For some people, the decision to learn a new language comes from necessity, while for others it stems from personal interest and perhaps a fondness for a particular culture. Whatever the reasons may be, learning a new language is an exciting adventure that can open your life up to immense new possibilities. Often, it’s a mix of several factors that causes a person to learn a new language.This tends to be particularly true of expats – there are of course the practical considerations of furthering your career and living in a place where the majority of people speak a language other than your own, but there are also often factors such as a simple fondness for or interest in a certain language and culture, and a desire to explore them.
Thinking in purely practical terms, unless you’re already in a situation that requires you to learn a particular language, the best languages to learn are usually those that are most widely spoken. The more widely spoken a language is, the higher are the chances that you will find opportunities to use it in the real world. This isn’t to say that there are no good reasons to learn less common languages. However, you’re unlikely to ever use Belarusian, for example, unless you someday visit or move to Belarus. This also means that without actual real-world conversations, you’re unlikely to ever be very good at the language. On the other hand, a language like Japanese has around 125 million native speakers, many of whom are scattered around the world, making it much more likely that you will someday speak to one or several of them.
Calculating the number of speakers is, however, a bit tricky, as categorizations are not very strictly defined. There are no consistent differentiations between languages, dialects, and macro-languages, and certain languages may or may not be clubbed with others, depending on who’s doing the counting. Similarly, the level of fluency at which a person is deemed to be a speaker of a language is not clearly defined, and this too can cause counts to vary. English, for example, is estimated to have around 340 million native speakers; however, if you include speakers for whom English is a second or third language, or even one of many, then you can count up to two billion speakers.
Nevertheless, here are the most widely spoken languages in the world, and if you’re considering learning a new language, you might want to pick one of these.
If you’re reading this article, you are quite certainly a fairly fluent English speaker already and are also aware of how widely spoken and useful the language is. It is, however, worth mentioning that in terms of native speakers, English is only third, behind both Mandarin and Spanish.
Nonetheless, the total number of English speakers is 1.5 billion, which is far ahead of any other language, unless you combine all the varieties of Chinese. This is usually not done, as they are considered to be distinct languages. If you want to improve your language skills and feel you aren’t already fluent in English, this is a great place to begin.
Mandarin Chinese has around 135 million native speakers and a total of 1.09 billion speakers around the world. Native speakers alone make up more than 14 percent of the world’s population. Mandarin is the official language in China, Taiwan, and Singapore (along with three other languages), and all three countries are important hubs of business and industry today. China, in particular, seems set to become more and more influential on the world stage, which means that Mandarin Chinese is going to be an increasingly useful language to know. Unfortunately, Mandarin is also a notoriously difficult language to learn. Like all the other varieties of Chinese, it is a tonal language, meaning that in addition to the sounds of vowels and consonants, the tone of a syllable also affects meaning. For people whose native language is not tonal (English and other European languages, for example), this can be a very difficult concept to get used to.
Spanish is the official language of more countries than almost any other language, with the exception of English and Arabic. Thanks to the spread of the Spanish Empire and subsequent migration around the world, the language has a sizable population of speakers on practically every continent, although the majority are in Europe and the Americas. There are 405 million native Spanish speakers and 560 million speakers in total around the world. Spanish is also the third most commonly used language on the internet (the first two are English and Mandarin). There are multiple dialects of Spanish even within Spain, some of which are thought to be closer to “Standard Spanish”, although this view is not as common as it used to be, and all Spanish dialects tend to be seen as legitimate today. The biggest differences are probably between the European dialects and the American dialects, but to a large extent, Spanish speakers of different dialects are able to understand each other.
Hindustani (Hindi and Urdu)
Hindi and Urdu are often treated like two separate languages today, and although there are some notable differences between the two, many authorities consider them to be a single language. The main difference between the two registers of Hindustani is that a considerable amount of Hindi’s vocabulary comes from Sanskrit, while Urdu has more Persian and Arabic influences. In spite of this, there are more similarities than differences, and speakers are typically able to understand each other very well. Hindustani is widely spoken in North India and Pakistan, and has around 310 million native speakers, with around 541 million speakers in total. Hindi is the official language of the federal government in India, while Urdu is an official language in several states within the country, and is also the national language of Pakistan. Outside of the Indian subcontinent, Hindi-based languages are spoken by sizable populations in Fiji and the Caribbean, as well as by the diaspora around the world. Learning Hindustani will give you access to a rich tradition of literature and a vibrant contemporary film industry, arguably the biggest in the world.
