Language is perhaps the most important function of the human body – it allows us to get sustenance as a child, it allows us to get virtually anything we want as an adult, and it allows us many hours of entertainment through literature, radio, music, and films. This list, in order of least to most spoken, summarizes the most important languages in use today.
Number of speakers: 191 million
In the 12th Century, Portugal won its independence from Spain and expanded all over the world with the help of its famous explorers like Vasco da Gama and Prince Henry the Navigator. Because Portugal got in so early on the exploring game, the language established itself all over the world and there are now eight countries in which Portuguese is spoken: Portugal, Brazil, Mozambique, Angola, Cape Verde, The Republic of Guinea-Bissau, Sao Tome and East Timor. It also shares official language status with Mandarin Chinese in Macau, a former Portuguese territory which was handed over to China in 1999.
To say “hello” in Portuguese, say “Bom dia” (bohn DEE-ah).
Number of speakers: 210 million
Bengali is the language native to the region of Bengal, which comprises of the present-day nation of Bangladesh and of the Indian states West Bengal, Tripura and southern Assam. It is written using the Bengali script. The National Anthem of Bangladesh, National Anthem of India, National Anthem of Sri Lanka and the national song of India were first composed in the Bengali language.
To say “hello” in Bengali, say “Ei Je” (EYE-jay).
Number of speakers: 230 million
Russian is an East Slavic language and an official language in Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan. It is an unofficial but widely spoken language in Ukraine, Moldova, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, and to a lesser extent, the other countries that were once constituent republics of the Soviet Union and former participants of the Eastern Bloc. It is the most geographically widespread language of Eurasia and the most widely spoken of the Slavic languages. It is also the largest native language in Europe, with 144 million native speakers in Russia, Ukraine and Belarus. Because of the legacy of the Iron Curtain, Russian speakers have a good chance of being understood anywhere from Riga to Belgrade.
To say “hello” in Russian, say “Zdravstvuite” (ZDRAST-vet-yah).
Number of speakers: 270 million
Malay is the national language of Brunei, Malaysia, and Indonesia and it is one of four official languages of Singapore. It is spoken by 270 million people across the Malacca Strait, including the coasts of the Malay Peninsula of Malaysia and the eastern coast of Sumatra in Indonesia. Indonesia is a fascinating place made up of over 13,000 islands and it is the sixth most populated country in the world. Malaysia is mostly known for its capital city of Kuala Lumpur.
To say “hello” in malay, say “Selamat pagi” (se-LA-maht PA-gee).
Number of speakers: 338 million
French is the second-most widespread language worldwide after English, as only these two languages are spoken on all 5 continents. French is an official language in 29 countries, most of which form la francophonie, the community of French-speaking countries. It is spoken as a first language in France, southern Belgium, western Switzerland, Monaco, the provinces of Quebec, New Brunswick and some parts of Ontario in Canada, parts of the U.S. states of Louisiana, Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont, among educated classes in North Africa, Haiti, French Polynesia and by various communities elsewhere.
As a result of French and Belgian colonialism during the 17th and 20th centuries, French was introduced to colonies in the Americas, Africa and Asia. French is estimated to have around 73.8 million native speakers and there are around 338 million people that are able to speak it. According to a demographic projection, total French speakers will number approximately 500 million people in 2025 and 650 million people by 2050.
It is an official language of many international organisations including the United Nations, the European Union, NATO, the WTO and the ICRC. In 2011, French was deemed by Bloomberg Business Week to be one of the top three most useful languages for business, behind English and Chinese.
To say “hello” in French, say “Bonjour” (bone-JOOR).
Number of speakers: 450 million
Spanish, also called Castilian, is a Romance language that originated in the Castile region of Spain. Approximately 450 million people speak Spanish as a native language, making it second only to Mandarin in terms of its number of native speakers worldwide. From its beginnings, Spanish vocabulary was influenced by its contact with Basque, as well as by other Ibero-Romance languages, and later it absorbed many Arabic words during the Muslim presence in the Iberian Peninsula. It also adopted many words from non-Iberian languages, particularly the Romance languages Occitan, French, Italian and Sardinian. In modern times, it continued to add its own new words, and increasingly borrowed from English.
