The 25 Most Influential Languages in the World

Posted by on February 20, 2012

If any of you have ever tried learning a foreign language you know that the hardest step is often the first – choosing which one. There are over 6,000 languages in use today and roughly 30% are spoken by 1,000 people or less. So, to make your job easier, in this list we are ranking the 25 most influential languages in the world. Keep in mind, however, that some languages with relatively few speakers (like Italian) will outrank languages with hundreds of millions of speakers (like Bengali). This is because the rankings are not just done according to how many people speak the language. Of course this is taken into consideration but so is how many people speak it as a second language, its impact on global commerce and trade, and its lingua franca status around the world.



Although it is spoken by almost 80 million people in North Korea, South Korea, and China, it has not achieved a significant level of influence beyond the borders of the Korean Peninsula. It is also one of the hardest languages for foreigners to learn and the U.S. government classifies it as a category IV language along with Arabic and Japanese. This means that it requires at least 63 weeks of instruction to achieve a workable level of fluency as opposed to only 25 weeks for Spanish or French.



Despite having only 1/20th the number of the speakers as its counterpart (60 million), Cantonese has a much more global reach than Mandarin. Not only is it spoken in southern China and Hong Kong, but also in Chinese communities around the world.



While it is technically spoken by around 25 million people, the official language of Thailand has a number of mutually intelligible dialects that brings the total number of speakers to around 60 million.



With approximately 90 million speakers Punjabi is the 10th most spoken language in the world and although it is the primary language of the Indian state of Punjab most of its 90 million speakers reside in Pakistan. As far as having global influence, Punjabi hardly compares to some of the other languages on this list but with so many speakers it was bound to end up here somewhere.



Not to be confused with Japanese, Javanese is also the primary language of an eastern Asian island. Java, found in Indonesia, is the worlds most populous island which gives Javanese a total number of native speakers numbering close to 90 million.



As the second most widely spoken Slavic language after Russian, Polish speakers stand at about 46 million strong. Although there are numerous communities of Polish speakers living abroad, Polish is not nearly as influential a language as some of its other European counterparts.



Spoken by roughly 90 million people, Vietnamese doesn’t rank any higher due to the fact that it is used almost exclusively in Vietnam. The language has, however, begun to propagate beyond the country’s borders as immigrants take it with them to Europe and America.



As the language of the most dominant power in the Middle East and one of the largest economies in the world, Turkish is spoken by 83 million people primarily in Turkey but also in various regions around Central Asia.



With over 200 million speakers, Bengali is the sixth most spoken language in the world. The only reason it is so far behind the other 5 (who rank much higher on this list) is because it is primarily spoken in only one very small geographical region – the extremely densely populated country of Bangladesh.



With a total of around 50 million speakers, the mutually intelligible languages of Dutch and Africaans (Africaans is a daughter language spoken in South Africa that formed out of Dutch dialects) find significant usage everywhere from Europe to South America to Indonesia.



In the European Union it has 65 million speakers but if you count the numerous regions abroad where it is spoken as a second language then the number gets closer to 90 million. Of note, it is the official language of the Vatican and carries considerable weight in the worlds of music (particularly opera), international sports, and design/fashion.



Spoken primarily in several southern Indian states, Tamil also holds official language status in Sri Lanka and Singapore. It is one the oldest languages still in use today and has around 80 million total speakers.



Used extensively along the east coast of Africa as the language of trade, Swahili has upwards of 100 million speakers (only a small portion are native) and is the official language of several countries. It’s influence is steadily growing and many major international news outlets now feature Swahili language broadcasts.


Farsi (Persian)

With over a hundred million speakers, Farsi holds official status in Iran, Afghanistan, and Tajikistan and has a long history of being regarded as a “prestigious cultural language” throughout Central Asia.



In Malaysia its known as Malaysian while in Indonesia it is known as Indonesian. Although the nomenclature can get a bit confusing, Malay as a whole is spoken in numerous countries throughout the region accounting for hundreds of millions of speakers.