The modern lingua francas
There are over 7,000 languages in the world, each with their own histories and sounds. All of these should be celebrated. But, some languages are much more widely spoken than the rest. Find out which languages keep us connected and keep the world running.
These rankings only reflect primary or native speakers. It is estimated that roughly half of the world’s population is multilingual, and so the absolute numbers for people who are capable of speaking those languages is much higher. We’ve provided estimates for secondary speakers, but in some cases the data are incomplete. There are no widely published data on third-language speakers and beyond.
The Top Performers
Perhaps it comes as no surprise that Chinese tops the list, as China is the world’s most populous country. Mandarin is the most common of more than 30 Chinese languages/dialects, and is sponsored by the government as the official language of China. Officially, for the purposes of cultural and political unity (as we discuss below), the different Chinese languages are considered dialects of a single Han Chinese parent language.
Spanish isn’t nearly as common as its closest competitors in raw numbers, but it’s the primary language of over twenty countries. Most countries of the Western Hemisphere speak Spanish as a first language, as well as Spain and Equitorial Guinea in the Eastern Hemisphere.
English isn’t even in the same ballpark as Chinese in terms of primary speakers, but if we include estimates of secondary speakers, then English comes very close. English is commonly used around the world as a trade language or diplomatic language, and is widely spoken and taught in over 118 countries.
Languages in the United States
Although the United States prides itself on the diversity of its population, by measures of linguistic diversity it’s actually quite average. At its most basic, linguistic diversity is measured in the number of languages spoken in daily living, and the number of people speaking them. By such a standard, if an entire population of people came from different places but spoke the same, they would be considered relatively homogeneous. This is an especially important distinction when discussing matters like media consumption or political communication.
The U.S. doesn’t have an official language, but English is the most common in the United States by a huge margin, as well as the de facto language of government. Roughly two-thirds of the country speak English as a primary language. Spanish is the next most common, with about ten percent of the population. Trailing behind at just shy of one percent are Chinese, French/French Creole, and Tagalog.
What Counts as a Language?
It may seem like a silly question, but it’s quite a serious one. The dividing line between languages and dialects is blurry—why are Dutch, Frisian, and Afrikaans considered different, but Chinese languages are called dialects (despite being farther apart than English and German)? The real difference between languages and dialects is political, as often as not. Common language has been seen as a defining feature of the nation-state. The desire to call Hindi and Urdu languages is largely motivated by the desire to differentiate their cultures and their states. The Kurdish languages are often classified together to construct a more unified culture, in contrast to surrounding cultures, despite being mutually unintelligible. With that in mind, one must be aware that the raw numbers here aren’t perfect representations of what or of how people speak. They are a thorough approximation.