I love the almost musical sound and feel that so many Asian languages have. It was thinking about this that prompted me to explore the languages of Asia in this article. If you want to dive into all things Asian language related, then read on for a journey of discovery.
Asia is home to around 2,300 languages. They are spoken by around 4.46 billion people, with the most widely spoken Asian languages being Chinese, Hindi, Indonesian, Bengali and Japanese. We’ll look at each of these in turn below.
The Origin of the Majority of Asian Languages
The majority of Asian language speakers speak a language from the Sino-Tibetan language family. It is the second largest language family in the world when ranked by speaker numbers.
We can trace the linguistic origin of this Sino-Tibetan language family back over several millennia. Naturally, looking back such a long way involves plenty of theorising and assumption. However, linguists have broadly settled into two camps when it comes to Sino-Tibetan languages’ origins.
One theory – the southwestern-origin hypothesis – suggests that the language family developed some 9,000 years ago in the area now covered by China's Sichuan province or northeast India. The northern-origin hypothesis, meanwhile, suggests that northern China’s Yellow River basin was the likely point of origin, between 4,000 and 6,000 years ago.
Major Language Groups
I mentioned above that Sino-Tibetan languages make up the second largest language family in the world. However, not all Asian languages fall within this group. They actually span several language groups, including Indo-European, Sino-Tibetan, Dravidian and Altaic.
I’ll provide a list of the most widely spoken Asian languages below, along with their speaker numbers, language families and so forth, but first I just want to detail a few of the major language groups for wider context.
Whatever the origin, the modern Sino-Tibetan language list includes over 400 languages and dialects. Collectively, these are spoken by around 1.5 billion people.
The largest group by far, Indo-European languages have around 3.2 billon speakers, accounting for some 46% of the world’s population. Of the 445 living Indo-European languages, 313 of them can be found on the Indo-Iranian branch of the family tree.
Of course, speaker numbers aren’t the only factor when it comes to ranking language groups by size. When considered in terms of the number of languages, it is the Atlantic-Congo family that comes out on top, with an impressive 1,432 languages.
Sticking with ranking language groups by size, it is Austronesian that comes next, with 1,275 languages.
Most Spoken Asian Languages
Think of Asian languages and no doubt Chinese will spring to mind pretty quickly. Yet it is one of 2,300 languages that are spoken across the region. Those languages include many non-Asian languages. English and Russian, for example, are widely spoken in Asia, while Portuguese is one of the official languages in China.
For the purposes of this article, I’m going to be looking at languages of Asian origin only. Let’s look at some of the most widely used.
Chinese has around 1.2 billion speakers altogether, making it the most common Asian language by far. The vast majority of them speak Mandarin Chinese, which is sometimes referred to as Northern Chinese. Mandarin Chinese is also the national language of Taiwan.
China’s other dialects include:
Also called Yue, this dialect is not mutually intelligible with other Chinese dialects. Around 85 million people speak Cantonese, mainly in Hong Kong. Significant numbers of speakers can also be found in Macau and in the Guangdong province. Along with Mandarin, Cantonese is considered to be one of the hardest languages for English speakers to learn – a topic that you can explore further by clicking the link below.
Read more: What Is the Hardest Language to Learn?
Visit the coast of in Shanghai, Zhejiang Province or the southern half of Jiangsu Province and you’re likely to hear people speaking Wu rather than Mandarin. This dialect has around 82 million speakers in total, making it nearly as widely spoken as Cantonese.
Around 63 million people speak Jin Chinese, mainly in northern China. It is a source of much debate among linguists, with some believing it to be a dialect of Mandarin and others seeing it as a separate (though closely related) language.
Min Chinese has around 30 million speakers. It is actually a broad grouping of Sintic languages, which are used in Fujian province, Leizhou peninsula, Hainan, Chaoshan, Zhongshan, southern Wenzhou, Zhoushan archipelago and Taiwan.
Hakka includes a number of distinct varieties and dialects, which collectively have around 44 million speakers. It is spoken by the Hakka people in Southern China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau, as well as by the Hakka diaspora more widely across East and Southeast Asia and beyond.
Also known as Huanese, Xiang Chinese is spoken mainly in Southern China’s Huan province. It has around 38 million native speakers and is mutually intelligible with Mandarin.
Gan Chinese has around 22 million native speakers, largely situated in the Jiangxi and Fujian provinces. It is phonetically similar to Hakka, in many ways.
An Indo-Aryan language, Hindi has around 322 million native speakers, along with a further 270 million second language speakers. This makes it the third most spoken language on the planet in terms of total speaker numbers (after English and Mandarin), as well as one of the most common Asian languages. When counted by number of native speakers, Hindi ranks fourth (after Mandarin, Spanish and English).
Hindi is spoken mainly in India, where Standard Hindi is the official language of nine of India’s 29 states. The ‘Hindi Belt’ covers parts of Northern, Eastern, Western and Central India. To discover more about the languages of India, click the link below.
Read more: What Languages Are Spoken in India?
Another prominent tongue on any language map of Asia is Arabic. Arabic is a language spoken in Asia, Africa and parts of Europe. Within the Asian continent, it has official language status in 13 countries: Bahrain, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, Palestine, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, the United Arab Emirates and Yemen.
There are many variations and dialects of Arabic, which is from the Afro-Asiatic language group. Altogether, Arabic has around 310 million native speakers, while an additional 270 million people speak it as a second tongue. In terms of total speaker numbers, Arabic is the world’s fifth most spoken language.