Arabic has around 295 million native speakers, most of whom are concentrated in the Middle East. However, there are in total around 395 million speakers of the language, and because of its close associations with Islam and the Quran, many Muslims around the world have some degree of familiarity with the language. Arabic has several dialects, and in some form or the other, is the official language in at least 26 different countries, including Egypt, Israel, Kuwait, Morocco, and the United Arab Emirates.
Arabic is one of the world’s oldest languages and has influenced many other languages that are in use today, including some on this list – in particular, Spanish, Urdu, Hindi, and Malay have noticeable Arabic influences. Arabic has its own unique script, which is written from right to left, and it also has several sounds that are unfamiliar to non-native speakers. This and a few other characteristics relating to grammar, spelling, and word formation, can make it difficult for some people to learn, but other non-native speakers say that once you get past a few initial difficulties, it is fairly easy.
Russian is the most widely spoken of the Slavic languages – there are 260 million speakers of Russian in the world, of whom 155 million are native speakers. The language is of course spoken in its home country, Russia, as well as in several neighboring countries, including Kazakhstan, Belarus, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan, and among diasporic populations around the world.
Russian is quite important as an international language – it is one of the most widely used languages on the internet after English, and is one of the official languages of the United Nations and many other international organizations. It’s also one of two official languages (along with English) on the International Space Station, which means that astronauts on the space station must be able to speak it. In addition, the Russian language has great cultural importance around the world. Most lovers of film and literature are already fairly familiar with the Russian greats, such as Tolstoy, Chekhov, Pushkin, and Gogol, but learning Russian will allow you to experience these authors’ works first-hand.
There are only around 77 million native speakers of Malay, but the total number speakers in the world is more than twice that number, at around 250 million. The language is mainly spoken in Indonesia, particularly on the island of Java, and it has official status in Indonesia, as well as in Malaysia, Singapore, and Brunei. There are also communities of speakers in parts of the Philippines and Thailand. Indonesian, Javanese, and other local languages in this region are sometimes described as dialects of Malay, or as having been strongly influenced by it. English tends to be the language that is used in most business and professional situations in these countries, but knowledge of a local language is always useful. Malay is now mostly written using the Latin script, but before this, an Arabic script known as Jawi was much more widespread. There are efforts to preserve and revive the Jawi script today, but it too was a replacement for earlier scripts that are now almost entirely lost.
Portuguese is one of the Romance languages and is another Indo-European language that has spread far beyond its original home as a result of colonization in previous centuries. In fact, the most widely spoken form of Portuguese today is not the original, which is still spoken in the homeland, but the Brazilian variant, known simply as Brazilian Portuguese, which has around 150 million speakers. In total, there are 250 million Portuguese speakers, of which more than 200 million are native speakers. Portugal is one of the more popular expat locations in Europe, and in addition, knowing Portuguese gives you access to many of the other countries where the language is spoken, including Brazil, Venezuela, Angola, and Mozambique.
There are also small numbers of Portuguese speakers in India, particularly in Goa and Daman & Diu, which were once Portuguese colonies. Portuguese has also had a strong influence on the local language in Goa, and on the local culture in general.
Considering the widespread influence of France and the French language on global culture, it is perhaps surprising that French isn’t higher on this list. French has around 220 million speakers, including around 80 million native speakers, and its geographic spread is quite impressive – in addition to its home country, the language is spoken in Belgium, Canada, Haiti, Luxembourg, Italy, Madagascar, Switzerland, the Seychelles, Monaco, Guinea, and many other countries around the world. Much of this is due to France’s colonial expansion over the past centuries, and this has also resulted in many French-based Creole languages around the world, in places ranging from Louisiana to Vietnam. French has for many years been a language of international business and diplomacy, so it’s a very useful language, and for most English speakers, it’s also fairly easy to learn.
The German language is spoken by around 90 million native speakers and a total of 210 million speakers around the world, and while its geographic spread isn’t as impressive as French, it is fairly widely spoken outside its home country, in countries including Switzerland, Austria, and Belgium.
German is said to be the second-most commonly used scientific language and one of the most widely used languages on the internet (the latter ranking is once again after English and Mandarin). In addition, with Germany’s strong economy and its influence on global industry and culture, it’s a very useful language to know. In fact, many people around the world already know a smattering of German, since it’s one of the most commonly taught foreign languages in school. The language isn’t particularly difficult to learn, so if you’re lucky enough to have had the basics forced on you in your childhood, you should definitely brush up your skills and develop some fluency.