most-common-languages

The World’s Most Common Languages: Everything You Should Know to Win Trivia Night

You’ve heard the big names: Chinese, Spanish, English.

But have you heard of Lahnda? What about Telugu?

This may come as a surprise, but Lahnda and Telugu are, respectively, the 10th and 15th most commonly spoken languages in the world!

Although they might not be quite as widely spoken as Chinese, Spanish or English, millions of people still speak them every day.

According to The Washington Post, there are over 7,000 languages in the world.

While most of these are spoken by a very small population and are therefore obscure languages, there are some common languages that you may never have heard of, either.

Since these are practical languages to learn and many are even easy to learn, they’re a dream come true for language learners.

But before we jump in and take a look at some things you might not know about the world’s 20 most commonly spoken languages, let’s consider for a moment why you should learn about them.

Why You Should Know About the World’s Most Common Languages

One obvious reason to learn about the world’s most spoken languages is that they are useful. Once you know more about these languages, you might consider which language you should learn next. Speaking a foreign language can help you land a job, and since these languages are so widely spoken, they’re particularly useful.

Additionally, you may very well encounter native speakers of these languages. If you learn their language, it’ll be tremendously helpful for communication. And even if you can’t learn them all, just knowing a little about these languages will help give you more insight into the languages spoken by a majority of the people in the world.

Finally, knowing more about these common languages will help you better understand the world around you. The world is a complex place, but learning about the most common languages will give you insight into culture and geography that can help improve your overall understanding of the world around you.

How to Chat With Billions of People? Learn the 20 Most Common Languages in the World!

The figures included in this list are from Ethnologue, which tracks world languages to provide details on them and their speakers. While Ethnologue is available as a hardbound volume, information is also available through their online database.

This list focuses on how many people speak each language as their first language. Lists of most spoken languages often vary quite wildly based on two factors: First, whether they include total number of speakers or just native speakers, and second, what languages or dialects are grouped together into a bigger language.

It’s also important to note that language usage is widespread—you may very well find any of these languages spoken in any corner of the globe. For the purposes of this list, we’ll identify the places where each language is most common.

I’ve also included a common greeting for each language—in other words, an equivalent of “hello” in that language. That’ll also give you a taste of the different writing systems that some of the languages use. However, it’s very difficult to convey pronunciation for 20 different languages, especially those with tones and/or different writing systems, so instead I’ve linked to a pronunciation site for each greeting. If you want to hear what a greeting sounds like, just click on it!

Finally, you may not know about the other (free!) language and culture blogs that we have at FluentU. We currently have many blogs that are full of useful information to help you learn over a dozen different languages, so I’ll include links to those blogs below when applicable.

Let’s begin!

1. Chinese

Number of Speakers: 1.28 billion

Where It’s Spoken: China, Taiwan, Singapore

Common Greeting: 你好

Fun Facts:

  • Chinese is a Sino-Tibetan language, making it a relative of Burmese and Tibetan.
  • While English speakers lump Chinese together as one language, it’s actually a group of related languages. But even though they’re related, some of the languages are mutually unintelligible, meaning that speakers cannot easily understand each other.
  • Mandarin is by far the most spoken form of Chinese. Ethnologue estimates that there are 898 million Mandarin Chinese speakers.
  • Chinese is tonal, which means pitch is used to convey meaning.
  • The Chinese alphabet contains over 3,000 characters.
  • There is written evidence of the Chinese language from 1250 B.C.
  • The World Bank estimates the total world population at about 7.5 billion. Therefore, native Chinese speakers account for about 17% of the world’s total population.

2. Spanish

Number of Speakers: 437 million

Where It’s Spoken: Spain, most of Central America and Latin America, Equatorial Guinea

Common Greeting: Hola

Fun Facts:

  • Spanish is an Iberian Romance language, putting it in the same family as Portuguese. Iberian Romance languages evolved from the type of Latin spoken by merchants and soldiers.
  • Hints of the Spanish language are evident in texts from the 9th century. However, it wasn’t used systematically until the 13th century.
  • While its vocabulary is largely based on Latin, a significant number of Spanish words also have Greek, Arabic and Gothic origins. Spanish has also borrowed words from indigenous American languages and other European languages.
  • Spanish uses inverted exclamation points and question marks at the beginning of exclamations or questions. For instance, ¡Hola! (Hello!) or ¿Qué? (What?). This change was recommended by the Spanish Royal Academy in the mid-1700s and is fairly unique to the Spanish language. The only other languages that use these punctuation marks are other languages within Spain.

