Society - Culture
By: - at February 8, 2015

Top 15 Most Spoken Languages Around the World

Languages worldwideTraveling abroad means meeting people from strange lands, experiencing architectural and even possibly historical landmarks first hand, and often taking the time to taste all of the fantastic foods that your destination country has to offer (don't forget alcoholic drinks). By essentially blending in with the local population, you are maximizing the potential for cultural experiences to turn out favorably. An ideal international cultural experience will involve some sort of interpersonal connections and verbal communication with the natives. Hearty travelers contend the only true way to experience cities like Paris or Rome is to get around them while speaking only the native language. No one wants to be easily spotted as a tourist, especially while traveling around Western Europe. The only thing worse than sticking out as a tourist in Paris would be for locals to figure out that you are not only a tourist, but an American tourist. A vacation can easily be ruined when locals refuse to allow travelers into their world, and the result is most of the vacation is spent in the hotel room or dining at tourist traps. You must have the appropriate language skills to not only ensure a fantastic trip, but also to help keep your guard up in order to protect your safety.

Customs, attitudes, and behaviors are embedded in a countries' languages, dialects, and many social norms and customs can be quickly learned as long as someone has a strong understanding of the local language. Understanding foreign languages and specific linguistic nuances means stronger communication between foreign nationals and foreign governments in a macro sense. The micro view means better experiences abroad. Only by understanding languages from their most literal translation are messages conveyed and consistently understood by all parties. Effective communication and translation is invaluable to foreign diplomatic relations, specifically when forming trade agreements and treaties. Making sure all communication is the most accurate translation available to global leaders can literally alter the course of nations, wars, and diplomatic relations.

The Tanakah or Hebrew Bible in the Book of Genesis, references to the Tower of Babel attempt to explain why the world is full of so many people, and why they speak so many different languages. Theological examination of the Tower of Babel tells a story where at the beginning of creation, mankind only spoke one language; God's language (believed to be Hebrew). As the people of Earth damned themselves, additional measures to damn mankind were taken. The languages of the earth divided and further divided so that the number of languages increased with every generation. The intention of spreading more and more languages was to further disconnect humanity. By confusing and isolating mankind, the earth slipped further and further into darkness (evil).

The Tower of Babel by Pieter Brueghel the Elder, 1563
The Tower of Babel by Pieter Brueghel the Elder, 1563

The global language count is approximately valued around 6,500 spoken languages. What a number and it is abundantly clear that returning Earth's people back to just one spoken tongue would take nothing short of an honest to God miracle! Languages have gained popularity, have slowly and purposely been eradicated over time, and some languages have vanished completely. Dialects of languages are where changes or adaptations to an existing language, are made by specific persons living in specific geographical location over generations. For example, Cuban is a dialect of Spanish complete with different pronunciation rules and other minor differences.

Breakdown of Languages for South America
Breakdown of Languages for South America

A great idea no matter where you may call home is to at least get really close to mastered in at least one language in addition to your native one. Traveling in Europe would call for studying French, English, or Spanish first and then possibly German or Russian as a back-up and based on where your trek through Europe will ultimately take you. Traveling in Canada and southward into Latin America ordered from most important to least important language based on speaking population, calling for mastery of either Spanish, English, then French.

15)  Telugu
Telugu is a language spoken mainly in Indian regions, and is the third most spoken native languages in India. This Dravidian language is one of the five classical languages of India, and is currently spoken by 75 million people around the world. Though this language is mainly spoken in the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh where itís the official language, Telugu is also spoken in certain other regions of the country. One of the more noteworthy locations that Telugu is spoken today is throughout the union territory known as Puducherry.

Puducherry Train Station
Puducherry Train Station
By BishkekRocks via Wikimedia Commons

Interestingly in the USA, there is a relatively high number of Telugu speakers in the USA with approximately 800,000 Telugu speakers. They are mainly concentrated in the Central New Jersey area as people immigrated to that area and were later joined by their families. Countries such as Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Fiji, Malaysia, Singapore, the United Kingdom, and other Eastern European countries tend to have high percentages of Telugu speakers concentrated in small, culturally specific regions. This still makes up for a noticeable percentage of Telugu native speakers on these countries.

Telugu Characters
Telugu Characters

Telugu has its own alphabet, which is very similar to Sanskrit and matches it letter to letter with the addition of a few extra symbols for sounds not found in other Dravidian languages, like "sh" or "ch".

