There are many factors that you may want to consider before committing to learning a new language. But more often than not, popularity is a strong sign that a language is worth your time and effort. And while you certainly shouldn’t limit yourself to the most popular 10 or 20 options, they are a good starting point when just beginning to discover the fascinating world of linguistic diversity.
In this article, we’ll go over the top 10 most popular languages in the world by the total number of speakers. Along the way, we will discuss some of their unique features and explore what made each of them so famous, to begin with.
1. English – 1,4 billion speakers worldwide
Putting English in the first spot is admittedly a bit of a cheat as almost 3 times more people speak it as a second or third language than are born with it. In addition, it is also the language of the Internet making up 55% of all content online.
Despite being so overused, English still fascinates us with its extensive vocabulary enriched by cross-cultural interaction (peaceful or otherwise) which keeps growing by the day. In fact, one of the distinguishing features of this language is that it loves so-called ‘portmanteau’ words and makes them up all the time. Brunch (breakfast + lunch), motel (motor + hotel), webinar (web + seminar) – all these new words were created by crunching together 2 or more existing ones.
2. Mandarin – 1,1 billion speakers worldwide
The official language of Mainland China, Taiwan, and Singapore, Mandarin has the largest number of concentrated native speakers. This gives it a good reason to challenge English as the most popular language in the world.
Be that as it may, Mandarin is certainly one of the most musical languages as well. This is because the tonal structure of the language has a great effect on its semantics. Meaning that a simple change in the tone of a word can completely alter its signification.
3. Hindi – 600 million speakers worldwide
India is a land of contrast and diversity – 22 official and 121 spoken languages. And by far the most popular of them all is Hindi.
The language has its own holiday on the 14th of September and despite the foreign-looking script, it is surprisingly easy to master. Owing to the colonial history of India, Hindi and English share a sizable chunk of their vocabularies. Moreover, every character in the Hindi alphabet represents a distinct sound meaning that its spelling is as straightforward as it gets.
4. Spanish – 500 million speakers worldwide
Spoken in most of South America, Spain and a host of other countries around the world, Spanish is not just incredibly useful but also quite easy to pick up (as anyone who’s ever tuned into a Spanish soap opera will attest.)
What is sometimes missed about this language, though, is the fact that it’s only called Spanish outside of Spain itself. In the country of its origin, it is known as Castilian. Another interesting feature of the language is its typography – it uses inverted exclamation and question marks for emphasis. Moreover, Spanish has words like pardo meaning ‘the color between grey and brown’, and a whole slew of other unique untranslatables.
5. French – 274 million speakers worldwide
French has the one-of-a-kind distinction of being spoken on 6 continents of the world. It is the original lingua franca or universal language (way before English was cool) and is still used heavily in diplomacy.
On a linguistic level, French is known for its homophones – or words that sound the same but mean completely different things. It is also often credited with having originated 45% of the English vocabulary.
6. Arabic – 273 million speakers worldwide
The Arabic world is the collective name given to 25 countries in North Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, and the Middle East where Arabic is the most popular language.
Arabic’s influence on the West is often heavily underestimated. Not only was it instrumental in the transmission and development of knowledge in the Middle Ages but it also enriched the vocabularies of not one European language.
7. Bengali – 272 million speakers worldwide
A surprising entrant on this list, perhaps, Bengali is a language widely spoken in Bangladesh and India. It is sometimes called the sweetest language in the world and is renowned for its poetic graces. And also, for having non-gendered pronouns! Considering its reputation, it’s no surprise the first Nobel Prize won by an Asian was in the category of Literature and was awarded to Rabindranath Tagore – a Bengali poet.
8. Russian – 258 million speakers worldwide
After the fall of the USSR, Russian remained widely spoken in the former Eastern Block and particularly so in the old republics.
Owing to the great advancements in space exploration that Russia made during the Cold War, it is still customary for astronauts to be required to speak the language to some degree.
9. Portuguese – 257 million speakers worldwide
Despite being only 1% of the size of Brazil, Portugal gave this enormous South American country its language. But if it was only Brazil that spoke Portuguese it wouldn’t be one of the most popular languages in the world.
In fact, Portuguese is spoken across 9 countries and as far away as the Macau region of China. All of this is owing to the extensive colonial and trade campaigns of the Portuguese during the 15th and 16th centuries. Campaigns that saw them exposed to exotic animals who they gave names to. Flamingo, cobra, piranha, and many more entered European vernaculars through Portuguese.
10. Urdu – 231 million speakers worldwide
Last but not least, we have another South-East Asian language Urdu. Hailing from Pakistan and India it’s home is also heavily indebted to Persian and Arabic have borrowed 90% of its script and 40% of its vocabulary from these languages.
Despite this, Urdu is anything but unoriginal. Similar to French in the West, this language is renowned for its dulcet tones and high poetry. Not to mention – it gave us the English word for pajamas!
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With over 7000 known languages in the world, the global linguistic diversity is truly dazzling. And while it’s certainly not likely you’ll ever learn all of them, you can pick up one or two of the most popular ones with EWA.
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