3. English

Number of Speakers: 372 million

Where It’s Spoken: United States, Canada, United Kingdom, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, many Caribbean nations including the Bahamas, Barbados, Belize, Dominica, Grenada and more

Common Greeting: Hello

Fun Facts:

  • English is a West Germanic language, making it a relative of German and Dutch.
  • Anglo-Saxons who immigrated from continental Europe introduced Old English to the British Isles in the 5th century.
  • Middle English emerged under French influence during the Norman conquest of the 11th century.
  • According to Business Insider, English is the most popular second language to learn.
  • According to the BBC, “I” is one of the oldest words in the English language.

4. Arabic

Number of Speakers: 295 million

Where It’s Spoken: Most of the Middle East and North Africa

Common Greeting: مرحبا

Fun Facts:

  • Arabic is a Semitic language, making it a relative of the Hebrew language.
  • While Classical Arabic developed in the 6th century, the roots of the language go back to nomads, with written evidence dating to the 1st century.
  • Arabic has influenced dozens of languages including Spanish, Turkish, Persian, Urdu, Bengali, Hindi, Punjabi, Greek and many more.
  • Arabic is traditionally written from right to left.
  • Formal Arabic used in media and formal settings is significantly different from colloquial Arabic.

5. Hindi

Number of Speakers: 260 million

Where It’s Spoken: India, Fiji

Common Greeting: नमस्ते

Fun Facts:

  • Urdu and Hindi are mutually intelligible, which means that speakers of each language can usually understand each other. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that they’re often lumped together as “Hindustani.”
  • Hindi is an Indo-Aryan language, making it a relative of several other Indian languages like Urdu, Bengali, Punjabi and Romani.
  • Hindi is a descendant of Sanskrit, which originated in the second millennium B.C.
  • Hindi has borrowed words from Arabic and Persian. In fact, the very name “Hindi” comes from the Persian word “Hind,” which means “land of the Indus River.”

6. Bengali

Number of Speakers: 242 million

Where It’s Spoken: Bangladesh

Common Greeting: হ্যালো

Fun Facts:

  • Like Hindi, Bengali is an Indo-Aryan language.
  • In Bangladesh, Bengali is also called Bangla.
  • Bengali evolved from Sanskrit between 1000-1200 A.D.
  • “Encyclopedia Britannica” reports that a study from the 1960s and 1970s revealed that only about half of Bengali words are original to the language. Another 45% come directly from Sanskrit.
  • The remaining 5% were foreign loanwords, most frequently from Persian.
  • Bengali doesn’t have gendered nouns, and there are no capital letters.

7. Portuguese

Number of Speakers: 219 million

Where It’s Spoken: Portugal, Brazil, Goa (India), Macau (China), East Timor, many African nations including Angola, Equatorial Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, East Timor, Mozambique, São Tomé and Príncipe

Common Greeting: Olá 

Fun Facts:

  • Portuguese is an Iberian Romance language, making it a close relative of Spanish.
  • The language evolved in the medieval era and was named the official language of Portugal in 1290.
  • The Portugal News reports that UNESCO has found that the language’s popularity is on the rise.
  • Most Portuguese words come from Latin. However, some words also come from pre-Roman Portugal, Arabic and German Gothic roots.
  • Three letters were added to the Portuguese alphabet in 2009: K, Y and W. The letters were added because of increased English loanwords.
  • If you want to hop on the Portuguese Train, head on over to our Portuguese Blog!

8. Russian

Number of Speakers: 154 million

Where It’s Spoken: Russia and several former Soviet states

Common Greeting: Здравствуйте

Fun Facts:

  • Russian is an East Slavic language, related to Belarusian and Ukrainian.
  • Old East Slavonic, an early form of the Russian language, dates back to the 10th century.
  • Reports indicate that Russian is the second most used language on the internet.
  • Based on comparing numbers of words in dictionaries, Lingholic estimates that the Russian language has approximately 200,000 words. Compare that to 615,000 definitions in an English dictionary.

