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Languages :: How Many Speakers? Number of Speakers of Languages in World

Updated on January 18, 2012

World Languages :: How Many Speakers Of A Language Are There?

Coming up with a definitive answer to the number of languages there are is difficult enough but to estimate the number of speakers of a particular language is even more difficult. It can only be an estimate as people get born and they die and there is no way of keeping a tab on these events when trying to correlate them against a language that they will speak or have spoken. Thus the number of speakers may vary wildly from one decade to another, especially for those languages that have the fewest speakers.

Influencing factors on the number of speakers can be:

  1. Birth rates
  2. Death rates through wars, famine, pestilence, disease and disasters
  3. Migration and relocation policies.

The combined effects of large-scale loss of life and relocation mean that any estimates are seriously out-of-date. Only a census can give an accurate number and that will inevitably be for a snap-shot in time. Numerical data must otherwise be viewed with extreme caution.

Language Family :: Estimated Speakers

  • Indo-European (386) > 2.5bn
  • Sino-Tibetan (272) > 1bn
  • Austronesian (1212) > 1/4bn
  • Afro-Asiatic (338) > 1/4bn
  • Niger-Congo (1354) > 200m
  • Dravidian (70) > 150m
  • Japanese (12) > 1/8bn
  • Altaic (60) > 100m
  • Austro-Asiatic (173) > 75m
  • Tai (61) > 75m
  • Korean (1) > 60m
  • Nilo-Saharan (186) > 30m
  • Uralic (33) > 25m
  • Amerindian (985) > 20m
  • Caucasian (38) > 7.5m
  • Miao-Yao (15) > 5m
  • Indo-Pacific (734) > 3.5m
  • Khoisan (37) > 300k
  • Australian aborigine (262) approx 30k
  • Palaeosiberian (8) about 20k
  • Isolates (296) around 2m

World Languages :: How Many Speakers? :: Demographic Changes

Trends in world demographics are a major contributor to changes in any language speaker estimates. The world population is increasing by 1% to 2% per annum. From 5 billion in the 1980's to 6 billion at the beginning of the 21st century, where next? In such circumstances the estimates for any population-based numerical correlation can only be very rough. This is especially true of the numbers of speakers of languages of less-developed countries which are out of date as soon as they are published.

Even if a population is stable it is still difficult to obtain accurate information. This is not just a problem in less accessible parts of the world. It is a problem inherent in any country where there are minority groups. If there is no question on a census form about linguistic background how can there be accurate calculations on the number of speakers of a particular language?

It is of course difficult to determine if a questionnaire has obtained accurate information on language use. In multilingual communities what language does one give as the primarily used language? "What is your mother tongue?" is a simple question which unfortunately may not have a simple or consistent answer. How does one cater for situations where English, for instance, is an official language (India, Nigeria) but the population has achieved various levels of proficiency? There are numerous complications like this that make the job of a linguistic demographer very difficult.

World Languages :: How Many Speakers? :: Trustworthiness Of Information

Moreover, how trustworthy is the information obtained from any questionnaire? One is reliant on the answer given by people who may claim proficiency in a language where this is not the actuality. Here the figures for a language would be inflated. This may be done inadvertently or deliberately. If there is a political or cultural motive then again the numbers of speakers will be inflated (e.g. Breton, Welsh).

Conversely, some Governments may have a deliberate policy of underestimation for minority languages in order to play down the political significance of a section of the community (e.g. Breton, Xhosa). Again one should be sceptical of official figures in these circumstances.

Language Names

Uncertainty over the name of a language is also a hindrance. Unexpectedly perhaps, this is very common. Often a language, dialect and language family can become confused. As for example in English, Cockney and Germanic. This may seem easy to determine for us but what about Kru, Chin, Kachin, Dayak, Teso, Nuer and Mongo-Nkundu each of which names have been used for single languages and also for whole groups of languages. Speaker numbers can be significantly skewed according to which interpretation is taken. If the individual language interpretation is taken then there are 30,000 - 40,000 speakers. If the language group interpretation is taken then there are closer to 2 million speakers.

Top 10 Most Spoken Languages In The World

Those Languages That Have Dropped Out Of The Top 40 Since 1992

The following were in the top 40 in 1992, in the order given, but are now lesser languages than the top 40:

  1. Thai - 21 - 20
  2. Dutch - 21 - 21
  3. Awadhi - 20 - different name in Ethnologue
  4. Yoruba - 20 - 20
  5. Nepali - 18 - 16
  6. Uzbek - 17 - 18
  7. Assamese - 15 - 15

Languages With The Top 40 Number Of Speakers

These estimates are given as first-language totals and do not include second-language totals. Where second-language totals are included Chinese (> 1bn), English (> 1/2bn), Spanish (> 400m), Hindi (almost 1/2bn) and Russian (over 1/4bn) have considerably more speakers. The first number in the list gives the estimated number of speakers (in millions) from 1992 (Bright and/or Grimes). The second figure is the estimated number of speakers from Ethnologue (more recent but not up to date):

  1. Mandarin Chinese - 726 - 845
  2. Spanish - 266 - 329
  3. English - 427 - 328
  4. Hindi (with Urdu) - 182 (233) - 182 (242)
  5. Arabic - 181 - 221
  6. Bengali - 162 - 181
  7. Portuguese - 165 - 178
  8. Russian - 158 - 144
  9. Japanese - 124 - 122
  10. German - 121 - 90
  11. Javanese - 75 - 84
  12. Punjabi - 60 - 78
  13. Wu - n/a - 77
  14. French - 116 - 77
  15. Telugu - 55 - 70
  16. Vietnamese - 57 - 68
  17. Marathi - 58 - 68
  18. Korean - 66 - 66
  19. Tamil - 49 - 66
  20. Italian - 65 - 62
  21. Turkish - 53 - 61
  22. Cantonese / Yue - n/a - 55
  23. Tagalog / Filipino - n/a - 49
  24. Gujurati - 36 - 46
  25. Min - n/a - 46
  26. Maithili - 24 - 45
  27. Polish - 42 - 40
  28. Ukrainian - 45 - 39
  29. Malay - 19 - 39
  30. Bhojpuri - 41 - 38
  31. Xiang - n/a - 36
  32. Malayalam - 30 - 36
  33. Kannada - 26 - 35
  34. Sunda - 26 - 34
  35. Burmese - 22 - 32
  36. Oriya - 23 - 32
  37. Persian - 22 - 31
  38. Hakka - n/a - 30
  39. Hausa - 24 - 24
  40. Romanian - n/a - 23

Language Speaker Numbers :: Conclusion

Approximations and uncertainties are normal in language speaker estimations. This is especially true for rapidly expanding languages and those in serious decline. At best only upper and lower estimations can be given for any particular language.

--- Remarks, Observations and/or Criticisms are Welcomed ---

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    • profile image


      8 years ago

      Amerindian is not a "family" but a group of families (being Quechuan the most spoken), such as the Caucasian (Kartvelian on this i think) and the ISOLATES (Vasconic like first on your list i guess).

      Nice and correct count by the way =)

    • humagaia profile imageAUTHOR

      Charles Fox 

      9 years ago from United Kingdom

      Estonian = just over 1 million native speakers, making it about the 250th on the list of most spoken languages. A further 80,000 speak South Estonian.

    • billyaustindillon profile image


      9 years ago

      What about Estonian :)


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