Spanish is the most widely understood language in the Western Hemisphere, being the official or national language of 19 countries in the Americas and totalling at least 418 million native speakers in the Hemisphere.
To say “hello” in Spanish, say “Hola” (OH-la).
Number of speakers: 480 million
Arabic is a name for what are traditionally considered the descendants of the Classical Arabic language of the 6th century. This includes both the literary language and varieties of Arabic spoken in a wide arc of territory, stretching across the Middle East, North Africa, and the Horn of Africa. If considered multiple languages, it is unclear how many languages there would be, as the spoken varieties form a dialect chain with no clear boundaries. If Arabic is considered a single language, it perhaps is spoken by as many as 420 million speakers (native and non-native) in the Arab world, making it one of the half dozen most populous languages in the world.
Arabic is also a liturgical language of 1.6 billion Muslim speakers and it is widely taught in schools. During the Middle Ages, Literary Arabic was a major vehicle of culture in Europe, especially in science, mathematics and philosophy. As a result, many European languages have also borrowed many words from it. Many words of Arabic origin are also found in ancient languages like Latin and Greek. Arabic influence, mainly in vocabulary, is seen in Romance languages, particularly Spanish, Catalan, Portuguese, and Sicilian, owing to both the proximity of Christian European and Muslim Arab civilizations and 800 years of Arabic culture and language in the Iberian Peninsula.
To say “hello” in Arabic, say “Al salaam a’alaykum” (Ahl sah-LAHM ah ah-LAY-koom).
Number of speakers: 497 million
Hindustani, historically also known as Hindavi, Dehlvi, Urdu, and Rekhta, is the lingua franca of North India and Pakistan. It is a pluricentric language, with two official forms, Modern Standard Hindi and Modern Standard Urdu, which are its standardised registers, and which may be called Hindi-Urdu when taken together. The colloquial languages are all but indistinguishable, and even though the official standards are nearly identical in grammar, they differ in literary conventions and in academic and technical vocabulary, with Urdu retaining stronger Persian, Central Asian and Arabic influences, and Hindi relying more heavily on Sanskrit.
Before the Partition of India, the terms Hindustani, Urdu, and Hindi were synonymous; all covered what would be called Urdu and Hindi today. The term Hindustani is still used for the colloquial language and lingua franca of North India and Pakistan, for example for the language of Bollywood films. The film industry in India is indeed the most prolific in the world, making thousands of action/romance/musicals every year.
To say “hello” in Hindustani, say “Namaste” (Nah-MAH-stay).
Number of speakers: 508 million
English is a West Germanic language that was first spoken in early medieval England and is now a global lingua franca. It is spoken as a first language by the majority populations of several sovereign states, including the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada, Australia, Ireland, New Zealand and a number of Caribbean nations; moreover, it is an official language of almost 60 sovereign states. It is the third-most-common native language in the world, after Mandarin Chinese and Spanish. It is widely learned as a second language and is an official language of the European Union, many Commonwealth countries and the United Nations, as well as in many world organisations.
English arose in the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of England and what is now southeast Scotland. The Norman conquest of England in the 11th century gave rise to heavy borrowings from Norman French, and vocabulary and spelling conventions began to give the appearance of a close relationship with those of Latin-derived Romance languages. Following the extensive influence of England, Great Britain, and the United Kingdom from the 17th to mid-20th centuries through the British Empire, it has been widely propagated around the world. Through the spread of American-dominated media and technology, English has become the leading language of international business.
Number of speakers: 1 billion+
Mandarin was the common spoken language of administration of the Chinese empire during the Ming and Qing dynasties. It arose as a practical measure, to circumvent the mutual unintelligibility of the varieties of Chinese spoken in different parts of China. Knowledge of this language was thus essential for an official career, but it was never formally defined. The language was based on northern dialects and developed into Standard Chinese in the 20th century. Speaking Mandarin can be really tough, because each word can be pronounced in four ways (or “tones”), and a beginner will invariably have trouble distinguishing one tone from another. But if over a billion people could do it, so could you. This is why we teach our students the basics of the language in our Life Skills sessions every Wednesday.
To say “hello” in Mandarin, say “Ni hao” (Nee HaOW). (“Hao” is pronounced as one syllable, but the tone requires that you let your voice drop midway, and then raise it again at the end.)