9. Japanese

Number of Speakers: 128 million

Where It’s Spoken: Japan

Common Greeting: こんにちは

Fun Facts:

  • Japanese is a member of the Japonic family of languages. This family includes several dialects of Japanese. The only other language in this group is Ryukyuan, which is sometimes considered a dialect of Japanese, although Japanese and Ryukyuan speakers often cannot understand the other language. Most dialects of Ryukyuan are endangered.
  • It is thought that the predecessor of the Japanese language arrived in Japan around the 1st or 2nd century B.C. with settlers from Asia or Pacific islands.
  • The Japanese language uses four different scripts. These include Kanji, in which one character represents an idea; Hiragana, in which characters represent syllables; Katakana, which is similar to italics and used mostly for foreign words; and Rōmaji, which uses Latin script and is mostly used for foreigners.
  • Japanese has no official status in Japan.
  • Suffixes are often used to show different degrees of respect.

10. Lahnda

Number of Speakers: 119 million

Where It’s Spoken: Pakistan

Common Greeting: ਸਤ ਸ੍ਰੀ ਅਕਾਲ

(Lahnda-specific translations are difficult to come by, so please note that this is in Punjabi).

Fun Facts:

  • Lahnda can also be called Lahndi or Western Punjabi, though Western Punjabi is sometimes considered a dialect.
  • Rather than being one language, Lahnda is a group of dialects.
  • Lahnda is an Indo-Aryan language, making it related to Hindi, Urdu, Marathi and Bengali.
  • Lahnda has much in common with Punjabi, but has a few different pronunciation and grammar rules.

11. Javanese

Number of Speakers: 84.4 million

Where It’s Spoken: Java, Indonesia

Common Greeting: Halo

Fun Facts:

  • Javanese is classified as an Austronesian language. This family of languages covers areas including Madagascar, islands in the Indian Ocean and islands in the Pacific Ocean. However, despite their apparent relation, Javanese has little in common with other languages in this group.
  • Javanese can be written in three different scripts: Latin, Javanese or Arabic. Latin script is most common, but Javanese script is still widely taught.
  • While there are three different dialects, speakers of each dialect can generally understand speakers of other dialects.
  • Javanese contains loanwords from Sanskrit, Arabic, Dutch and Malay.

12. Korean

Number of Speakers: 77.2 million

Where It’s Spoken: North Korea and South Korea

Common Greeting: 안녕하세요

Fun Facts:

  • Korean is considered a “language isolate,” meaning it isn’t related to other languages. However, debate still exists as to whether it might be related to Japanese or South Indian languages.
  • Korean has evolved through several stages. The earliest form of Korean was used in prehistoric times.
  • According to “Hunminjeongeum Haerye,” a scholarly work, the Korean alphabet is meant to represent what your tongue, throat, teeth and palate must do to form the sounds.

13. German

Number of Speakers: 76.8 million

Where It’s Spoken: Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Belgium, Luxembourg, Liechtenstein

Common Greeting: Hallo

Fun Facts:

  • German is a West Germanic language, making it a close relative of English and Dutch.
  • Evidence of Old High German, modern German’s ancestor, dates back to the 6th century.
  • While German is composed primarily of original vocabulary, it also contains loanwords from Latin, French, Greek and Italian.
  • German has a lot of compound words. These occur when several existing words are combined to make one word. Needless to say, it can lead to some really long words.

14. French

Number of Speakers: 76.1 million

Where It’s Spoken: France, Canada, Haiti, Switzerland, Luxembourg, Belgium, Monaco and over 20 African nations including Democratic Republic of the Congo, Madagascar, Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Niger, Burkina Faso, Mali, Senegal, Chad and more

Common Greeting: Bonjour 

Fun Facts:

  • French is a Gallo-Romance language, making it a close cousin of lesser known regional languages like Picard, Normand and Bourgignon. As a Romance language, it’s also a more distant cousin of Spanish and Portuguese.
  • The earliest known text in French appeared in 842.
  • French is an official language in 29 countries.
  • From the 17th century through the middle of the 20th century, French was the most common language used for diplomacy.
  • Learn more about French language and the culture of different French-speaking countries on our French blog.