14)  Malay/Indonesian
Malay is the national language in three countries - Indonesia, Malaysia, and Brunei - and is also an official language in Singapore. This wide distribution between countries is the reason this language is spoken by more than 77 million native speakers around the world; but those numbers go up to 215 million if you count people that speak Malay as a second language, even if they do not recognize Malay as their primary language.

indonesia and malaysia map

Since Malay is spoken in so many different regions, it has spawned many dialects that straddle the line between being their own languages or just an extension of Malay. Even the main language has different names depending on the region in which it is spoken. This might make it a bit difficult to keep track of which dialect is spoken in each region, so thatís why Standard Malay was established as the literary standard.

Malay Alphabet
Malay Alphabet

Malay used to have its own written alphabet, but later on the Latin and Arabic alphabets were adopted officially; they are called Rumi and Jawi respectively. Even though both are used, Rumi is the script used formally and most commonly, and Jawi is starting to fade away despite efforts to preserve it.

Jawi Style Malay
Jawi Style Malay

13)  Wu
Wu is a language that is part of the Chinese language family, and itís spoken in the area of Suzhou, Hong Kong, and Shanghai. If you have any friends from New York that are from China, they likely speak Wu. Wu simply means standard Chinese as there are many different dialects of Chinese spoken throughout mainland China.

wu chinese

Wu Chinese boasts an impressive 80 million native speakers, and is contains six different dialects: Oujiang, Taihu, Taizhou, Wuzhou, Chuqu, and Xuanzhou. Among these dialects, the differences are so significant that it might be almost impossible to tell that they are really the same language. For example, the Wu variety Wenzhounese is so hard to understand both to non-Wu natives and to other Wu speakers, that it was used as a code language during World War II to avoid the Japanese from listening into their transmissions.

variations of wu chinese

Chinese Wu has many dialects. Chief among these is Shanghainese, which makes beginners think that Wu is Shangaihnese instead of it being a dialect of Wu. For writing, Wu, like any other Chinese language, can be written either in simplified Chinese or traditional Chinese scripts. Wu also happens to be the tenth most common surname in mainland China and in the Song Dynasty classic Hundred Family Surnames, Wu is listed sixth. 

Chinese Characters Wen and Wu (left to right)
Chinese Characters Wen and Wu (left to right)

12)  Javanese
Javanese is spoken by more than 82 million people, and itís the language of the Java Island in Indonesia. Though itís not used in the entire main archipelago, itís spoken in the central and eastern parts of it, with a few stray speakers spread around the western part of Java. This means that Javanese is spoken by a 30 percent of the total population of Indonesia. Javanese is also spoken in some Southern Asian countries as well as the Netherlands, and finally Suriname, New Caledonia, and some other countries throughout Southeast Asia.

Java Island, Indonesia

Though Javanese is its own unique language, itís not too far removed from languages like Malay. Many Javanese speakers also speak Indonesian for practical purposes, like business or to talk to non-Javanese speakers.

Variants of Brahmic Letters
Variants of Brahmic Letters
By User Ekuah via Wikimedia Commons

Javanese has its own script, called Javanese script, which evolved from Brahmi script when Buddhism and Hinduism were first introduced in Java. The Javanese script is based on symbols that represent syllabic sounds, always pairing a consonant with the vowel "a" to form a sound, much like in other related languages.

Ashoka Pillar Showing Brahmi Script
Ashoka Pillar Showing Brahmi Script
By ampersandyslexia via Wikimedia Commons

11)  German
German is a European language, derived from the West Germanic language, which was also the source for English and Dutch. Spoken in Germany and Austria mostly, other countries have adopted it in certain regions. German is the third official language in Belgium, although itís only spoken by a small part of the population that live in the west regions touching Luxemburg. Outside of Europe, the country with more German native speakers is the United States with five million speakers, and next is Canada with three million speakers. There are also a number of South American countries with large German-speaking populations, as well as African countries that were once German colonies, like Namibia.

