Perhaps Chinese is not the most widely spoken language on Earth

Perhaps Chinese is not the most widely spoken language on Earth

Ever since I can remember, I’ve heard that Chinese is the most spoken language on Earth, and I’ve always thought it was true. But while looking up some information on the matter, I was surprised to find that many reputable institutions no longer consider it so. Nowadays, there might be no absolute truths, and the rankings of the most spoken languages could vary depending on who compiles them.

Berlitz, the global language education company, considers English to be the most spoken language on Earth, with 1.452 billion speakers, of which only 372 have English as their native language. Mandarin Chinese is said to be second, with 1.118 billion speakers, followed by Hindi with 602 million speakers, Spanish with 548 million, and French with 280 million.

Babbel, creator of some of the best language learning applications, on the other hand, asserts that Chinese is in the first place, with 1.3 billion speakers, Spanish second with 485 million, followed by English with 373, Arabic with 362, and Hindi with 344.

Statista, which aims to make the world understandable through its charts and data, follows Berlitz’s criterion, although it presents slightly different figures. According to this platform, the top five most spoken languages (in millions of speakers) are English (1456), Chinese (1138), Hindi (609), Spanish (559), and French (309). These figures are also shared by the Encyclopedia Britannica. Busuu follows a similar criterion but subtracts nearly 300 million English speakers. Many other websites share this classification with their readers.

Who are those 1.4 billion English speakers?

Although this trend might seem like another aspect of the growing deterioration of relations between Western countries and China—a subject I have no interest in addressing here—it also reflects a reality in this globalized world constructed over the past 20 years. On one hand, in countries with large populations, such as India (already the most populous country on Earth), Nigeria, etc., English is not the native language but is spoken by a very high percentage of the population. In India, it amounts to between 150 and 200 million people, according to sources. Although K-international lowers that number to 125 million, it adds 95 million from Pakistan, 90 million from the Philippines, between 80 and 100 million from Nigeria. Significant populations of English speakers also exist in Kenya and Tanzania, and approximately half of Europe’s population speaks English with varying degrees of fluency.

In addition to these so-called official figures, we should add the millions of people who have English as a second language, many of whom possess a mastery that is envied even by native speakers. English has become the language of work for many professions. No matter what the native language of airline crews is, they mostly communicate in English, just like the staff at many hotels and tourist businesses. In international business and research centers, English brings together individuals from many different countries. Some of them, far from their homes and countries, also use English during their leisure time and hardly have contact with their native languages.

However, some websites still present us with the traditional painting and prefer to measure the number of native speakers. In this regard, Mosalingua gives these data:

  1. Mandarin Chinese: 929 million native speakers
  2. Spanish: 475 million native speakers
  3. English: 373 million native speakers
  4. Hindi: 344 million native speakers
  5. Bengali: 234 million native speakers
  6. Portuguese: 232 million native speakers
  7. Russian: 154 million native speakers
  8. Japanese: 125 million native speakers
  9. Yue Chinese: 85 million native speakers

Not all Chinese people speak Mandarin Chinese.

Perhaps to those unfamiliar with China, it may seem curious to see both «Chino» and «Chino-Yue» listed, the latter being the language spoken in the Canton province and Hong Kong. This is a completely different language from Chinese, which can still be written using Chinese characters. This classification also tells us that the Chinese language is not spoken by all of China’s 1.4 billion inhabitants. In fact, in this country, there are many people whose native language is not Mandarin Chinese, but rather Yue, Xiang, Min, Wu, etc. However, a high percentage of them can express themselves fluently in Chinese, while there is also a significant number of speakers of the so-called dialects, such as Sichuan or Yunnan dialects. Even though they understand Chinese, thanks to television, they are unable to communicate in this language.

Perhaps the conclusion is that there is an increasing number of people who do not use just one language, but several, depending on the circumstances of their lives. This applies to those living cosmopolitan and globalized lives that require continuous interaction with people from other countries, as well as those who hold onto minority native languages, while also recognizing the advantages of knowing languages spoken by the majority.

In my case, 90% of my readings are in English, the majority of my conversations are in Chinese with some Spanish and less English, and in my writing, I use Spanish more often, or sometimes English. But I’m certain that if we were to ask people I interact with on a daily basis, it would reveal an equally complex language usage landscape.

To cite this post: Ceinos-Arcones, Pedro, "Perhaps Chinese is not the most widely spoken language on Earth," in Ethnic China, 31 agosto 2023,

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