15. Telugu

Number of Speakers: 74.2 million

Where It’s Spoken: Eastern India

Common Greeting: నమస్కారము

Fun Facts:

  • Telugu is a Dravidian language, related to languages in India and Sri Lanka. However, it’s also related to some languages found in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bhutan, Nepal, Bangladesh, Malaysia and Singapore.
  • Telugu was influenced greatly by Sanskrit.
  • The first text describing the language appeared in the 13th century.
  • Native tradition holds that the grammar has ancient origins.
  • Inscriptions in Telugu go back to 400 B.C.

16. Marathi

Number of Speakers: 71.8 million

Where It’s Spoken: India

Common Greeting: हॅलो

Fun Facts:

  • Marathi is an Indo-Aryan language related to Hindi, Bengali, Urdu and Lahnda.
  • Marthi is thought to date back more than 2,000 years. It descends from Maharashtri Prakrit, a language spoken from 500 B.C. to 500 A.D. Maharashtri Prakrit descended from Sanskrit, so Marathi also has a significant Sanskrit influence.
  • The Marathi language appeared in 11th century inscriptions.
  • Marathi uses the Devanagari alphabet, which Hindi also uses. However, they use slightly different versions of the alphabet.

17. Turkish

Number of Speakers: 71.1 million

Where It’s Spoken: Turkey, Cyprus

Common Greeting: Merhaba

Fun Facts:

  • Turkish is a Turkic language, related to languages found from Southeast Europe through Central Asia.
  • Inscriptions in Old Turkic, the predecessor of modern Turkish, date to the 8th century.
  • Large numbers of Persian and Arabic loanwords were added to the Turkish language in the 10th century.
  • Turkish used to be written in a version of an Arabic script. In 1929, Latin script was made compulsory for public communications.

18. Urdu

Number of Speakers: 69.1 million

Where It’s Spoken: Pakistan, India

Common Greeting: ہیلو

Fun Facts:

  • Urdu and Hindi have a lot in common and are frequently grouped together. In fact, Urdu was often called Hindi from the 13th to 18th century.
  • Hindi and Urdu have separate writing systems and each is usually associated with a different country. Urdu is more often linked to Pakistan, while Hindi is associated with India.
  • Since Urdu and Turkish both borrow from Persian and Arabic, they share some pronunciations.
  • Urdu is written from right to left.

19. Vietnamese

Number of Speakers: 68.1 million

Where It’s Spoken: Vietnam

Common Greeting: Xin chào

Fun Facts:

  • Vietnamese is currently thought to be an Austroasiatic language, in the same family as Khmer.
  • The Vietnamese language borrows heavily from Chinese and French.
  • Vietnamese doesn’t have articles, plurals or gendered words.
  • There are six different tones. This means that changing the tone of a vowel can change an entire word’s meaning.
  • Written Vietnamese used to employ Chinese characters but has since adopted a modified Latin script.

20. Tamil

Number of Speakers: 68 million

Where It’s Spoken: South India, Singapore, Sri Lanka

Common Greeting: வணக்கம்

Fun Facts:

  • Tamil is a Dravidian language, related to Telugu and other languages in India and Sri Lanka. Additional Dravidian languages are found in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bhutan, Nepal, Bangladesh, Malaysia and Singapore.
  • Tamil inscriptions have been found from the 5th century B.C.
  • The first known book printed in an Indian language was written in Tamil.
  • Modern Tamil adheres to linguistic purism, which means the language avoids loanwords.

 

For more information on language distribution and importance of world languages, the World Economic Forum provides helpful charts. Additionally, the CIA World Factbook provides a detailed breakdown of what languages are spoken in each country.

With thousands of beautiful languages, these 20 most common languages are just the tip of the iceberg. Don’t hesitate to delve in deeper and learn more about the many magnificent languages of the world!

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