European Road Sign in English, German, and on the Bottom French
Europen Road Sign in English, German, and on the Bottom French

German is also spoken in Switzerland, Lichtenstein and South Tirol, a territory from Italy. As a result of this wide range of speakers, German has an estimated 95 to 100 million native speakers. Due to its importance, German is one of the worldís major languages and the first language used in the European Union.

english and german verbs

German uses the Latin alphabet, though aside from the 26 standard letters, it also adds three extra vowels and a consonant.

german alphabet

10)  Punjabi
Punjabi is the most widely spoken language in Pakistan and other nearby regions with a total of 100 million native speakers. As an Indo-Aryan language, itís the native language of the Punjabi people that live in the region named after them - part of Pakistan and India. Punjabi has three dialects: standard, Eastern, and Western dialects, with the standard Punjabi dialect being the one used for writing. The Eastern Punjabi dialect is mostly spoken in India, while the Western dialect is used in Pakistan, so thatís worth keeping in mind when traveling to either territory. It's a good idea not to mix up dialects and end up with some funny or possibly dangerous lost-in-translation moments.

Punjabi Region
Punjabi Region
By Ktims from Wikimedia Commons

In pop culture, Punjabi is often used in Bollywood songs; they are often either written with some Punjabi words peppering the lyrics or entirely in the language. Punjabi is also used prominently in TV shows with Punjabi characters and even on pop songs, so itís not odd at all to hear the language in Pakistani or Indian TV shows and movies. At the end of nearly every Bollywood film just before the credits, the entire cast comes back out to perform one last musical and dance routine where they all smile at each other no matter how their character made out during the film.


So you can see the villain dancing with the heroin, antagonists and protagonists of the film skipping whilst holding hands as if nothing had occurred during the previous hour and half of film. Some film critics based here in the states feel that this disconnect before the credits allows for the movie to be seen for what it truly is: a fake and made-up dramatization. Hollywood and Bollywood vastly differ as far as the importance of realism in large-budget films.

Punjabi is written with two different types of script styles: Gurmukhi (primarily most popular in Pakistan) and Shahmukhi (most popular in India).

Punjabi Alphabet Using Shahmukhi Script
Punjabi Alphabet Using Shahmukhi Script

Interestingly, Punjabi has become the third most spoken language in the United Kingdom and Canada, and itís increasingly common in the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Australia, and the United States.

Teachings of Guru Granth Sahib Written Using Gurmukhi Script
Teachings of Guru Granth Sahib Written Using Gurmukhi Script
By Harpreetgiani from Wikimedia Commons

9)  Japanese
Japan is unique, and so is its language: Japanese. Spoken by approximately 125 million people - most of them living in Japan itself - there is also widespread use in countries like Korea, Taiwan, parts of China, and the Philippines, where many elders still speak it due to the occupations during World War II.

Due to Japan's natural isolation for many centuries, the language developed largely on its own once it started. The only major influence on it comes from Chinese, seen mostly in the writing system called kanji. Many times, the same kanji symbol will have two meanings: the Chinese translation and the Japanese. However, thatís as far as the similarities go. Due to Japanís isolationist policies, the language developed its own unique qualities. However, since the borders opened again in the year 1853, many English words have been adopted by the language, mostly to name objects and expressions that didnít previously exist in the country.

Japanese Translations
Japanese Translations

Japaneseís writing has three different alphabets. In addition to kanji, you have hiragana and katakana, two syllabic alphabets. Hiragana is used for native Japanese words, and itís the first one that Japanese children use when they learn how to read. You can often find little hiragana symbols next to kanji in Japanese manga that are aimed to young people who still canít read all of the symbols. Katakana is used for foreign or imported words, for onomatopoeia, or when there is intent to draw attention to that word and make it stick out.

8)  Russian
Considering how big Russia is, itís no surprise that Russian would show up on this list. With 154 million people speaking this Slavic language, itís not only the mother tongue of Russia, but of basically all the countries and territories that once formed the Soviet Union, such as Belarus, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan. Though not the official language, itís also very widespread among Moldova, Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia, as well as other countries from the Eastern Bloc, though to a lesser extent. Russian is the language spoken in the widest geographic territory of any of the languages on this list. It is also one of the six official languages of the United Nations.

Russianís alphabet comes from the Cyrillic alphabet, and it has a total of 33 letters.

Cyrillic Alphabet
Cyrillic Alphabet

Cyrillic letters often resemble Latin letters, but there are notable differences both in meaning and pronunciation. Many Russians living outside of Russia transliterate to the Latin alphabet, since they donít have access to keyboards or tools to write in Cyrillic, and some old sounds have been either morphed together or dropped to help out the process.

