What are the Most Common Languages?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

The answer to the question of which are the most common languages is actually a little bit complex. Thousands of languages are spoken all over the world, and a number of rubrics could be used to determine which are the most common. As a result, estimates of the most common languages can sometimes vary considerably. As a general rule, Mandarin Chinese, Spanish, English, Bengali, and Arabic tend to occupy the top five spaces on the list, in varying order, but Hindi, Urdu, Russian, Portuguese, Japanese, German, and French also rank very high.

Mandarin Chinese.
Mandarin Chinese.

One way to look at the most common languages is to determine the number of native speakers. Mandarin Chinese wins this contest hands down, with over one billion native speakers as of 2005. Trailing behind, Hindi, Spanish, and English have around 330 million native speakers each, and Bengali, Arabic, and Russian have around 170 million native speakers.

English is the official language in over 50 countries.
English is the official language in over 50 countries.

However, just looking at the number of native speakers does not provide a complete picture. Many languages have relatively small numbers of native speakers, but huge numbers of secondary speakers. English is a classic example, with people all over the world learning English to do business, engage in diplomatic communications, and to communicate with people from around the world. While the top five languages remain fairly consistent once the numbers of secondary speakers are taken into account, English usually jumps into second place, with almost half a billion native speakers.

French is still spoken in dozens of nations, in addition to France.
French is still spoken in dozens of nations, in addition to France.

Another way to look at the most common languages around the world is where languages are spoken. Some have large numbers of speakers, but are only spoken in a handful of countries. Others are spoken in numerous countries, and not just in numerous countries, but in nations all over the world, rather than a cluster of nations limited to a small geographic region. English, for example, is the official language in over 50 countries around the world. English is also commonly the official language used by international organizations and international businesses such as banks.

Though it is not one of the five most common languages, many people learn Japanese for business reasons.
Though it is not one of the five most common languages, many people learn Japanese for business reasons.

Some people also consider socioeconomic power when evaluating language usage around the world. Portuguese, for example, is often in the top 10 list of most commonly spoken languages, but the nations in which this language is used are not widely associated with socioeconomic power, meaning that the language may have less clout than languages like Japanese and German, which are often ranked below Portuguese in terms of number of speakers.

A world language is spoken by a relatively large number of people in countries around the world.
A world language is spoken by a relatively large number of people in countries around the world.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


As far as choosing which system should determine the most common language, I think it should go by the total number of speakers regardless of native language or official languages. I think by ranking the most common languages, you are really trying to get at how ubiquitous a language is, and that should be done through total speakers.

I do like the article's distinction that the number of speakers isn't necessarily a sign of global power, though. A lot of countries and people speak Arabic, but as global power goes, these countries are fairly weak save for the oil producing countries and their economic strength.

I've never thought much about Germany and Japan's proportion of speakers to power, but it makes sense. You could say the reverse for Spanish. Most Spanish speaking countries are relatively poor. I'd be interested to know if some metric has been created relating something like GDP or another economic indicator to language.


@kentuckycat - Even over my lifetime, I have noticed foreign language education changing. Growing up in the 60s, my school offered German language classes from fourth grade onward. I assume this is mostly because I grew up in Pennsylvania where a good majority of people are of German decent, and a lot of older people still spoke German. It's very rare to find people that still speak German at home now, so it's not offered in the schools anymore. Now it's all Spanish and French.

As China gets more powerful, it's going to be more important for people to know how to communicate overseas, so I can definitely see more people wanting and needing to learn Mandarin.


@Emilski - Very good observation. Along that same line of reasoning, I'm guessing a third strike against Chinese is that it's so difficult to learn for an English speaker. Chinese is a tonal language that is completely different from anything native English speakers are used to. Spanish, French, German, and even Russian are all fairly similar to English as far as grammar goes.

English is generally considered a difficult language to learn, but so many people around the world speak it because they are taught English from early in their lives. That doesn't happen in America. Unless you go to a large school that has the resources, most districts don't even start offering foreign languages until high school. By that time, learning a language like Chinese is even more difficult.


@truman12 - Good point. Like Ivan83 said, I think a lot of the reason people in America don't speak Chinese is because it just isn't taught in schools. I'm not familiar with Canadian or British school systems, but it doesn't seem like they teach Chinese, either.

I figure this is from a combination of factors. The one I think is probably most responsible is that Chinese has never been important enough for most people to need to know it to be successful in global business. Obviously, that is changing very quickly. Now, knowing how to speak Chinese or any Asian language makes you a valuable commodity in almost any corporation.

I'd say to a lesser extent, American schools don't generally offer Chinese because the majority of Americans don't run into Chinese speakers on a regular basis. To the south is Mexico and Latin America, so we interact with a lot of Spanish speakers. To the north is Quebec, so some people need to learn French.


@turkay1-- I agree with @fify that colonization doesn't give us all the answers about the common languages of today. If it did, Turkish would be on top of the list for the most common languages spoken.

During the Ottoman Empire, the Turks colonized and ruled many countries in Europe and Middle East and Lebanon is one of them. I believe the Turks ruled Lebanon for over one hundred years. But not one Lebanese can speak Turkish today. Almost all Lebanese however, speak French. The French colonized Lebanon after the Turks and only for 23 years!

Why?! I have no idea. It might be because the French ruled more strictly and pressured the Lebanese to speak French. Or maybe the Lebanese simply liked and preferred the French language.

Obviously, there is not one reason why some languages are more popular and common than others. It's a combination of various factors.


@turkay1-- You may be partially right, but I don't think colonization and economic or political power is the reason behind why the most common languages are common.

Population is the biggest factor. Why is Chinese Mandarin, Bengali, Arabic, Hindi on top of the list? Because the countries in which these languages are spoken have many people and their population grows at a much faster rate than other countries.

China has the most population in the world now followed by India! It's only normal for these languages to be common!

The other reason I think is personal choice which is probably why Spanish, Japanese, Portuguese and German rank high. There are language courses available everywhere now. There are even ones available online. So you don't have to travel to the end of the world to learn a language. People can decide which language they want to learn and they can actually become fluent in it with courses and some practice.


@jonrss-- That's true, British English is spoken in many countries of the world, so is Spanish and French. But the reason for this is colonization. These countries colonized nations all over the globe and required these people to speak their language.

If it weren't for colonization, English, French and Spanish would fall to the very bottom of the list in terms of common languages.

Of course, English is now becoming the "business language" but this is also because of the strength of the American economy and its strong presence in global trade and business.

So maybe, history and socio-political factors should also be taken into account when determining which languages are the most common languages in the world.


Correct me if I am wrong, but I think that Italy is the only country in the world where Italian is spoken. That is not uncommon in the context of language, but it is rare for longstanding Western European powers. Most of them have native speakers on every continent in the world.


@Truman12 - True, so true. I actually just read an article about how some nannies in New York City make more money than doctors. The reason is that they have many many specialized skills that people hope to cultivate in their children. One of the most prized at the moment is the ability to speak mandarin.

It is clear that these rich and super sensitive parents think that they can best prepare their child by teaching them Mandarin rather than French or Spanish. It won't be long before it is a standard course in public schools.

It is amazing to me that Mandarin is the most widely spoken language on earth and yet so few people that I know speak it.

Considering how close our relationship is with China and how fast China is growing it only seems likely that Mandarin will become an important language in coming years. Americans are so sensitive about people speaking English. That is a privilege of the powerful.


English jumps into second place, with half a billion *speakers* (the article says 'native speakers').

Of course, probably a lot of these probably aren't very good speakers!


I think you might have forgotten about 230,000,000 Indonesians.

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