The World's Most Widely Spoken Languages
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
* 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):
The following list is from George Weber’s article
Languages: The World’s 10 Most Influential Languages” in Language Today
(Vol. 2, Dec 1997):
However, in terms of secondary speakers, Weber
submits the following list:
Thus, if you add the secondary speaker
populations to the
primary speaker populations, you get the following (and I believe more accurate) list:
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):
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:
Page last updated on
October 25, 2013