25 Languages of Our Time

David Pegg

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There are more than 6,000 languages spoken in the world today, and 30% of them are used by no more than a thousand people. To identify the 25 most significant languages of our time, one must factor in not only the number of native speakers of each language, but also how many people speak it as a second language. One should also take into account its influence on global commerce and trade, as well as whether it enjoys the status of a lingua franca.


Although it is spoken by almost 80 million people in North Korea, South Korea, and China, it has not achieved a significant level of influence beyond the borders of the Korean Peninsula. It is also one of the hardest languages for foreigners to learn, along with Arabic and Japanese. For Europeans and Americans it requires at least 63 weeks of instruction to achieve a workable level of fluency, as opposed to only 25 weeks for Spanish or French.


Despite having only 1/20th the number of speakers as its counterpart (60 million), Cantonese has a much more global reach than Mandarin. It is spoken not only in southern China and Hong Kong, but also in Chinese communities around the world.


While it is technically spoken by around 25 million people, the official language of Thailand has a number of mutually intelligible dialects that brings the total number of speakers to around 60 million.


With approximately 90 million speakers Punjabi is the tenth most spoken language in the world, and although it is the primary language of the Indian state of Punjab, most of its 90 million speakers reside in Pakistan. As far as having global influence, Punjabi hardly compares to some of the other languages on this list, but with so many speakers it was bound to end up on here somewhere.


Javanese is the primary language of an eastern Asian island. Java, found in Indonesia, is the world’s most populous island, which gives Javanese a total number of native speakers numbering close to 90 million.


With the second most widely spoken Slavic language after Russian, Polish speakers stand at about 46 million strong. Although there are numerous communities of Polish speakers living abroad, the language is not nearly as influential as some of its other European counterparts.


Spoken by roughly 90 million people, Vietnamese doesn’t rank any higher due to the fact that it is used almost exclusively in Vietnam. The language has, however, begun to propagate beyond the country’s borders as immigrants take it with them to Europe and America.


As the language of the most dominant power in the Middle East and one of the largest economies in the world, Turkish is spoken by 83 million people, primarily in Turkey, but also in various regions around Central Asia.


With over 200 million speakers, Bengali is the sixth most spoken language in the world. The only reason it is so far behind the other five (which rank much higher on this list) is because it is primarily spoken in only one very small geographical region – the extremely densely populated country of Bangladesh.


With a total of around 50 million speakers, the mutually intelligible languages of Dutch and Afrikaans find significant usage everywhere from Europe to South America, to Indonesia. Afrikaans is a daughter language spoken in South Africa, formed from Dutch dialects.


In the European Union it has 65 million speakers, but if you count the numerous regions abroad where it is spoken as a second language then the number gets closer to 90 million. Notably it is the official language of the Vatican and carries considerable weight in the worlds of music (particularly opera), international sports, design and fashion.


Spoken primarily in several southern Indian states, Tamil also holds official-language status in Sri Lanka and Singapore. It is one the oldest languages still in use today and has around 80 million total speakers.


Used extensively along the east coast of Africa as the language of trade, Swahili has upwards of 100 million speakers (though only a small portion are native) and is the official language of several countries. Its influence is steadily growing and many major international news outlets now feature Swahili-language broadcasts.

12/Farsi (Persian)

With over 100 million speakers, Farsi holds official status in Iran, Afghanistan, and Tajikistan, and has a long history of being regarded as a prestigious cultural language throughout Central Asia.


In Malaysia it is known as Malaysian, while in Indonesia it is known as Indonesian. Although the nomenclature can get a bit confusing, Malay as a whole is spoken in numerous countries throughout the region, accounting for hundreds of millions of speakers.

10/Hindustani (Hindi/Urdu)

These sister languages are very closely related and really only differ in their writing system. Urdu, the official language of Pakistan, is written using Arabic script, while Hindi, the official language of India, is written in Devanagari script. Although neither has significant influence outside of the Indian subcontinent, they have a combined total of over 200 million native speakers. Hundreds of millions more speak them as a second language. It should be noted, however, that a multitude of languages are spoken throughout India, and although Hindi is the official language, certain regions like the Dravidian-speaking south actually prefer English, which is often seen as an ‘associate official language.’


Spoken by about 120 million people, most of its speakers reside within the borders of Japan. It is a notoriously hard language to learn, which has probably in part contributed to the fact that it hasn’t been picked up in many other countries. Japan is, however, one of the world’s reigning economic powers and as a result its language does hold significant influence in the realms of business and trade.


With about 120 million speakers, German has undergone some wild fluctuations over the course of the last century. Typically, it has been the language of science and industry with technically oriented students around the globe having to learn it in order to pursue their careers. Although after the two World Wars it inevitably lost clout, as one of the world’s strongest economies Germany still exerts considerable influence.


Spoken by about 200 million people worldwide, Portuguese is actually the most popular language in the Southern Hemisphere. Along with English, French, and Spanish, it is considered a ‘world language’ due to its global reach. With Brazil emerging as a world power, look out for Portuguese coming along for the ride.


With around 200 million native speakers, Russian is understood throughout Eastern Europe and Central Asia. Although people in some former Soviet republics would prefer to avoid it, Russian is still widely understood across quite different countries, from Tajikistan to Estonia.


There are two reasons that Mandarin is at number five on this list. First, it has close to a billion native speakers, which is almost three times as many as any other language. But secondly, the truth is that it really isn’t spoken anywhere beyond Southeast Asia other than in Taiwan and in Chinese communities in other parts of the world. So although it is not very influential in a global sense at present, due to China’s robust economy it may very well begin to flex its muscles in the near future.


Apart from English and French, Arabic is arguably the most international language – largely due to its position as the language of Islam. It can be hard to quantify the exact number of speakers, however, because Modern Standard Arabic, although spoken as a second language by hundreds of millions of people around the globe, can be very different from the dialects spoken in the roughly 20 countries where Arabic is the primary language.


Although nowhere near English in terms of global influence, Spanish is rapidly gaining on French. It has almost 400 million native speakers, is the lingua franca of close to 20 countries, and is spoken all over the world as a second language. Also, as Latin America comes into its own on the world stage, Spanish will inevitably gain influence.


Although it has lost considerable ground to English over the course of the last century, French is still the second most influential language in the world. With official-language status in 25 countries, it is the most popular lingua franca after English and is used by many international groups and organizations.


English only has about 500 million native speakers, but there are almost two billion people in the world that communicate in English on a regular basis. And can you guess where most of those English speakers live? (Hint – it is the country whose primary language is at number five.)

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