Updated on Thursday, September 25, 2014
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 955 million 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. Approximately 14.4 percent of the world’s population are native speakers of Mandarin.
Its prominence in the Americas as well as in Europe makes Spanish one of the most common languages, with 405 million speakers. The Castilian dialect in Spain is held as a national standard, although Andalusian and Catalan are also spoken.
English used to be the second-most common language, but Spanish-speakers have increased much more rapidly over the past 15 years. Still, scholars have named English the world’s “most influential language,” due to the number of speakers (360 million) and the number of countries in which it is 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 310 million people speak one of the two.
Arabic, spoken by 295 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.
Out of the 215 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, among others.
With 205 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.
Russian’s 155 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 (Mandarin), 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.
Fifteen years ago, German held the tenth spot, though Punjabi has recently surpassed it. With 102 million speakers, Punjabi is mainly spoken in India and Pakistan, and is a native language of 1.44 percent of the world’s population.
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 the 2010 edition of Nationalencyklopedin, a Swedish language encyclopedia. The top 100 languages can be found here.