Referred to by its speakers as Bahasa Indonesia, the Indonesian language has 43 million native speakers and 156 million second language speakers. The majority of Indonesians speak it, meaning it is one of the most spoken languages of Southeast Asia. The Asian language tree, as it relates to Indonesia, also includes over 700 local indigenous languages. Most Indonesians speak one of these fluently, as well as Indonesian.
Interestingly, Standard Indonesian is used mainly in formal situations. For everyday situations, most Indonesians speak languages such as Javanese, Sundanese, Balinese or their native indigenous tongue.
Bangla, or Bengali, is spoken natively by around 230 million people and as a second language by a further 37 million people. Another Asian language to sit in the Indo-Aryan brand of the language group, Bangla is the official language of Bangladesh. It is also an official language in the West Bengal, Tripura and the Barak Valley region of the state of Assam in India.
No Asian language list would be complete without a discussion of the origins of Japanese. For many years, it was believed to be unrelated to any other oriental languages. However, not all academics accept that Japanese is technically a language isolate, due to its relationship to the Ryukyuan languages spoken in the Ryukyu islands, located to the southwest of Japan.
Outside of Japan and its islands, Japanese is spoken by sizeable communities in Brazil, South Korea, Taiwan, Hawaii and the US. One of the most widely spoken East Asian languages, Japanese has around 128 million speakers.
Burmese is another southeast Asia language map stalwart. It is a Sino-Tibetan language spoken by around 43 million people, 33 million of whom speak it natively. It is spoken mainly in Myanmar. While the country has tried to encourage the adoption of ‘the Myanmar language’ as their official tongue’s name, most people still refer to it as Burmese (Burma being the former name of Myanmar).
Punjabi is spoken in both Pakistan and the Punjab region of India. The majority of speakers – over 80 million of them, are in Pakistan. The language has around 113 million native speakers.
Interestingly, while Punjabi is more widely spoken than any other language in Pakistan, is it not officially recognised as one of the country’s languages.
Another interesting SE Asian language, Filipino is the standardized version of Tagalog, though many people confuse the two as being the same. Filipino is spoken mainly in the Philippines, where it is the official language and has around 45 million speakers. It is an Austronesian Southeast Asian language, but around 40% of its vocabulary is derived from Spanish.
The official language of both North and South Korea (though the two version have diverged somewhat over the years), Korean has over 77 million native speakers. Korean has no obvious genealogical relationship to any other Asian language or Asian dialect, so linguists class it as a language isolate.
Once written in Chinese characters but using the Latin alphabet since the 17th century, Vietnamese still shows significant Chinese influences, as well as French ones, though to a lesser extent. Around 76 million people speak Vietnamese natively, with most of them concentrated in Vietnam, as well as Laos, Thailand, the Philippines and Cambodia.
A Dravidian language spoken in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana in India, Telugu is one of only three languages to have official recognition as a primary language in more than one state (the others being Hindi and Bengali). With 84 million native speakers and a further 11 million or so second language speakers, it is one of the most widely used Asian Indian languages.
Tamil is one of the world’s oldest languages. It is one of the 22 scheduled languages in the Constitution of India, as well as being spoken in Sri Lanka, Malaysia and elsewhere around the world. Altogether, it has around 83 million speakers, 75 million of whom speak it natively.
Immensely similar to Indonesian, Malay is one of the Southeast Asian languages from the Austronesian language family. The language’s northern dialect is widely spoken in Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei, while its southern dialect is spoken in Indonesia.
A member of the Kra-Dai language family, Thai is the national language of Thailand. Around 60 million people speak it, mainly in Thailand but also in Laos, Myanmar, Malaysia, Cambodia and elsewhere around the world. Thai has numerous dialects and five distinct registers. Street and Elegant Thai are used for information and formal conversations respectively, while Rhetorical Thai is used for public speaking. Religious Thai and Royal Thai are saved for speaking with (or about) monks and the royal family. Most Thais are able to use all five registers.
The last in our list of languages spoken in Asia, Mongolian is spoken across Mongolia, as well as in parts of Russia, China and Kyrgyzstan. This vowel-heavy language has some parallels with Korean and Japanese in terms of its grammar, but that’s where the similarities end.
The Relevance of Asian Languages and Cultures
As a professional linguist, I can see huge relevance in learning pretty much any other language. Doing so reveals cultural insights, opens up new personal and professional opportunities, keeps one’s brain active and stimulates a greater appreciation for the diversity of our world.
In terms of Asian languages in particular, the chance to engage with Asian culture in an authentic way makes learning to speak one of the languages of Asia particularly exciting. China, Japan and Korea are huge film-producers, while K-pop has taken the world by storm. There’s also a vast wealth of literature from across Asia, so whichever tongue you pick from the Asian languages list to learn, you can be rewarded with some superb works of fiction, poetry and more.
There’s also plenty of value from a business perspective of learning some of the more widely spoken official languages of Asia. We live in a world of global economic opportunity, so speaking Mandarin or Korean or Hindi, for example, can give you a competitive advantage and open a lot of doors in the business world.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this whistle-stop tour of Asiatic languages. To recap, we’ve covered:
• Asian language origins
• The main Asian language families
• Some of the most commonly spoken languages in Asia
• The relevance of Asian languages and cultures
I would love to hear about your own experiences of discovering Asian languages. Why not leave a comment below to share your thoughts?