Spend a few hours on a busy street in a big city, and you are likely to hear several different languages spoken. Some may be instantly recognisable, even if you do not speak a word of them, while others may sound as though they originated from another planet, never mind another country.
It is easy for someone with little to no experience of another region to imagine that everyone there speaks the same language. The reality is that, even if people are citizens of the same country in which their ancestors lived for thousands of years, there are plenty of local dialects. Despite this, certain words mean certain things around the world, regardless of the dialect in use. Take the word casino for example – whatever it is called in any language, the association is that of thrilling entertainment, specific types of games and big jackpot wins.
Finding the most widely spoken languages in the world is not exactly an easy task. Thankfully though, there are national censuses and other collections of data that give a rough idea of the numbers of speakers of certain languages, and the results can be surprising.
So, without further ado, here are the 5 most widely spoken tongues in the world.
With approximately 250 million who claim Arabic as their mother tongue, it is the fifth-most spoken. It is used extensively in the Middle East, but also finds use among immigrant and Muslim communities in other regions.
The Arabic of the Quran is its classic form, but this has since evolved into modern versions, the main written form being standard. However, spoken forms can vary considerably from Morocco to Oman.
Approximately 370 million people are native Hindi speakers, making the northern Indian and Pakistani language the fourth most widely spoken in the world. Some may dispute these figures, however, as Urdu is strikingly similar to Hindi.
The biggest difference between the two are the scripts in which they are traditionally written. The former uses Persian script, whereas the latter uses the ancient Devanagari alphabet.
With approximately 360 million native speakers and 500 million second-language speakers, English is the globe’s third most widely used tongue. The expansive British Empire, together with modern globalisation, contributed to its spread, and it looks set to remain one of the main languages of international business and politics.
Despite its simplicity, even English has not escaped the complications of local dialects or regional variants. For example, traffic lights are known as such in most English-speaking countries, except in South Africa, where they are commonly called robots, and in America you’d don a sweater when it was cold, and in England you’d put on a jersey!
Britain may have had greater success with its colonial campaigns than Spain did, but that has not stopped Spanish from being the second most widely spoken language. Approximately 400 million people, from Spain to the US, Central, and South America all speak Spanish.
As can be expected, there are slight differences between the Spanish of Europe, and Spanish of the Americas. However, with it under your belt, a good deal of the world is your oyster. Speakers also have the added benefit of being able to grasp the other Romance languages of French and Italian much faster, as they all developed from the Vulgar Latin of the Roman Empire.
With the number of native Mandarin Chinese speakers fast approaching 1 billion, it is without doubt the most used tongue on the planet. It is also one of the most complicated to learn, as it is tonal, and the slightest error in tone can completely change the meaning of a word.
Given China’s growing business interests in Africa and other regions, especially the other BRICS countries, Mandarin may soon rival English as the international lingua franca.