Roughly 6,500 languages are spoken in the world today. Each and every one of them make the world a diverse and beautiful place.
Sadly, some of these languages are only known to a few people. Take busuu for example – we’re named after a language spoken by only eight people.
Others are spoken by huge populations across different countries, and are often popular choices among language learners.
Here are the twelve most spoken languages in the world in terms of native speakers and everything you need to know about them:
Mandarin Chinese is by far the most spoken language in the world.
It’s an official language of mainland China, Taiwan and Singapore and one of the six official languages of the United Nations. So it’s not surprising that there are approximately 955 million native speakers worldwide.
Mandarin is a tonal language, which means that the meaning of a word changes based on the way we pronounce it.
With a set of about 50,000 characters, it is probably one of the most complex languages to learn.
But don’t worry:
There are no verb conjugations, no tenses and no gender-specific nouns either.
Quite motivating, isn’t it? Maybe that’s also why it’s the fastest growing second language in the West!
Research suggests that you’ll only need around 2,500 characters to be able to read almost 98 percent of everyday written Chinese.
With around 405 million speakers, Spanish is the second most spoken language in the world.
22 countries over four continents have Spanish as the or one of the official languages and it’s already the second most studied language in the world.
Can you believe that within three generations, 10 percent of the world’s population will be able to communicate in Spanish?
Good news for native English speakers:
Spanish appears to be the easiest foreign language to learn! Experts say it takes only 22-24 weeks to reach what’s called general professional proficiency in the language.
The first modern novel and the second most translated book after the Bible was written in Spanish – of course, it’s ‘Don Quixote’ by Miguel de Cervantes.
With 360 million native speakers and almost twice as many second language speakers, English is the most spoken language in the world.
It’s also the official language of the sky – all pilots have to speak and identify themselves in English.
Not only is Shakespeare widely considered as one of the greatest dramatists of all time; over his lifespan, he added an incredible amount of about 1,700 words to the English language by changing nouns into verbs, verbs into nouns, connecting some words with each other and adding prefixes or suffixes to others.
The word “goodbye” was originally a contraction of “God be with ye”.
There are about 310 million native Hindi speakers, which makes it the fourth most spoken language in the world. It’s the official language of India, and is also spoken in countries such as Nepal, Fiji, Mauritius and Guyana.
Hindi is highly influenced by Sanskrit and named after the Persian word “hind”, which means – quite literally – “Land of the Indus river”.
You might actually already know some Hindi. Words like ‘guru’, ‘jungle’, ‘karma’, ‘yoga’, ‘bungalow’, ‘cheetah’, ‘avatar’ and many more have been borrowed from Hindi.
With 295 million native speakers, Arabic is the fifth most spoken language in the world and the only one in our top twelve that is written from right to left.
It has also heavily influenced European languages like Spanish and Portuguese: some words sound exactly the same.
It’s left its mark on English, too. ‘Coffee’ for example comes from the Arabic ‘qahwa’.
Arabic has at least 11 words for love, each of them expressing a different stage in the process of falling in love.
Now isn’t that a reason to start learning?
Portuguese is rooted in the region of Medieval Galicia (which was partly in the north of Portugal and partly in the northwest of Spain), but only five percent of the 215 million native Portuguese speakers actually live in Portugal.
You probably know that it’s the official language of Brazil, but is also has the sole official status in: Angola, Mozambique, Guinea-Bissau, East Timor, Equatorial Guinea, Macau, Cape Verde, and São Tomé and Príncipe.
Until recently, the letters “k”, “w“ and “y” were not part of the Portuguese alphabet. In 2009, a new agreement was signed to standardise spelling forms across different variations.
7. Bangla (Bengali)
Bangla is mostly spoken in Bangladesh and India and is considered by some to be the second most beautiful language after French.
With around 205 million native speakers, it’s the seventh most spoken language in the world.
The Bengali alphabet is particularly interesting:
Every consonant has a vowel sound built in, which is quite unusual for Westerners.
It gets even better:
Different marks change the default vowel sound of a word and therefore also the meaning!
One of the most spread-out languages (with around 155 million native speakers), the eighth most spoken language in the world is Russian.
Whilst the grammar is thought to be difficult, Russian only has about 200,000 words (English has roughly one million), which is why most of them have more than one meaning.
Due to Russia’s presence in space technology, it is a requirement for foreign astronauts to have know a certain degree of Russian (as if becoming an astronaut wasn’t already difficult enough!).
In Japanese, the country’s name is Nihon (にほん) or Nippon (にっぽん), which roughly translates as “land of the rising sun”.
There are 125 million native speakers of Japanese, which makes it the ninth most spoken language in the world.
Native Japanese speakers speak the fastest, at 7.84 syllables per second (in comparison, English is spoken at about 6.19 syllables per second).
With around 100 million native speakers, Punjabi is the tenth most spoken languages in the world.
While Punjabi is mainly spoken in Pakistan and India, it’s also the third most spoken native language in Canada and the fourth in the U.K.
Like Chinese, Punjabi is a tonal language, which means that different pronunciation changes the meaning even when the words appear extremely similar.
Often referred to as the language of writers and thinkers, German has about 95 million native speakers worldwide and is the most spoken language in the European Union.
It’s an official language of Germany, Austria, Liechtenstein, Switzerland and Luxembourg.
German is known for its seemingly endless sentences, which is not least because of its ability to create completely new and super specific words.
That’s probably why it’s so poetic. ‘Schadenfreude’, for example, literally means ‘damage happiness’ and is used to describe the happiness or entertainment derived from someone else’s misfortune, injury or pain.
Around 82 million people in the world speak Javanese, mostly on the Indonesian island of Java.
Anna is one of busuu’s German Language Experts. She is from Potsdam in Germany where she studied German Linguistics and Sociology. She loves writing short stories and anything related to art and design. Her favourite food is cheese!