The 10 Most Spoken Language in the World

The 10 Most Spoken Language in the World

July 17, 2011

By Ofer Tirosh

Many of us think the most commonly spoken languages are those generally taught in academia, or the ones most commonly translated on everyday items: Spanish, French, German, and Italian. Most are also aware that Chinese is at the top, despite that English to Chinese translation is not usually included on common product labels, simply because of the enormous Chinese population. Because language translation for Spanish, French, German and Italian is what westerners see or study regularly, we tend to think of them as the most commonly spoken. However, this is true for only two of those languages.

The Most Common Language Translations . . Are Not for the Most Common Languages!

Compilations of the top 10 most spoken languages tend to vary, depending upon the sources used to compile figures, the year of census information, 2nd language speakers and bilinguists. Language lists also vary according to what each one includes. The most widely-spoken languages (those spoken across more parts of the world) are not equivalent to the languages with the most speakers total, each of which are also different than the top 10 languages with the most native speakers - which is what is below.

So the question arises, which of these does global business development and expansion use, to make decisions about marketing or business translation? Are they more interested in acquiring business or marketing translation for languages with the most total speakers, or languages spoke the most across particular regions? Or do their linguistic needs differ depending on the task at hand, whether that be to record a call for transcription and translation, produce a marketing brochure in multiple languages or translate a business proposal for a new international venture? It probably varies depending upon each unique company’s goals, but the information below is nonetheless important for reaching the best target audience possible.

The Top 10 Most Spoken Languages (Natively)

  1. Mandarin Chinese is definitely at the top, as the language with the most native speakers. Figures range from 850 million to 1.3 billion native speakers. Dialects are rich and diverse, ranging from Northeastern to Beijing, Lower Yangtze to Jiao-Liao, and Southwestern to Yin-Lin as well as several others in mainland China, Taiwan, Malaysia, and New York City. Chinese to English translation, as well as English to Chinese, are some of the most common language translation services provided by our translation company.
  2.  Spanish is probably in 2nd place 2nd language with the most native speakers, but it is in very close running with English. The most recent figures are between 329-400 million native speakers in 21 countries, and one of few languages to be spoken natively in both the western and eastern hemispheres.
  3. English is listed at third place, with 328 million native speakers, gathered by census data between 2004 and 2006. The reason it may seem to be the most spoken language is because worldwide, there are as many as 1.3 billion people who speak English as a first, second or foreign language. It's also, obviously, why the majority of our professional translation services are for English as the target or source language.
  4. Hindi-Urdu takes the fourth spot, with somewhere between 232 and 240 million native speakers. Hindi census data reports much higher estimates of Hindi speakers, but this includes all types of Hindi languages which would set the number at 490 million – more than the number of native English speakers. However, they are not lumped together because not all variations of Hindi are mutually intelligible, and cannot be considered the same language. Despite the number of Hindi speakers, English to Hindi translation, or Hindi to English, is not a commonly requested translation, which at least in part, is probably because many Hindi-Urdu speakers can also speak English.
  5. Arabic is spoken by around 232 million people, and is comprised of 4 main dialects, which are spoken: Western, Central (Egypt), Southern (the Gulf, Yemen) and Northern (Iraq, Lebanon). Arabic is the official language of 26 countries, and Arabic to English translation (and English to Arabic) is definitely a major service.
  6. Bengali is probably the most surprising language on this particular list, coming in sixth at between 180 to 200 million speakers. Again, most people do not realize the amount of people who speak Bengali because in relation to other top list languages, it is contained in one region of the world. Although it is also a rare request, we have provided English-Bengali translation services.
  7. Portuguese is also spoken in both east and western hemispheres, in Brazil, Portugal, Angola, and several other countries and regions. Figures numbered between 190 and 220 million native speakers. Portuguese translation has taken a huge rise in the western hemisphere within the past several years, and it's beginning to show up as a regularly translated language on many store products.
  8. Russian comes in at only the eighth notch with approximately 145 million speakers, and yet it comes from the largest country in the world, whereas Mandarin has the most speakers in the smallest area. It's also one of the six languages of the UN. Russian to English translation is projected to be one of the most important translation services in the near future of internet marketing.
  9. Japanese is estimated at 125-128 million native speakers and broken up into dozens of dialects, a considerable amount of which is completely unintelligible to each other. The main types are Tokyo and Kyoto-Osaka, as well as a smaller 3rd dialect, Kyushu. Each of these has many sub-dialects under them. Kyushu and Kagoshima are dialects are unintelligible to many other native speakers. Ryukyuan is a dialect spoken primarily on Okinawa and Amami Islands, with sub-dialects that are mutually unintelligible to other Japanese speakers, and also to other Ryukyuan dialects. Because of this, there are some that don't consider these unintelligible dialects to all be categorized under Japanese. However, the island is full of intelligible Japanese dialects as well. Still, it's a wonder that we have never been asked for a Japanese to!
  10. Punjabi is the third Indian language on the list, spoken in the Punjab regions of Pakistan and India, by a total of 88 million native speakers. The Punjab areas of Pakistan and India border each other at India's northwest border, though far more Punjabi speakers live in Pakistan, where it is also the most spoken language. However, while it is a provincial language, it is not one of Pakistan's official languages.

Which of These Are Used in Professional Translation Service?

The answer is, all of them.  However, what is immediately observable about this list to those in LSP, is that a considerable amount of these top languages are by comparison, rarely provided for professional translation service. It is infrequently that we provide Punjabi or Bengali translation service. Even Hindi-Urdu, the 4rd most natively spoken language in the world – is translated far, far less at our translation company, than French or German.

But in all fairness, this is probably because of how the list would change if it included total speakers of a language, rather than solely native speakers. Many more people speak French, German or Spanish as their 2nd language than Punjabi or Bengali – or even Japanese. This is probably a large contributing reason why requests for English to German translation or French to English translation are much more frequently provided by our translation agency.

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