Frequently Asked Questions

How many speakers do various languages have?

The top 20 oral languages by population (i.e., those with the most native speakers), according to the Ethnologue,were, in November 2000, as follows (numbers in millions):

  1. Mandarin Chinese (885)
  2. Spanish (332)
  3. English (322)
  4. Bengali (189)
  5. Hindi (182)
  6. Portuguese (170)
  7. Russian (170)
  8. Japanese (125)
  9. German (98)
  10. Chinese, Wu (77.2)
  11. Javanese (75.5)
  12. Korean (75)
  13. French (72)
  14. Vietnamese (67.7)
  15. Telugu (66.4)
  16. Chinese, Yue (66)
  17. Marathi (64.8)
  18. Tamil (63.1)
  19. Turkish (59)
  20. Urdu (58)

The list changes, so check (www.sil.org/ethnologue/top100.html) for a more recent list.

According to Erik Gunnemark (Countries, Peoples and their Languages. The Geolinguistic Handbook,1991), the following 208 languages had more than 1 million native users a decade ago:

Achinese, Afrikaans, Akan, Albanian, Amharic, Arabic, Armenian, Assamese, Aymara, Azerbaijani, Bai, Balinese, Baluchi, Bambara, Bashkir, Batak, Bemba, Bengali, Berber, Bete, Beti, Bhili, Bhojpuri, Bikol, Buginese, Bulgarian, Burmese, Buyi, Byelorussian, Catalan, Cebuano, Chinese, Chokwe, Chuvash, Congo, Czech, Danish, Dinka, Dong, Dutch, Edo-Bini, Efil-Ibibio, English, Estonian, Ewe, Finnish, Fon, French, Ful, Galician, Ganda, Garhwali, Georgian, German, Gisu, Gondi, Greek, GuaranĂ­, Gujarati, Gurma, Hadiyya, Haitian, Hani, Hausa, Haya, Hebrew, Hehe, Hiligaynon, Hindi, Ho, Hungarian, Igbo, Ijo, Iloko, Indonesian, Italian, Japanese, Javanese, Kamba, Kannada, Kanuri, Karen, Kashmiri, Kazakh, Khmer, Kirghiz, Kisii, Konkani, Korean, Kumauni, Kurdish, Kurukh, Kuyu, Lao, Latvian, Li, Lingala, Lithuanian, Low German, Luba, Luhya, Luo, Macassar, Macedonian, Madurese, Magahi, Maguindanao, Maithili, Makonde, Makua, Malagasy, Malay, Malayalam, Malinke, Manipuri, Marathi, Marwari, Mbundu, Mende, Miao, Minangkabau, Mongolian, Mongo-Nkundu, Mordva, More, Mundari, Nahuatl, Nandi, Nandi-Kipsigis, Ndebele, Nepali, Nkore-Kiga, Norwegian, Nuer, Nupe, Nyamwezi, Nyanja, Occitan, Oriya, Oromo, Pampangan, Pangasinan, Panjabi, Pashto, Pedi, Persian, Polish, Portuguese, Quechua, Romany, Romanian, Ronga-Tsonga, Russian, Rwanda-Rundi, Santali, Sasak, Senufo, Serbo-Croatian, Serer, Shan, Shona, Sindhi, Sinhalese, Slovak, Slovenian, Somali, Songe, Songhai, Sotho, Spanish, Sundanese, Swahili, Swazi, Swedish, Tagalog, Tajiki, Tamil, Tatar, Teke, Telugu, Temne, Teso-Turkana, Thai, Tibetan, Tigrinya, Tiv, Tonga, Tswana, Tulu, Turkish, Turkmen, Ukrainian, Umbundu, Urdu, Uygur, Uzbek, Vietnamese, Waray, Welamo, Wolof, Xhosa, Yao (Man), Yao (Chiyao), Yi, Yoruba, Zande, Zhuang, Zulu.

(Even here, mistakes can occur. Mordva, for instance, should not be on the list, according to a Mordva expert, Cornelius Hasselblatt — thanks! Gunnemark is in the process of revising his book).

The median number of speakers of a language is probably around 5-6,000. More than 95% of the world’s spoken languages have fewer than 1 million native speakers. Half of all the languages have fewer than 10,000 speakers. A quarter of the world’s spoken languages and most of the Sign languages have fewer than 1,000 users. (TSK)

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