Which are the most widely spoken languages in the world? Some, such as English and Spanish seem obvious, but others may surprise you.
Around 7,139 languages are spoken in the world, 90% of which are used in communities of less than 100,000 people, such as tribes or dialects within certain populations. In addition, between 150 and 200 languages are spoken by one million people. Languages are not only a tool for communication, but a reflection of the culture and idiosyncrasies of their speakers.
The language which holds official language status in the most countries is English (59 countries), followed by French (29), Arabic (27), Spanish (20) and Portuguese (10).
Spain, with four co-official languages alongside Spanish, is one of the many territories where several languages coexist. Papua New Guinea has four official languages (English, Hiri Motu, sign language and Tok Pysin) and around 850 non-official languages, making it the nation with the highest linguistic diversity in the world.
To write this article, we have based our information on that of Ethnologue, in its 2021 edition, which includes all the world's languages and large amounts of curious and interesting information.
Why could it be useful to know which the most widely spoken languages in the world are?
When deciding which languages to learn, whether it is motivated by professional gain or personal enrichment, it is important to be conscientious and think carefully about the advantages that each language can offer us.
Of course, we cannot determine the relevance of one language or another only by taking the number of speakers into account. What are the main languages of the world when it comes to business? Will they continue to be the same in the future, or will they change?
List of the most widely spoken languages in the world in 2021
Sometimes the number of speakers of a given language is not linked to its benefit or usefulness at a personal or professional level. To get a little deeper into the subject, let's look at the top 10 most spoken languages:
Language Total speakers Native speakers
English 1.5 billion 375 million
Chinese 1.1 billion 982 million
Hindi 650 million 460 million
Spanish 420 million 320 million
French 370 million 79 million
Arabic 300 million 206 million
Russian 275 million 165 million
Portuguese 235 million 216 million
Bengali 233 million 216 million
German 185 million 105 million
English is spoken by 375 million people as a mother tongue and used in 110 countries and it leads the list, reaching a total of 1.5 billion if we consider both native speakers and those who use it as a second language. In addition to being the preferred language for diplomatic communications, business and popular culture, it is the official language in the most countries.
It is estimated that around 1.3 billion people speak this language. According to experts, it is one of the most complicated languages to learn due to the phonetic difficulties it presents as well as to decode and memorise the characters. Despite this, in recent years, the number of people studying Chinese has grown at an exponential rate, not only because of interest in the language itself, but also because of the possibilities it offers in the business environment.
The third place language also comes from outside of Europe. Although it is not widespread, the population who speak it in India is very large. Perhaps it is time to focus our attention on other languages.
The number of Spanish speakers is now 420 million, with a population divided between Spain and South America and Central America, Cuba and some parts of the United States.
With 370 million speakers, French is still a language that is commonly learned and practised in schools around the world and it is spoken in many countries: Belgium, Canada, Rwanda, Cameroon and Haiti, in addition to France.
Learning Arabic is an experience we highly recommend. It is different to other languages in many different ways: It is written in the other direction, from right to left; it is one of the oldest languages in the world and its calligraphy, full of winding shapes, is also one of the most beautiful. In addition, the number of speakers is an impressive 300 million. It is spoken in countries such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Syria, Iraq, Lebanon or Egypt, among others.
With 275 million speakers, Russian is one of the world's most important languages. This language has grown more popular in recent years and is frequently learned as a second language because of its great importance in business.
In the case of Portuguese, its presence in the Top 10 of the world's most spoken languages is generally due to its colonial past. At one point the Portuguese Empire included territory across the Americas, Africa and Asia.
Despite what some think, it is still a very important language. For example, in 2021 Portuguese is considered one of the most important languages for business. It is one of the most frequently requested languages in job offers.
Although it may be surprising to find Bengali on this list, this language, which is used in the South Asian area (Bangladesh and West Bengal), is also spoken in some areas of India for a total of some 233 million people.
We conclude the list with German, which is spoken by 185 million people in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Luxembourg and Liechtenstein.
Now that we've completed our tour of the different countries and languages with the most speakers in the world, it should be noted that the number of speakers does not imply that these languages are the most important, as this will depend on the criteria that we choose to apply. After English, the most frequently requested languages in job offers are, according to the Work for the World portal, German and French, followed by Italian and Portuguese. Marketing, Technology, Finance, Hospitality, and Tourism are some examples of sectors that demand foreign languages. However, due to the opening of new markets that favour the increase in imports and exports with China and the large influx of tourists coming from countries such as Russia, the Middle East or Japan, languages such as Chinese, Russian, Arabic or Japanese are becoming highly valued in certain roles.
If you're looking to internationalise your business, the best option is to choose a translation agency you can trust. At AT Language Solutions we have more than 20 years of experience supporting companies in attracting new markets. Let's chat?