Early Cyrillic Alphabet (Old Bulgarian Alphabet)
Early Cyrillic Alphabet (Old Bulgarian Alphabet)

7)  Bengali
Bengali, just like Punjabi, is an Indo-Aryan language, and itís predominantly spoken in Bengal, an area that encompasses Bangladesh, Indiaís West Bengal, and certain parts of the states of Assam and Tripura. Bengali is spoken by 206 million people; and itís the official language of Bangladesh as well as one of the twenty-three official languages of India.

Bengali Vowels
Bengali Vowels

However, itís not only spoken in these countries. There are important communities that also speak Bengali in many countries, such as Japan, Singapore, the United States, Australia, Canada, United Kingdom, Pakistan, and other Middle East countries. It is no wonder that this language is one of the most commonly spoken around the world.

Snap Shot of Bangladesh
Snap Shot of Bangladesh

6)  Portuguese
Even though its country of origin, Portugal, is not a big territory, the reason Portuguese is such a widespread language is thanks to the extent of Portuguese colonialism. With countries like Angola, Brazil, Cape Verde, Mozambique, and other former colonies, itís no wonder that this Romance language, which is derived from Latin, is spoken by 216 million people all around the world. Some speakers can be found in as far away regions as Malaysia and India.

Emergency Assembly Area Sign (Tsunami)  Japanese, Portuguese, and English Languages
Emergency Assembly Area Sign (Tsunami)  Japanese, Portuguese, and English Languages

Portuguese is the most spoken language in the Southern Hemisphere and ranked third in Europe, which makes it also one of the official languages of the European Union. It was once the same language as Galician, a language spoken in the northwestern region of Spain known as Galicia. As the two regions were separated, the language separated as well, but itís still pretty easy for people from both regions to understand each other without any prior knowledge of the other language.

Current Countries with Official Ties to Portuguese
Current Countries with Official Ties to Portuguese
By Ceha via Wikimedia Commons

Portuguese is written in Latin script, like other Romance languages, with 26 letters and several diacritics (that is, accents and other symbols) to help specify different pronunciation, mostly between vowels.

5)  Arabic
By ranking Arabic this high in the list, you have to assume that this includes all variation of Arabic that exists, which are many, and very difficult for non-native speakers to tell apart from each other. In this case, while the total of Arabic speakers is reaches 290 million speakers, if you want to be more specific, then you would have the Egyptian Arabic ranking at the top of the Arabic dialects with 54 million native speakers. Below is a basic working Arabic alphabet.

Arabic alphabet

To try and normalize things, even though there are so many spoken dialects, there exists a normalized written Arabic, called Modern Standard Arabic, or Literary Arabic, which is used in most written documents and formal speeches as well as in education.

arabic alphabet

Still, the differences between dialects are too blurry to differentiate, and they are all considered a single language. This is the reason why Arabic is the official language of so many countries, including the countries that are part of the Arab League, like Egypt, Jordan, Yemen, Iraq, Lebanon and Saudi Arabia. Other Arabic speaking people also come from other countries like Israel, Iran, or Turkey. As interesting fact about Arabic is that it is the eleventh most popularly spoken language in the United States.

4)  Hindi
Hindi is one of the official languages currently used in India, and itís also the native language of Delhi, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, and other Indian states. Hindi is the standardized version of the Hindustani language, and it is often spoken hand-in-hand with Urdu, which also evolved from Hindustani.

Hindi Writing
Hindi Writing

As sister languages, they are mutually intelligible, meaning that speakers of each language can understand each other without studying the otherís language. However, this only applies when spoken, since Urdu and Hindi are written with different alphabets.

Hindi Shamans or "Gurus"
Hindi Shamans
By Luca Galuzzi via Wikimedia Commons

Hindi, which is spoken in India, the Fiji Islands, and Nepal mostly, is the native language of 311 million people around the globe, not counting minor dialects. Since Hindi was born in northern India and close to Pakistan, it has strong Persian and Arabian influences. However, the main root of Hindi is the Sanskrit language. This is why Hindi, unlike Urdu, is written in Sanskrit. Hindi is also used in Bollywood films along with Urdu, basically depending on the setting or historical background of the films.

3)  English
Oddly enough, English is not the most spoken language in the world. In fact, itís not even the second. English ranks third with about 359 million native speakers. Despite its third place ranking, it is however the most widely used language in the world. This is due to socio-economic reasons, as many influential countries now have English as their official language, such as United Kingdom, United States, Australia, Ireland, Canada, New Zealand, and many Caribbean countries.

