1817 languages world
Photo: Babbel

What are the most spoken languages in the world?

This question isn't as simple as it may seem. There are a few complications that make it hard to give a precise answer:

First of all, what do you mean by "spoken"? Do you want to rank languages by their number of native speakers, or by how many people speak them at all, natively or non-natively? These two approaches produce very different-looking lists. Secondly, where do you draw the boundary between a language and a dialect? How different do two “dialects” have to be before they're considered separate languages entirely? There's often no clear answer – and the answer you give can significantly affect a language's position in the “most-spoken” rankings. With that being said, it's possible to come up with some rough rankings. Here's the best estimate, at the time of writing, as to the most-spoken languages in the world – going by the total number of speakers, not just natives, according to Fluent in 3 months.

English — 1.5 Billion Speakers

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English. Photo: Babbel

Official language in: Antigua and Barbuda, Australia, Bahamas, Barbados, Botswana, Brunei, Burundi, Cameroon, Canada, Dominica, Eswatini, Fiji, Gambia, Ghana, Grenada, Guyana, Hong Kong, India, Ireland, Jamaica, Kenya, Kiribati, Lesotho, Liberia, Malawi, Malta, Marshall Islands, Mauritius, Namibia, Nauru, New Zealand, Nigeria, Pakistan, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Philippines, Rwanda, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Samoa, Seychelles, Sierra Leone, Singapore, Solomon Islands, Somaliland, South Africa, South Sudan, Sudan, Tanzania, Tonga, Trinidad and Tobago, Tuvalu, Uganda, UK, United States, Vanuatu, Zambia

Regional language in: Honduras in the Bay Islands, Micronesia except for Kosrae, Netherlands in Saint Maarten, Saint Eustatius and Saba islands

Widely spoken in: Cyprus, Ethiopia, Indonesia, Israel, Palestine, Switzerland.

Mandarin Chinese — 1.3 Billion Speakers

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Mandarin Chinese. Photo: Babbel

Official language in: China, Singapore, Taiwan

Widely spoken in: Malaysia

Of all the 297 living languages spoken in China, Mandarin Chinese is by far the most common, with 1.3 billion speakers. (As a point of comparison, the second-most-prevalent language, Wu — see No. 21 on this list — is spoken by 80 million people.)

There is much debate about Mandarin eventually surpassing English to become the language of international business, but as most people outside of Asia do not have a basic understanding of Mandarin, experts do not predict this will happen.

Fun fact: Chinese can either be written in traditional characters or with simplified characters created via a government initiative in the 1950s that was designed to make the language easier to learn.

Spanish — 661 Million Speakers

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Spanish. Photo: Babbel

Official language in: Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Equatorial Guinea, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, Spain, Uruguay, Venezuela

Minority language in: Andorra

Regional language in: Belize

Widely spoken in: Philippines, United States

The Spanish language extended its reach quickly around the world as conquests were made to discover new lands. Commonly found in South America, Central America and the Caribbean, it is today spoken by millions of people in many different countries.

The majority of Spanish speakers in the world are in Mexico. Across the border in the United States, where English is the official language, 41 million people speak Spanish as their first language. Nearly 12 million Americans are bilingual, as well, and studies predict that the U.S. will topple Mexico as the largest Spanish-speaking county by 2050.

Hindustani (Hindi/Urdu) — 544 Million Speakers

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Hindustani. Photo: Babbel

Official language in: Fiji and India (Hindi); Pakistan (Urdu)

Hindustani refers to both the Hindi and Urdu languages, which are direct descendants of Sanskrit.

Hindi is spoken by so many people in large part because it's an official language in India, the second-most-populous country on Earth. Urdu, an official language in the neighboring country of Pakistan, is more often spoken in Muslim communities.

Arabic — 422 Million Speakers

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Arabic. Photo: Babbel

Official language in: Algeria, Bahrain, Chad, Comoros, Djibouti, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, Oman, Palestine, Qatar, Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Somaliland, Sudan, Syria, United Arab Emirates, Yemen

Regional language in: Israel

National language in: Cyprus (Cypriot Arabic), Niger, South Sudan, Tunisia

Widely spoken in: Eritrea, Indonesia, Philippines

A Semitic language from the Arabian Peninsula, Arabic began as a language used by nomadic tribes to converse with one another. Today, it is particularly dominant in the Middle East and nearby Asian and African countries.

Although Hebrew, a similar language, began with tribes in the same area, it is not considered Arabic as it was influenced by Slavic, Roman and German dialects. It is spoken in Israel and by Jewish communities globally, whereas Arabic is mostly used in Muslim communities.

Malay — 281 Million Speakers

2518 wikipedia malay
Malay. Photo: Wikipedia

Official language in: Brunei, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia

Indonesian is the most widely used of the Malay dialects, spoken by some 170 million people. Standard Malay, by comparison, is spoken by about 18 million people.

It's believed that Malay began on the Asian island of Borneo around 1000 BC.

Russian — 267 Million Speakers

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Russian. Photo: Babbel

Official language in: Belarus, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Transnistria

Regional language in: Moldova

Minority language in: Poland,

Widely spoken in: Israel, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Ukraine, Latvia, Estonia

Russia is a large country, and it was even larger when it was the Soviet Union — so it should come as no surprise that Russian is one of the most commonly spoken languages in the world. Its speakers can be found not only in modern-day Russia, but in nations that received independence when the Soviet Union collapsed, such as Poland and the Czech Republic, as cited by Farandwide.

Are you surprised by any of the the most spoken languages? Are there any languages you were surprised weren't included? Do you think this list is likely to change in the near future – which languages are shrinking, and which are growing? When deciding which language to learn, does it matter how many speakers it has? Let me know your thoughts in the comments.
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