There are a lot of languages out there. Though most schools only teach a few languages, the world is home to more than 7,000 different tongues, and within those languages, there are even more unique dialects. This diversity has value in and of itself, which is why many different organizations and governments are working to make sure some rarer languages don’t die out – an occurrence that happens relatively frequently, as many smaller indigenous tribes integrate with modern society.
But what languages are dominating in this time of change?
All language speakers vs. first language speakers
First, we have to define what we mean by the “most-spoken language.” Sometimes, people use figures on native speakers to define the most spoken language, but other times, they use total language speakers. The total speakers figure can include people who speak the language as a second or third language.
Some languages have relatively few native speakers but a ton of total speakers. That’s mainly because of the existence of what’s called a lingua franca. This term refers to a language that has been designated as a global diplomatic and business language. It allows people to more easily interact with those from other countries. For instance, if someone from China learns the lingua franca, they can speak to anyone else in the world who speaks it. In contrast, if they only learned a lesser-spoken language, like, say, Thai, they are only able to speak with a specific subset of people.
For much of history, the lingua franca was French – hence the name, which literally translates to ‘French language.’ However, in recent years, English has taken over as the global language. That means, in terms of total speakers, it’s the most-spoken tongue in the world.
Most spoken languages by total language speakers
English soars to the top of this list on the strength of its second language speakers. While only about 373 million people speak English as a first language – most of them concentrated in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and Australia – over a billion people speak English as a second language. For that reason, the total number of English speakers worldwide is approximately 1.452 billion, per reference publication Ethnologue.
- Mandarin Chinese
On the other hand, Mandarin Chinese has far more native speakers than second-language speakers. Some 929 million people speak Mandarin as a first language. But a comparatively small 199 million speak it as a second tongue, for a total number of speakers of 1.1 billion. Part of the reason for the relatively small second-language population might be how difficult Chinese is to learn. Unlike English, Chinese doesn’t work off of an alphabet but a character-based system. That means it’s not phonetic, and speakers have to learn thousands of characters to read and write it fluently. Talk about a big project.
The predominant Indian language, Hindi is spoken by 343.9 million speakers as a first language. An additional 258.3 million speakers know as a second language, for a total number of speakers sitting at just over 600 million.
In the U.S., Spanish might be the natural second language of choice. But it’s not necessarily as popular in other regions. Despite having 474.7 million first-language speakers, only about 74 million people speak Spanish as a second language. That might be because, in many countries, English is considered the second language of choice.
Though it’s harder to think of French-speaking nations off the bat, French has a lot of speakers because there are many countries in Africa that speak French as one of their official languages. It only has 79.9 million native speakers. However, there are more than 194 million second-language speakers. That makes it, like English, a rare language that is spoken by more second-language than first-language speakers.
Other popular languages
For the most part, these languages roughly line up with the most popular first and second languages. But there are exceptions. Modern Standard Arabic, for instance, is the second most commonly spoken language for second-language speakers, with 274 million second-language speakers. But it has no first language speakers – since people who learn Arabic from their parents speak different dialects that are unique to different regions and countries – so it doesn’t break the top five on the total most spoken languages list. Likewise, though Bengali doesn’t appear on the top five most spoken languages overall, it’s ranked fifth for languages with the most first-language speakers, with nearly 234 million of them. However, a relatively few 39 million people speak Bengali as a second language.