Modern English and Early English Characters of Alphabet
Modern English and Early English Characters of Alphabet

In fact, itís the official language of a grand total of 54 countries. English, like German, is a Germanic language and it was born in England during medieval times. Thanks to colonialism, it spread to the American continent, the Caribbean Islands, and the African continent, from Pakistan to Nigeria.

history of english language

Since English is spoken by so many people around the world, it has become the unofficial business language and itís the foreign language most taught in many countries, as well as the official language of several international organizations such as the United Nations. English is also the official language used for travel, both in maritime and aeronautical.

2)  Spanish
Spanish, also known as Castilian, originated in Castile, a central region of Spain. Spanish is a Romance language like French and Italian. Itís the native tongue of 410 million people, and the second language of another 60 million. Spanish has many words that come from Basque, Galician, Portuguese and Arabic, the latter due to the 800-year-long occupation of Spain by Muslims. There are also French and Italian influences.

Do you speak Spanish?
Speak Spanish?

Thanks to the expansion of the Spanish Empire, and the discovery of the South American continent, Spanish spread like wildfire, becoming the language of the colonies in America, Africa, Oceania and the Philippines. As with English, Spanish is increasingly becoming an important language to learn, since Spanish-speaking countries are becoming more economically active. Nowadays, itís the first language of the West Hemisphere, and itís the most frequently chosen language to learn by native English speakers.

Except for Spain itself and Equatorial Guinea, all the Spanish speaking countries are located in South America, with Mexico at the top in number of native speakers. Other Latin countries that have Spanish as their official language are Argentina, Bolivia, Cuba, Colombia, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, and many, many others. Except for Brazil (which speaks Portuguese), all of South America speaks Spanish.

Main Dialects of Spanish
Main Dialects of Spanish
By Hidra92 via Wikimedia Commons

Surprisingly, the two largest Spanish speaking countries donít include Spain itself, but are Mexico and the United States. Spanish is written in Latin script, with 26 letters, plus a few extra additions like "ch" and "Ů", and uses accents to differentiate between the tones of vowels.

1)  Mandarin
Mandarin Chinese is spoken by 960 million native speakers. Thatís almost a billion people who all speak the same language. Let your mind wrap around that concept for a minute or two.

 Mandarin Characters with Profound Meanings
Mandarin Characters with Profound Meanings

Now, if you have absorbed this impressive data, take a closer look at the how's and why's of Mandarinís massive number of speakers. What is known as Mandarin Chinese is actually a group of dialects, mostly used in the north and southwestern parts of China. Since these dialects have very little differences between them, at least compared with dialects of other variants of Chinese, Mandarin is considered a single language, though due to pronunciation or tone, it can be sometimes difficult for someone from the north to understand someone from the south, and the reverse. However, thatís just like a person from Washington having trouble understanding a person with an Australian accent, even though they both speak English.

Simple Mandarin Chinese Characters
Simple Mandarin Chinese Characters

One of the main reasons Mandarin is so used is that the capital of China has always been in Mandarin territory, so the language has always been very influential to the point that it was adopted as the official language of the country above other Chinese languages. Mandarin, despite being the most spoken language, is exclusively spoken in China as a native language, but that can be due to the vast extension of its territory and the high population density.

Final Words
Languages are organic, living things that somewhat take on a life of their own. Geopolitical forces like expatriation or annexation of existing nations can often lead to either the growth or decay of spoken language; based on what language the losers spoke.

Some languages like Mandarin Chinese will never have a completed number of characters or rather, the total number is unknown and believed to be growing regularly. Mandarin characters are constantly evolving as time and culture perpetually tailor them, while the language drives towards more and more precise expressions. This is similar to jargon in the English language and slang expressions (Idioms are great examples of weird English and often give foreigners a very hard time). This forces language to be adaptable and in touch with the very core of the human experience. Languages need to be reflective as well as supportive of the contemporary human communication needs as well as desires.

The notion of Latin being a dead language is fallacious! All European languages including English, have massive amounts of Latin influence. This is readily seen in the Latin roots of many English, French, and Spanish vocabulary words. Every language comes from one before it or maybe even from a mixture of many older languages that took years to develop into a spoken provenance. Knowing a new language is useful and a great learning experience that will most likely add value to you as a person. Whether it just be for practical reasons or scholarly ones, learning a new and useful language will surely enrich your interpersonal experiences, and who knows it may just be what you needed for an upcoming promotion. Ciao!





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