Something that most school children learn in their geography classes at school is the fact that Mandarin Chinese is the most spoken language in the world. This assertion sounds pretty obvious and natural to most people, given that China has the largest population in the world and that the language for the entire country is standardized to be Mandarin Chinese. Hence, through sheer strength of numbers, the coveted title of the most spoken language in the world is attributed without second thought to Mandarin Chinese.
However, is this fact, that Mandarin Chinese is the most spoken language in the world, completely true?
First let’s take a closer look at Mandarin Chinese and what it is.
Mandarin Chinese is not a single language but a group of languages spoken across most of northern and southwestern China.
Standard Chinese is built on one of the dialects that belongs to this group- the Beijing Dialect. In fact, earlier, because Mandarin originated in the North of China and most Mandarin languages and dialects are found in the north, in Chinese, Mandarin Chinese- the so called most spoken language in the world- is called Northern Chinese. Dialects like Sichuanese in the South-West of the country and the dialect of regions like Nanjing are actually so different from each other from the Beijing Dialect and from each other, that it is often the case that people speaking these dialects hardly understand the standard version of Chinese. It was with the reforms of Chairman Mao that the Beijing Dialect became the standard version of Chinese and started being used as the national language- Mandarin Chinese.
However if we were to count the actual native speakers of Mandarin Chinese it would be around 70% of Chinese speakers or less, something that might put in doubt it’s place as the most spoken language in the world- at least for the moment.
Another way to look at this definition of the most spoken language in the world is to count not the number of native speakers but count the actual number of speakers that the language has. Hence, we turn to parameters such as the language of education, the second language in school or higher education, the language used in business transactions etc. If these factors were considered, then, the crown for the most spoken language in the world tilts towards English. Why? Colonial History.
Due to the fact that large parts of Asia and Africa were colonized by the British, in many countries like India and Nigeria which are densely populated, English continues to be the language of education and a large part of official documentation. Hence, adding the population of countries from Africa and Asia which use English in this manner, to those of countries like the US or UK, it is quite easy to establish that English is the most spoken language in the world.
Not just that. Languages like Hindi and Spanish immediately start climbing up the ladder in the rankings and come pretty close to staking their claim to the most spoken language in the world. French, which otherwise does not even feature in the top 10, quickly climbs up to the top 5- featuring below English, Chinese, Spanish and Hindi. Arabic which enjoys official status in many African countries is also a language that profits quite a bit when you add the number of non-native speakers.
Finally, there is always the question of what would be the most spoken language the world in the future?
Here, of course, the question becomes a complex mix of geopolitics and demography. A language like French could have a tremendous increase in its numbers-because of the growing population of French speaking African countries. The growth of China as an economic power might increase the number of people who learn it. The change in demographics in a country like the USA, which has so far been largely English speaking, might favor Spanish in its race towards the title most spoken language in the world.
So in this crazy world where so many languages compete with each other, while continuing to enrich each other, perhaps the best thing for one to do is not to lose oneself in counting numbers but just go with the flow and sign up with a school like our Babel School of Languages and start learning a few more languages to profit of the cultural wealth that is on offer 🙂