More than 6,500 languages are spoken across the world every day. If you're thinking about trying to learn one or two more of them, where should you begin?
Popular choices among languages learners tend to be the ones that are used in international business, diplomacy, and media. So which languages are you most likely to hear as you travel the world? According to the annual reference publication Ethnologue, which tracks statistics on living languages in the world, the following are the most spoken languages today.
1. Mandarin Chinese - 918 Million Native Speakers
More than 11% of the world is a native Mandarin speaker. Chinese itself is a group of connected languages, and Mandarin is the largest. It's the official language of the People's Republic of China, Taiwan, and Singapore.
Although it is one of the hardest languages for English-speakers to learn, it's well worth pursuing. As one of the dominant languages in global trade, business, and diplomacy, a working knowledge of Mandarin will put you in an elite club of Westerners who can translate between this powerful language and culture and the rest of the world.
2. Spanish - 418 Million Native Speakers
Spanish was spread through the world by the conquistadores, and now it's spoken in many parts of the world, from Central and South America to Europe to Southeast Asia and Africa.
There are 22 countries across the world that include Spanish as one of their official languages, so if you're looking for ubiquity, you'll find it in this language. Given the close relationship between Mexico and the U.S., most Americans who learn a second language tend to learn Spanish. That means there are ample lessons, classes, and opportunities to practice.
3. English - 379 Million Native Speakers
Although English isn't the most spoken language in the world by number of native speakers, it vies with Mandarin as the most spoken language, full stop. In many countries, children start learning English the year they start formal schooling. Knowing English is basically a pre-requisite at the highest levels of international collaboration, trade, and communication.
Since you're reading this article and already know English, we don't have to spend too much time on this one. But we will point out that knowing English means you might find German and many of the Romance languages fairly easy to pick up.
4. Hindustani – 341 Million Native Speakers
Collectively, Hindi and Urdu are known as Hindustani. They are two dialects of the same language, which comes from the north and west of the Indian subcontinent.
As the official language of India, it's in use every day in the second most populous country in the world. Hindi and Urdu speakers can speak fluently with each other, as the two languages only differ slightly in terms of vocabulary and pronunciation. They are generally written in different scripts, with Hindi appearing closer to written Arabic script.
5. Arabic - 315 Million Native Speakers
There's no doubt that Arabic is one of the most widely spoken languages in the world. However, this number doesn't tell the whole story; Arabic dialects differ so vastly depending on where you are that it's almost akin to a group of languages. The Arabic spoken in Qatar is vastly different from the Arabic you'd hear in Sudan, so much so that two speakers from these respective countries might struggle to understand each other. Arabic is one of the official languages of 25 countries, including Djibouti, Comoros, the UAE, and Yemen.
6. Bengali – 228 Million Native Speakers
Bengali is spoken in Bangladesh and several states of India. Bengali script is actually the fifth most used script in the world, and it is the second most spoken language in India.
Bengali is an Indo-Aryan language, which means it belongs to the Indo-European family – just like English and the Romance languages. You might also see the language referred to as "Bangla" or written like this: বাংলা.
7. Portuguese - 221 Million Native Speakers
Portuguese is one of the Romance languages. Although the language comes from modern-day Portugal, only about five percent of the millions of native speakers live in Portugal. The rest of the native speakers are situated in Brazil, which has twice as many native speakers as the rest of the world put together.
Geographically, the Portuguese-speaking world stretches far and wide. Native speakers also reside in a contingency of African and Asian nations like Cape Verde, Equatorial Guinea, Macau, and São Tomé and Príncipe. It's one of the official languages of nine countries.
8. Russian - 154 Million Native Speakers
Russian is an important language on the global stage. Due to the language's prominence in fields like science and astronomy, it's a requirement for all astronauts to have a basic level of understanding of Russian.
Russian is the official language of Kazakhstan, Belarus, Kyrgyzstan, and of course, Russia. Russian only has 200,000 words (compared to English's one million), but don't think that it's 1/5 as easy to learn. Most of the words have multiple meanings and depend on context. Like many Slavic languages, Russian is written using the Cyrillic alphabet.
9. Japanese - 128 Million Native Speakers
Almost all native Japanese speakers reside in Japan. However, the population of Japan is 2 percent of the planet. Japanese is an important language for business being conducted in the east. It has also had an outsize influence on global culture, from food, to media, to literature and art. Japanese is written in three different alphabets: Hiragana, Katakana, and Kanji.
10. French - 78 Million Native Speakers
Although there are less than 100 million native French speakers, French is spoken fluently by almost 300 million people in the world. From France to Canada to a number of African countries like Senegal and Gabon, French speakers have roots that spread far and wide. French is one of the official languages of 29 countries! It is also depicted in music, film, and literature as one of the most beautiful spoken languages in existence.
Which of these languages is next on your list to learn? Let us know in the comments!