Has there ever been a national language
What are the 10 most widely spoken languages in the world?
Figuring out which languages are most spoken in the world is harder than you might imagine. We can say with relative certainty that Mandarin, English, Spanish, and Arabic play a role, and roughly the order in which they appear. But there are also some surprises. Would you have guessed that Bengali is in the top ten?
A little warning: hard facts in the form of X million native speakers speak language Y to present is practically impossible at this point. What constitutes a language, or a dialect or sub-dialect, is highly controversial. And even if linguists agree on a category, how similar is the English spoken in the Scottish Highlands to the English spoken in downtown Baltimore? At least two speakers from these regions would at least be able to communicate with each other - somehow, at least.
Another concern is the fact that what is often referred to simply as Chinese is a whole family of languages that is simply squeezed into a single category. Hindi is also used as a vague collective term for a large number of dialects and sub-dialects.
It is best not to start at this point about the lack of trustworthiness of some data sources that were compiled by different institutions at different times.
On the other hand ... we all secretly like lists, right?
The information about how many Chinese speakers there are varies widely. Ethnologue states that there are around 1.2 billion native speakers, of which around one billion speak Mandarin. Wikipedia, on the other hand, estimates that there are 1.3 billion native speakers of the Chinese languages, of which around 900 million speak Mandarin. No matter which number you orient yourself by, there is no doubt that the language has a great influence. If you are looking for a language that one in six people in the world speaks, Chinese is for you. As a tonal language with pictograms, the language will also keep you on your toes.
If you only take native speakers into account, Spanish is ahead of English at 400 million. As with all languages on this list, language politics and the identities associated with the language are highly controversial: ask Catalan or Quechua speakers if Spanish is their local language and the answers might surprise you. But it is certainly the primary language in much of South America, Central America, Spain, and much of the United States - so if you want to learn a language that will open up an entire continent to you, Spanish is your best bet.
There are around 360 million native English speakers and half a billion people who have English as a second language. This illustrates the success of English as a lingua franca for international trade, tourism and global relations. English is also relatively easy to learn (especially as opposed to Chinese) and the influence of ubiquitous US pop culture will continue to secure English a large role on the world stage. For some, English is still synonymous with the chance for a better life.
India has 23 official languages, with Hindi and Urdu at the top. Whether these two form one language, Hindustani, or should be viewed as two different languages is still very much debated. Hindustani is mainly spoken in northern India and Pakistan. Hindi uses Dewanagari characters, while Urdu uses Persian spelling. At this point in time, there is another debate about the role of language in Indian education: Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a Hindi nationalist, wants to introduce Hindi instead of English as the main language of education in the southern Indian states - a strategy that has met with much resistance. If you ever travel around India, a little bit of Hindi will get you a long way. Besides, that's the language that gives us words like Shampoo, jungle and bungalow brought - what is there not to love about it?
Current censuses estimate that Arabic has around 250 million native speakers. However, this is another example of how numbers don't tell the whole story: Arabic, like Chinese, is so different in its dialects that it is effective as a Group of languages could be considered, but will be referred to as a language for the sake of simplicity. Modern standard Arabic is mainly found in writing and is closely related to the classical Arabic of the Koran. The spoken forms of Arabic, which is spoken in Oman or Morocco, for example, differ greatly from this.
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Portuguese is another language that owes its reach to its colonial past. From the 15th century, Portuguese traders and conquerors brought their language to Africa, Asia and America. The spread of the Portuguese language might initially be tied to European colonization, but the colonized countries developed their own vibrant cultures that forever changed the language - and the image we have of it. Today, Portuguese is spoken by 215 million native speakers in countries such as Brazil, Goa, Angola, Mozambique, Cap Verde, Guinea-Bissau, São Tomé and Príncipe, and Macau. It is also the language of Machado de Assis, Bossa Nova, Mia Couto, Fernando Pessoa and José Eduardo Agualusa.
Admit it: you didn't expect Bengali on this list. The British partition of Bengal in 1947 separated (mainly Hindu) West Bengal, now part of India, from (mostly Muslim) East Bengal, now Bangladesh. Bengali is the language of Calcutta, the Andaman Islands and around 170 million Bangladeshis - and the population is calculated to double in the next century!
With around 170 million native speakers (counted in 2010), Russian is the eighth most common language in the world. Famous for its obscure grammar and lovely Cyrillic alphabet, it is one of the six languages spoken in the UN and has spawned celebrities such as Dostoevsky, Nabokov, Chekhov, Tolstoy and Pushkin.
Almost all of Japan's 130 million native speakers are in Japan, making it easily the most geographically concentrated language on this list. Japanese has two distinct writing systems, Hiragana and Katakana, and also uses Kanji–Characters of Chinese origin. The largest Japanese-speaking groups outside of Japan can be found in the United States, the Philippines, and Brazil.
10. Punjabi / Lahnda
With an estimated 100 million native speakers, the last place on this list goes to ... Punjabi! (Sorry, German, you were ousted a few years ago!) This language is spoken in large parts of India and Pakistan, i.e. the former Punjab. The region was torn by the British when they pulled out in 1947, and millions of people were forced to leave their homes, livelihoods and families behind. But they're slowly taking revenge, Bollywood-style: songs in Punjabi now make up 50% of chart breakers!
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