2.1 What is the biggest language in the world?
Many people speak English, and it is used widely in international communication, business and global culture, but that does not automatically mean it is the biggest language in the world.
According to the Ethnologue language website (Eberhard et al., 2020), the languages spoken by the largest number of people in the world are (in alphabetical order) English, Hindi, Mandarin Chinese and Spanish. The actual number of speakers of each language depends on who you count.
Before taking a closer look at how many people speak these major languages, it is important to understand some of the terminology used to distinguish between different groups of speakers.
- First language: A language learned by a speaker from an early age in a family setting. For example, a child socialised in English in the UK will have English as their first language.
- Second language: A language learned by a speaker at a later stage than their first language, often in a school setting, and which is commonly used or encountered by that speaker only in certain areas of daily life such as dealing with the authorities or in higher education or broadcasting.
These definitions may shift over time as our knowledge about how people use language develops. There are ongoing debates about where to draw the boundary between first and second language speakers, which is related to the broader question about who has the power to draw such a boundary. Sometimes terms even fall out of favour: the terms native speaker and non-native speaker are now less commonly used in language research than they have been in the past.
Activity 3 The biggest language
Think about your own perceptions of who speaks English, Hindi, Mandarin Chinese and Spanish. Rank each of these languages in terms of the following.
- The number of first language speakers you think they have.
First language (millions of speakers):
- Mandarin Chinese: 917
- Spanish: 460
- English: 379
- Hindi: 341
- The number of first language speakers plus everyone who speaks the languages as a second (or third, or fourth) language.
All speakers (millions of speakers):
- English: 1132
- Mandarin Chinese: 1116
- Hindi: 615
- Spanish: 534
Mandarin Chinese has about twice as many first language speakers as Spanish, and almost two and a half times as many as English. However, an enormous number of people across the world speak English in addition to their first language (almost twice as many people as those who speak it as their first language). Adding all these speakers together puts English at the top of the list, just above Mandarin Chinese.
These figures are, of course, approximate, as it’s not possible to survey everyone on the planet. You might also question who counts as a ‘second language’ speaker: someone who studied English at school but doesn’t use it regularly, or only someone who uses it proficiently? But the overall picture is clear: speakers of Mandarin Chinese and English far exceed those for Hindi and Spanish.
Most speakers of Mandarin are in China. What makes English distinctive among these major world languages is the huge number of people (around 750 million) who speak it as a second, third or additional language, and the fact these speakers are found all across the world.