Posted on Friday, January 29, 2010
What are the world’s most common languages?
Estimating these most common language populations can be tricky, and there is a range of data available.
Quiz yourself: See how many of these most common languages you can name before looking at the list. You might find some languages that surprise you!
With over 1.1 billion speakers, Mandarin claims the top spot as the world’s most common language. One of the five major dialects of Chinese, Mandarin is the official language of China and Taiwan, as well as one of the four official dialects of Singapore.
English is not the most common language, but scholars have named the world’s “most influential language,” due to the number of speakers (330 million) and the number of countries in which it is spoken.
Its prominence in the Americas as well as in Europe makes Spanish one of the most common languages, with 300 million speakers. The Castilian dialect in Spain is held as a national standard, although Andalusian and Catalan are also spoken.
Although they have different written forms, Hindi and Urdu share a history, many common words, and a grammar. Many linguists consider them different “registers” of the same common language. Over 250 million people speak one of the two.
Arabic, spoken by 200 million speakers worldwide, is also the language of Muslim holy writings. It has also influenced other most common languages — Spanish has approximately 4,000 words with Arabic roots.
With 185 million speakers, Bengali is also the second most widely spoken language in India, popular in the easternmost states. Bengali is an official language of both India and Bangladesh.
Out of the 170 million Portuguese speakers worldwide, nearly 150 million of them speak Brazilian Portuguese, the most common language variant. Portuguese is also the official language of other countries including Angola, Mozambique, and — clearly — Portugal.
Russian’s 160 million speakers make it the world’s eighth most common language. It is also one of the six official languages of the United Nations, along with Arabic, Chinese, English, French and Spanish.
Out of the approximately 125 million people who speak Japanese, 124 million live in Japan and the island group of Okinawa. This makes it unusual among the most common languages in its geographic concentration.
Although German is the most common language spoken in Germany and Austria, some of the language’s 100 million speakers live in emigrant communities in the United States, notably in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Texas.
How do we know who speaks what?
Fluctuations in different estimates can be attributed to population growth, as well as how linguists choose to group dialects and microlanguages into larger groups. The most common languages can also vary depending on whether studies include only primary languages, or all languages spoken in a population.
These numbers were taken from George Weber’s article “Top Languages” in Language Today (1997). It includes primary and secondary speakers of the language in the totals to determine the world’s most common languages.