Saint Ignatius High School Logo

Home
French Awards
Why Study French?
ACTFL Proficiency
Homework
Grading Criteria
AP French Language & Culture
2009 Student Technology Survey
2014 National Language Exams
Grade Distributions 1997-2005
Wireless Computer Cart
Classroom Video Project
FL Study in US High Schools
Languages in US
Francophone Slideshows
Photo Galleries
AP French Literature Links
AP Literature E-Text Project
2002 Fulbright Photo Galleries
1993 Fulbright Photo Gallery
Les Journaux Télévisés
Les Causeries
Débats Littéraires
French Links
Histoire de France (RealVideo)
Histoire de France
French III S1 Oral Finals
French III S2 Oral Finals
French I S1 Oral Finals
French 1 S2 Oral Finals
Spanish I S1 Oral Finals
Spanish I S2 Oral Finals
Spanish II S1 Oral Finals
Spanish II S2 Oral Finals
Spanish Links
Video Contest
Languages of the World (Charts)
1996-2005 Student Tech Surveys
Most Widely Spoken Languages
Arabic Influences in Languages
Arabic Numbers
National AP Language Scores
MAT Articles
www.maturner.com

Follow m_a_turner on Twitter

The World Speaks French

Discover Languages

 

The World's Most Widely Spoken Languages

Avignon (France) Stop (Arabic) Batik (Thai) Narita Airport (Japan)

Click here to see the full data from Comrie (1998), Weber (1997), and the Summer Institute for Linguistics (SIL) 1999 Ethnologue Survey as well as charts comparing the number of speakers of each language and the number of countries using each language.

What are the world's most widely spoken languages?

This question is a very interesting one that has a rather complicated answer.  Estimates of how many people speak a language are quite general and can vary considerably.  For example, English estimates vary from 275 to 450 million, Spanish from 150 to over 300 million, Hindi from 150 to 350 million, and Russian from 150 to 180 million.

To further complicate matters, the definition of “speaker” can be vague.  Some surveys of languages give information on native speakers only.  Others count both native speakers and secondary speakers (those who use the language regularly or primarily even though it is not their native language).

Lastly, it is important to consider not only the population (number) of language speakers, but also the geographic distribution of these languages.  Some languages have relatively large populations of native speakers but are used almost exclusively in a few countries.  On the other hand, other languages have relatively small populations of native speakers but are used in many different countries as an official or national language.

The Summer Institute for Linguistics (SIL) Ethnologue Survey (1999) lists the following as the top languages by population:
(number of native speakers in parentheses)

  1. Chinese* (937,132,000)
  2. Spanish (332,000,000)
  3. English (322,000,000)
  4. Bengali (189,000,000)
  5. Hindi/Urdu (182,000,000)
  6. Arabic* (174,950,000)
  7. Portuguese (170,000,000)
  8. Russian (170,000,000)
  9. Japanese (125,000,000)
  10. German (98,000,000)
  11. French* (79,572,000)

* The totals given for Chinese, Arabic, and French include more than one SIL variety.  See chart for full details.

The following list is from Dr. Bernard Comrie’s article for the Encarta Encyclopedia (1998):
(number of native speakers in parentheses)

  1. Mandarin Chinese (836 million)
  2. Hindi (333 million)
  3. Spanish (332 million)
  4. English (322 million)
  5. Bengali (189 million)
  6. Arabic (186 million)
  7. Russian (170 million)
  8. Portuguese (170 million)
  9. Japanese (125 million)
  10. German (98 million)
  11. French (72 million)

The following list is from George Weber’s article “Top Languages: The World’s 10 Most Influential Languages” in Language Today (Vol. 2, Dec 1997):
(number of native speakers in parentheses)

  1. Mandarin Chinese (1.1 billion)
  2. English (330 million)
  3. Spanish (300 million)
  4. Hindi/Urdu (250 million)
  5. Arabic (200 million)
  6. Bengali (185 million)
  7. Portuguese (160 million)
  8. Russian (160 million)
  9. Japanese (125 million)
  10. German (100 million)
  11. Punjabi (90 million)
  12. Javanese (80 million)
  13. French (75 million)

However, in terms of secondary speakers, Weber submits the following list:
(number of speakers in parentheses)

  1. French (190 million)
  2. English (150 million)
  3. Russian (125 million)
  4. Portuguese (28 million)
  5. Arabic (21 million)
  6. Spanish (20 million)
  7. Chinese (20 million)
  8. German (9 million)
  9. Japanese (8 million)

Thus, if you add the secondary speaker populations to the primary speaker populations, you get the following (and I believe more accurate) list:
(number of speakers in parentheses)

  1. Mandarin Chinese (1.12 billion)
  2. English (480 million)
  3. Spanish (320 million)
  4. Russian (285 million)
  5. French (265 million)
  6. Hindi/Urdu (250 million)
  7. Arabic (221 million)
  8. Portuguese (188 million)
  9. Bengali (185 million)
  10. Japanese (133 million)
  11. German (109 million)

The following is a list of these languages in terms of the number of countries where each is spoken.  The number that follows is the total number of countries that use that language (from Weber, 1997):

  1. English (115)
  2. French (35)
  3. Arabic (24)
  4. Spanish (20)
  5. Russian (16)
  6. German (9)
  7. Mandarin (5)
  8. Portuguese (5)
  9. Hindi/Urdu (2)
  10. Bengali (1)
  11. Japanese (1)

The number of countries includes core countries (where the language has full legal or official status), outer core countries (where the language has some legal or official status and is an influential minority language, such as English in India or French in Algeria), and fringe countries (where the language has no legal status, but is an influential minority language in trade, tourism, and the preferred foreign language of the young, such as English in Japan or French in Romania).  For a complete breakdown of each and an accompanying chart, click here.

After weighing six factors (number of primary speakers, number of secondary speakers, number and population of countries where used, number of major fields using the language internationally, economic power of countries using the languages, and socio-literary prestige), Weber compiled the following list of the world's ten most influential languages:
(number of points given in parentheses)

  1. English (37)
  2. French (23)
  3. Spanish (20)
  4. Russian (16)
  5. Arabic (14)
  6. Chinese (13)
  7. German (12)
  8. Japanese (10)
  9. Portuguese (10)
  10. Hindi/Urdu (9)

Follow m_a_turner on Twitter

Page last updated on March 26, 2014
Send comments to MTurner@ignatius.edu