The 20 Most Spoken Languages in the World

How many languages can you identify?
How many languages can you identify? / ivosar/iStock via Getty Images Plus

Every year, Ethnologue mines the data on more than 7000 languages to find out which ones are spoken most across the globe. English tops the 2021 list with an estimated 1.35 billion speakers worldwide. When it comes to native speakers, however, runner-up Mandarin Chinese is miles ahead—boasting around 921 million native speakers to English’s paltry 370 million.

Read on to find out which languages fill out the top 20, along with some fascinating facts about them.

1. English // 1.35 Billion

The most common word in the most common language is thought to be the. Not only is it short and easy to use, but it also doesn’t have one meaning (or even a few), which makes it especially versatile.

2. Mandarin Chinese // 1.12 Billion

A bronze statue of a 16th-century Chinese official.
A bronze statue of a 16th-century Chinese official. / Museum of East Asian Art/Heritage Images/Getty Images

Mandarin Chinese in the language itself is known as putonghua, meaning “common speech.” Mandarin comes from the Portuguese word mandarim, which Portuguese explorers used to describe Chinese officials during the 16th century.

3. Hindi // 600 Million

On September 14, 1949, India’s Constituent Assembly voted to adopt Hindi as India’s official language. (English is the other official language.) Hindi Diwas, or Hindi Day, is celebrated each year on September 14 to commemorate the decision.

4. Spanish // 543 Million

There’s an organization dedicated to preserving the Spanish language: the Real Academia Española, or Royal Spanish Academy, established in 1713. Its motto is “Limpia, fija y da esplendor,” or “It cleans, it fixes, and it gives splendor.”

5. Standard Arabic // 274 Million

Out of the six official languages of the United Nations, Arabic is the only one written from right to left. (The other five are Chinese, English, French, Russian, and Spanish.)

6. Bengali // 268 Million

In basic English sentences, the object comes after the verb; e.g. “I love cats.” In Bengali, Bangladesh’s official language, the object falls between the subject and the verb—so it would be “I cats love.”

7. French // 267 Million

French has quite a few sets of homophones, which makes context clues especially important. Take, for example, cent (“one hundred”), sang (“blood”), sens (the first-person singular conjugation of the verb “to feel”), and sans (“without”)—they’re all pronounced the same.

“Sans sang, je me sens cent pour cent mort” means “Without blood, I feel one hundred percent dead.”

8. Russian // 258 Million

Since missions to the International Space Station usually launch from Russian territory in Kazakhstan, U.S. astronauts headed to the ISS have to learn Russian. “I’ve been asked many times what’s the hardest thing about space flight and I say it’s learning the language,” astronaut Peggy Whitson said in a 2020 interview.

9. Portuguese // 258 Million

Roughly 5 percent of Portuguese speakers actually live in Portugal. Many live in Brazil, but that’s not the only other place that counts Portuguese as an official language. Mozambique, Angola, Equatorial Guinea, and five more countries and territories do, too.

10. Urdu // 230 Million

Urdu, most widely spoken in Pakistan and India, is so similar to Hindi that they’re sometimes considered two versions of a single language. They’re written in different scripts, though: Devanāgarī for Hindi, and Nastaʼlīq for Urdu.

11. Indonesian // 199 Million

Can you name the capital of Indonesia? We can. It's Jakarta.
Can you name the capital of Indonesia? We can. It's Jakarta. / yorkfoto/iStock via Getty Images

Because the Netherlands established a presence in Indonesia in the early 17th century and later colonized the territory, Indonesian has many Dutch loanwords. Tas, for example, means “bag” in both languages; and the Indonesian word kantor, meaning “office,” comes from the Dutch word kantoor (which also means “office”).

12. Standard German // 135 Million

German doesn’t distinguish between proper and common nouns; all nouns are capitalized. The language also has a reputation for impressively long words and innovative insults.

13. Japanese // 126 Million

Though Japanese has loanwords from other languages (and some characters borrowed from Chinese), it’s a language isolate—meaning it’s not related to any known language, and we don’t really know where it came from.

14. Marathi // 99 Million

Marathi has been the official language of the Indian state Maharashtra since 1966, and it has close ties to Hindi. Marathi, like Hindi, is usually written in the Devanāgarī script.

15. Telugu // 96 Million

Of approximately 80 varieties in the Dravidian language family—estimated to be around 4500 years old—Telugu is the largest.

16. Turkish // 88 Million

Some people think Edmund Pevensie sort of oversold Turkish delight.
Some people think Edmund Pevensie sort of oversold Turkish delight. / celin/iStock via Getty Images

Turkish delight isn’t the only reference to Turkey that C.S. Lewis included in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. The Turkish word aslan—the name of the lion in the novel—actually means “lion.”

17. Tamil // 85 Million

Though Telugu is the most spoken Dravidian language, Tamil holds the distinction of being the oldest in the family.

18. Yue Chinese // 85 Million

Yue Chinese, also known as Cantonese, is the most widely spoken language in Hong Kong.

19. Wu Chinese // 82 Million

While Mandarin has four main tones, Wu dialects—which are common in Shanghai, Jiangsu province, and Zhejiang province—use as many as eight.

20. Korean // 82 Million

In many situations where English speakers would use I or my, native Korean speakers would use uri, meaning we or our. “Korean people use uri when something is shared by a group or community, or when many members in a group or community possess the same or similar kind of thing,” Beom Lee, a Korean language professor at Columbia University, told Ann Babe for BBC Travel. “[It’s] based on our collectivist culture.”