be to look at the number of articles in each language on Wikipedia:

  1. English (4,264,000)
  2. Dutch (1,652,000)
  3. German (1,599,000)
  4. French (1,399,000)
  5. Swedish (1,090,000)
  6. Italian (1,042,000)
  7. Spanish (1,024,000)
  8. Russian (1,018,000)
  9. Polish (974,000)
  10. Japanese (863,000)

*updated June 2013

The Economist’s Johnson blog has an interesting article on the languages of Wikipedia.

Which leads on nicely to…

Languages of publishing

UNESCO measures the number of books published by each country per year. Correlating the data for various countries, the British Council gives the following figures:

  1. English (28%)
  2. Chinese (13.3%)
  3. German (11.8%)
  4. French (7.7%)
  5. Spanish (6.7%)
  6. Japanese (5.1%)
  7. Russian (4.7%)
  8. Portuguese (4.5%)
  9. Korean (4.4%)
  10. Italian (4.0%)

The data are from a couple of years ago but English remains by a long way the number one language of international publishing.

So, which is the world’s most widely spoken language?

The tables give an interesting view of the world’s most spoken and written languages. Three of the world’s ten most widely spoken mother tongues are barely used for publishing, the internet or international communication: fields where English is dominant. Two of these are Indian languages and educated speakers would be expected to speak English fluently as a second language.

English remains the world’s most important international language by most measures except for the number of total native speakers, but measuring this can be difficult in itself. A report published by the British Council estimates that around 2 billion people will be learning English at any one time during the next decade. But even then, more than two thirds of the world will not speak English.

  1. Mandarin (1197 million)
  2. Spanish (406 million)
  3. English (335 million)
  4. Hindi-Urdu (260 million)
  5. Arabic (223 million)
  6. Portuguese (202 million)
  7. Bengali (193 million)
  8. Russian (162 million)
  9. Japanese (122 million)
  10. Javanese (84.3 million)

*updated June 2013

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  1. Joe Markarian July 1, 2012

    A very exciting article, been searching for an inclusive article about the most spoken languages of the world for ages… I hope you update this article, with measures concerning around this year.

  2. James Traviel September 28, 2012

    Measuring speakers by economical importance would also be a nice view. For example, if you go to china to trade, they will speak english, not expect you to speak mandarin.

  3. Didier January 31, 2013

    Honestly this information is mostly wrong! There are not that many of of Bengali speakers as mentioned and the number of French speakers is increasingly higher than stated!

  4. Thara July 12, 2014

    one question:
    Should students be required to learn another language? Why or why not?

  5. Alex H - ESL July 14, 2014

    Hi Thara,

    Good question! I would say that learning a language gives you a way into another culture, another way of thinking. For this reason, students should definitely have to learn another language.

    Also, practically, it is much easier to learn when you are young.


 

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