Every year, Ethnologue mines the data on more than 7000 languages to find out which ones are spoken most across the globe. English tops the 2021 list with an estimated 1.35 billion speakers worldwide. When it comes to native speakers, however, runner-up Mandarin Chinese is miles ahead—boasting around 921 million native speakers to English’s paltry 370 million.
Read on to find out which languages fill out the top 20, along with some fascinating facts about them.
The most common word in the most common language is thought to be the. Not only is it short and easy to use, but it also doesn’t have one meaning (or even a few), which makes it especially versatile.
Mandarin Chinese in the language itself is known as putonghua, meaning “common speech.” Mandarin comes from the Portuguese word mandarim, which Portuguese explorers used to describe Chinese officials during the 16th century.
On September 14, 1949, India’s Constituent Assembly voted to adopt Hindi as India’s official language. (English is the other official language.) Hindi Diwas, or Hindi Day, is celebrated each year on September 14 to commemorate the decision.
There’s an organization dedicated to preserving the Spanish language: the Real Academia Española, or Royal Spanish Academy, established in 1713. Its motto is “Limpia, fija y da esplendor,” or “It cleans, it fixes, and it gives splendor.”
Out of the six official languages of the United Nations, Arabic is the only one written from right to left. (The other five are Chinese, English, French, Russian, and Spanish.)
In basic English sentences, the object comes after the verb; e.g. “I love cats.” In Bengali, Bangladesh’s official language, the object falls between the subject and the verb—so it would be “I cats love.”
French has quite a few sets of homophones, which makes context clues especially important. Take, for example, cent (“one hundred”), sang (“blood”), sens (the first-person singular conjugation of the verb “to feel”), and sans (“without”)—they’re all pronounced the same.
“Sans sang, je me sens cent pour cent mort” means “Without blood, I feel one hundred percent dead.”
Since missions to the International Space Station usually launch from Russian territory in Kazakhstan, U.S. astronauts headed to the ISS have to learn Russian. “I’ve been asked many times what’s the hardest thing about space flight and I say it’s learning the language,” astronaut Peggy Whitson said in a 2020 interview.
Roughly 5 percent of Portuguese speakers actually live in Portugal. Many live in Brazil, but that’s not the only other place that counts Portuguese as an official language. Mozambique, Angola, Equatorial Guinea, and five more countries and territories do, too.
Urdu, most widely spoken in Pakistan and India, is so similar to Hindi that they’re sometimes considered two versions of a single language. They’re written in different scripts, though: Devanāgarī for Hindi, and Nastaʼlīq for Urdu.
Because the Netherlands established a presence in Indonesia in the early 17th century and later colonized the territory, Indonesian has many Dutch loanwords. Tas, for example, means “bag” in both languages; and the Indonesian word kantor, meaning “office,” comes from the Dutch word kantoor (which also means “office”).
German doesn’t distinguish between proper and common nouns; all nouns are capitalized. The language also has a reputation for impressively long words and innovative insults.
Though Japanese has loanwords from other languages (and some characters borrowed from Chinese), it’s a language isolate—meaning it’s not related to any known language, and we don’t really know where it came from.
Marathi has been the official language of the Indian state Maharashtra since 1966, and it has close ties to Hindi. Marathi, like Hindi, is usually written in the Devanāgarī script.
Turkish delight isn’t the only reference to Turkey that C.S. Lewis included in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. The Turkish word aslan—the name of the lion in the novel—actually means “lion.”
Though Telugu is the most spoken Dravidian language, Tamil holds the distinction of being the oldest in the family.
While Mandarin has four main tones, Wu dialects—which are common in Shanghai, Jiangsu province, and Zhejiang province—use as many as eight.
In many situations where English speakers would use I or my, native Korean speakers would use uri, meaning we or our. “Korean people use uri when something is shared by a group or community, or when many members in a group or community possess the same or similar kind of thing,” Beom Lee, a Korean language professor at Columbia University, told Ann Babe for BBC Travel. “[It’s] based on our collectivist culture.”