There are currently over 6900 languages spoken in the world. Some of those languages are only spoken by a handful of people, and are on their way to extinction just like Latin, dodos, Aramaic, and dinosaurs. If you’re interested in learning a language, however, it might be better to choose one of those languages that is spoken most widely.
There are a number of ways to measure a language, but here are the top five languages based on the number of native speakers. Even this is difficult to measure, but it’s certainly more reliable than most alternatives.
#5 – Arabic (206 million+) As the language of Islam, Arabic serves as a cultural glue for many otherwise different countries. The Koran is still written in Arabic, and it serves as a unifying symbol the world over. Also, large swaths of the Middle East and northern Africa speak Arabic as either a mother tongue or a common language. It has earned distinction as one of the six official languages of the United Nations.
#4 – Hindi-Urdu (240 million+) Through sheer population density, Hindi-Urdu manages to get into the top five. With ex-Colony status and connection throughout the English-speaking world, many Hindi-Urdu speakers are also frequent immigrants to other countries. Plus, with the strong cultural and family ties common in Hindi-Urdu-speaking countries, the language can survive for generations in a foreign land. With the growing economic power of India and surrounding countries, this is becoming a frequently learned language, too.
#3 – English (328 million+) Due largely to wide-spread colonization, English is one of the most diverse and spread out languages in the world. English is also one of the six official languages of the United Nations, and it’s treated as the world’s common language. To meet communication needs, nearly 200 million non-native speakers learn to speak English to varying degrees. This is no excuse to not learn a foreign language, however, as I’ve covered in another article.
#2 – Spanish (329 million+) Unknown to many, what we typically call “Spanish” is just one of several languages and dialects spoken in Spain. It is specifically Castilian Spanish which we think of when we refer to the Spanish language. Like English, Spanish was spread largely by colonization. This means that it is now spoken in many diverse locations worldwide by many different nations. This wide-spread use has also awarded Spanish with the honor of one of the official languages of the United Nations.
#1 – Mandarin Chinese (845 million+) Mandarin is the national language of the People’s Republic of China, and as such it can boast a whopping 845 million speakers. Add in everyone who speaks Mandarin as an additional language, and you’re looking at over 1 billion people! And Mandarin speakers are not limited on only China. There are large Chinese communities in many other Asian countries, as well as farther-flung lands such as Europe, North America, and now even Africa. It’s not surprise, then, that this is also an official language of the United Nations and one of the fastest growing languages on Earth.
Languages the Don’t Make the Cut Some commonly learned languages, while useful, don’t quite make the cut. Many don’t even make it to 100 million native speakers. French, German and Italian are all under 100 million, with languages such as Portuguese and Punjabi beating them. This isn’t to say that learning these languages is less useful, just something to consider if one wishes to learn another language.