What Languages Are Spoken in Asia? A Learner’s Guide Through the Family Tree
Each continent has a huge diversity of languages for aspiring polyglots to explore.
Take a look at Asia, which has 4.3 billion people speaking nearly 2,300 living languages.
In this post, we’ll climb across 14 branches of the Asian language family tree in hopes that you’ll find a language to fire up your learning motivation.
- Why Are Asian Languages So Diverse?
- The Aspiring Polyglot’s Guide to 14 Diverse Languages Spoken in Asia
Why Are Asian Languages So Diverse?
As we mentioned earlier, there are over 4.3 billion people in Asia. That’s nearly six times the population of Europe (roughly 739 million). It should perhaps come as no surprise, then, that there are also a lot more languages.
Additionally, Asia is home to many different language families. Most Europeans speak Indo-European languages, such as Germanic, Romance and Slavic languages. However, Asian languages span a much broader variety of families, including Indo-European, Sino-Tibetan, Altaic, Dravidian and many others.
This diversity of linguistic families and origins means that there’s less overlap between the languages as they’re spoken today.
Finally, remote regions of Asia have allowed many individual languages to develop without outside influence. Asia is home to mountains, islands, deserts, vast plains and jungles. All of these terrains can isolate communities.
When communities are in close contact with one another, some languages will die out as more common ones take over. However, geographic isolation can help more distinct languages endure.
On this flip side, this is also why there are many endangered languages in Asia—if these types of communities dwindle, their languages tend to go with them.
The Aspiring Polyglot’s Guide to 14 Diverse Languages Spoken in Asia
As you may already know, the fastest way to get started in any language is immersive learning (in other words, surrounding yourself with the written and spoken language). Of course, if you don’t currently live in Asia, that’s a lot harder to achieve.
If you’re looking to mimic the immersion experience, it might be helpful to spend some time on FluentU.
FluentU is a language learning app that delivers lessons through authentic foreign language videos, the same media that native speakers would watch.
Choose any clip from the FluentU library and discover definitions, sentence examples and related videos of any featured word with the help of the interactive subtitles. You can also select any word to your custom word lists and flashcards, useful review functions to prepare you for the app’s multimedia quizzes.
In terms of Asian languages, FluentU currently offers Mandarin Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Russian.
Where it’s spoken: On the Asian continent, Arabic is an official language in the Middle Eastern nations of Bahrain, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, Palestine, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, the United Arab Emirates and Yemen.
Who’s in the language family: Arabic is a Semitic language, making it a relative of Amharic, Hebrew and several other languages spoken primarily in the Middle East.
Aspiring polyglots, take note! If you’re thinking about learning Arabic, you may already have a head start. Due to the influence of Arabic culture on Europe during the Middle Ages, there are a lot of Arabic words that made their way into European languages like Spanish, Portuguese, French and English.
Where it’s spoken: Bengali, sometimes called Bangla, is spoken in Bangladesh and some of eastern India, close to Bangladesh.
Who’s in the language family: Bengali is an Indo-Aryan language, making it a close relative of Hindustani and Punjabi.
This also makes it a distant relative of European languages, including Slavic, Germanic and Romance languages.
Where it’s spoken: Variations of Chinese are spoken throughout China, Taiwan and Singapore. Of course, that doesn’t mean every Chinese-speaker you meet will sound the same—or even be able to understand one another!
Even though Chinese is considered the most spoken language in the world, it’s actually composed of many distinct dialects, some of which aren’t mutually intelligible (meaning that speakers of some dialects can’t understand speakers of other dialects).
Who’s in the language family: Chinese is a Sino-Tibetan language, making it a relative of Burmese, Tibetan and several other languages in the Himalayas and Southeast Asia. The Chinese language has also had notable influence on Japanese, Korean and Vietnamese.
Which variation will you choose? The first step in Chinese studies is to decide which variation you’ll learn. The most popular options are typically Mandarin, which is spoken in Beijing and is the official language of China, or Cantonese, which is spoken in southeastern China and Hong Kong.
Where it’s spoken: The Philipines
Who’s in the language family: Filipino and Tagalog are Austronesian languages, making them relatives of Malay and Javanese.
Learn a language, “plus” some. It can be confusing to differentiate between Filipino and Tagalog.
Since more than 100 regional languages are spoken in the Philippines, in the 1930s the government chose Tagalog—a language spoken widely in Manila and surrounding areas—as the foundation for a national language. The effort was to try to establish a common language.
Today, Filipino is the official national language of the Philippines. Filipino is sometimes referred to as “Tagalog Plus,” since Filipino also includes words adopted from other languages such as Spanish.
The name of the language has changed throughout the years, so you might also see it as Pilipino.
Where it’s spoken: Hindustani is actually the name used to denote two languages that are sometimes classified separately: Hindi and Urdu.
Hindi is the official language of many states in the northern part of India. Throughout the years, there’ve also been attempts to make it the national language. Urdu is an official language in Pakistan and several states in India.
Who’s in the language family: Hindi and Urdu are both from the Indo-Aryan family of languages, making them close relatives of Bengali and Punjabi and more distant relatives of European languages.
Hindi and Urdu are usually mutually intelligible. However, they do have some different vocabulary and different writing systems.
But wait—there’s more! While Hindi is probably the most well-known Indian language, it’s just the tip of the iceberg. Other widely spoken Indian languages include Telugu, Tamil, Marathi, Kannada, Gujarati and Pashto.
Indian languages span several families, but most belong to the Indo-European and Dravidian families.
Where it’s spoken: There are over 700 languages spoken in Indonesia, but Indonesian is the only language with official status.
This is where it gets a little tricky. Indonesian is a standardized language based on Malay. As “Indonesian,” the language is spoken in Indonesia. However, Malay is also spoken in Brunei, Malaysia and Singapore.
At the time of its adoption as the national language, Indonesian was only the second most widely spoken native language in Indonesia, with Javanese being the most popular. To this day, there’s a significant population that speaks Javanese as a native language, and Indonesian is a second language for many Indonesians.
Who’s in the language family: Indonesian/Malay and Javanese are members of the Austronesian language family, which also includes Filipino/Tagalog.
Where it’s spoken: Japanese is the national language of Japan, though it has no official status.
Who’s in the language family: According to Today Translations, the origins of the Japanese language are hotly debated, with some claiming it’s related to Chinese, Korean and/or Polynesian languages.
Like alphabet soup? While Japanese isn’t currently thought to be related to Chinese, it does use some Chinese characters and uses some words of Chinese origin.
Where it’s spoken: Korean is an official language in North Korea and South Korea and an area of China along the North Korean border.
Who’s in the language family: Korean is thought to be a “language isolate,” meaning it’s not related to other languages.
Korean is, however, thought to have some extinct relatives. Some also postulate that it could be a Dravidian language, related to several Indian languages including Tamil and Telugu, or an Altaic language, related to Turkish, Mongolian and possibly Japanese.
Where it’s spoken: Persian is an official language in Iran, Afghanistan and Tajikistan, though each variety has some distinct differences.
Who’s in the language family: Persian is an Indo-Iranian language, making it a relative of several Indian languages, including Hindustani, Bengali, Punjabi and Marathi.
What’s in a name? Persian is a language that goes by many names. In English, it’s often called Persian. In Iran, the language is often called “Farsi.” The Afghani version of the language is called “Dari.” In Tajikistan, the language is called “Tajik” or “Tajiki.”
Where it’s spoken: Punjabi is the most spoken language in Pakistan and is also widely spoken in northern India.
Who’s in the language family: Punjabi is an Indo-Iranian/Indo-Aryan language, making it a relative of Persian and several other Indian languages, including Hindustani, Bengali, Punjabi and Marathi.
The Punjabi language has also been influenced by Arabic and Persian.
Where it’s spoken: Though you might not think “Asian language” when you hear “Russian,” Russian is widely spoken in Asia.
A lot of Russia’s land mass is located in Asia. Additionally, Russian is an official language in the Asian nations of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.
Who’s in the language family: Russia is a member of the Indo-European family, making it a distant relative of a wide array of languages, including Spanish, French, Bengali, Hindustani, Punjabi, Persian and countless other popular languages.
Its closest relatives, though, are Belarusian and Ukrainian.
Good news for flashcard haters! Russian has a smaller vocabulary than some other common Asian languages—as well as English and many European languages.
Where it’s spoken: Thai is the official language of Thailand.
Who’s in the language family: Thai is a member of the Tai-Kadai family, making it a relative of Lao. However, according to Thai Language/Lao Language, the two languages aren’t considered mutually intelligible.
Many Thai words come from other languages, including Old Khmer, Pali and Sanskrit.
Where it’s spoken: While Turkish is often associated with Turkey, the earliest known Turkic inscriptions were actually found in what’s now Mongolia. In the early middle ages, Turkic languages spread out from Central Asia to Europe.
Now, Turkish is an official language in Turkey and Cyprus and is the most widely spoken Turkic language.
Who’s in the language family: Turkish is a member of the Turkic language family. According to writer Robert Lindsay, it may be partially mutually intelligible with other closely related Turkic languages, such as Azerbaijani and Turkmen.
Where it’s spoken: Vietnamese is the official language of Vietnam.
Who’s in the language family: Vietnamese is a Austroasiatic or Mon-Khmer language. Its closest relatives include Khmer (spoken in Cambodia) and some regional languages spoken in eastern India and southern China.
Know the history: Since Vietnam was under Chinese rule for about 1,000 years, Vietnamese is greatly influenced by Chinese. And since Vietnam was also under French control for a time, the French language has had a hand in shaping the Vietnamese language.
These 14 diverse and intriguing languages are just the tip of the iceberg of languages spoken in Asia. Which of the more than 2,000 other Asian languages will you learn about next?