As any avid traveler knows, there are many benefits to learning at least some words and phrases of the country where you’re visiting. This will make traveling and sightseeing so much easier, as you can politely ask for directions or get help from strangers. Knowing a bit of the origin and history of different languages is also sure to enrich your travels and add to your cultural worldview.
- Learn the 10 most common languages in the world
- Learn helpful phrases that can make traveling easier
- Discover the origin and history of the most spoken languages in the world
In this article, we’ll discuss the 10 most commonly spoken languages and where you can use them, a bit about their history, and some helpful phrases to learn before you travel abroad.
The 10 Most Common Languages in the World
So, which languages are most spoken around the world? The answers might surprise you. They include:
- Mandarin Chinese
- Western Punjabi
Note that this list is based on first-language speakers. English technically has the most speakers in the world, but it’s a second language for many.
Mandarin Chinese — sometimes called Northern Chinese because of its origin in northern China — has the largest total number of speakers at almost a billion people. There are many dialects of Mandarin Chinese, although Standard Mandarin is widely spoken across northern and southwestern China. It is considered the native language of about 70% of Chinese speakers.
Are you thinking about learning another language? Mandarin Chinese is a good bet, as it’s the most commonly taught Chinese dialect to non-native speakers. It is the official language of mainland China and Taiwan. However, because of differing writing systems, Mandarin Chinese might be difficult for English speakers to master.
Rulers of the Qing dynasty officially pronounced Mandarin Chinese the official language of China in the early 1900s after years of use in schools. Today, it’s the standard language used in Chinese education and media.
Here are some helpful words and phrases to get started if you’re visiting a region of the world that speaks Mandarin Chinese:
- Hello: 你好 (Nǐ hǎo)
- Thank you: 谢谢 (Xièxiè nǐ)
- Left: 剩下 (Shèng xià)
- Right: 正确的 (Zhèngquè de)
- Please: 请 (Qǐng)
- Do you speak English? 你会说英语吗 (Nǐ huì shuō yīngyǔ ma)
As Mandarin Chinese has the largest population of native speakers among the world’s population, it stands out as a brilliant choice if you’re looking to add to your language skills as a world traveler.
Countries and Regions Where Mandarin Chinese Is Spoken
Although Mandarin Chinese is spoken throughout the world, you will most likely hear this language in:
- Northern China
Spanish is one of the oldest languages in the world, and one of six languages officially spoken at the United Nations. In fact, 489 million people around the world call Spanish their native tongue.
Beyond western Europe and Spain, Spanish is also widely spoken in the Americas (North, Central, and South). Spanish is a branch of the Romance languages, which also include Portuguese, French, Italian, Romanian, and Catalan. If you speak a Romance language, it might be easier for you to learn Spanish. This will prove to be a great resource, as it’s the second most spoken language in the world.
Spanish can trace its origins to the rise and fall of the Roman Empire in the fifth century, which largely spoke Latin — the root of the modern Spanish language. Spanish shares some commonality with English and because of America’s proximity to Spanish-speaking Mexico and Central America. It is also a relatively common language to see and hear in the U.S.
Some great phrases to learn if traveling to a Spanish-speaking country include:
- Please: Por favor
- Hello: Hola
- Thank you: Gracias
- Left: Izquierdo (masculine) or izquierda (feminine)
- Right: Derecho (masculine) or derecha (feminine)
- Do you speak English? ¿Habla Inglés?
Countries and Regions Where Spanish Is Spoken
Spanish is the official language of the following countries:
- Costa Rica
- Dominican Republic
- El Salvador
- Puerto Rico
As the second most spoken language in the world, Spanish is a great tool for world travelers, especially if your travels take you beyond the U.S to other countries in the Americas.
English is the most widely spoken language of the world, so it’s sometimes called “the universal language.” It’s the third most spoken native language and can trace its roots to ancient times. English is named after the Angles, one of the Germanic tribes who migrated to what is now England in the fifth century.
English has grown to such numbers because many former colonies kept the framework while allowing linguistic and spelling changes, such as the dropping of the “u” from British English’s “colour” in favor of “color.” Further, English is the language of most of the world’s publishing, science, media, entertainment, and diplomacy. It is also one of the six official languages of the United Nations.
Countries and Regions Where English Is Spoken
English is also the official language of over 50 countries, including:
- New Zealand
- United Kingdom
- United States
- Marshall Islands
- Papua New Guinea
- Saint Lucia
- Sierra Leone
- Solomon Islands
- South Africa
- South Sudan
- Trinidad and Tobago
English speakers are lucky in that English is recognized as a language of the world and called a “lingua franca.” This is a phenomenon that results from a proliferation of a language to make effective communication possible for people who don’t share a common native language.
But as English speakers, it’s still a good idea to be cognizant of the fact that English is not the only language in the world. Knowing a few words and phrases common to other languages will make a good impression when traveling.
The official name for this language is Modern Standard Hindi. Because of the large population of India, Hindi is the fourth most commonly spoken native language.
Hindi can trace its roots back to Old Persian and Sanskrit. The Hindi language evolved into a distinct language during the seventh century. After Indian independence, Hindi went through a grammar standardization, although many variations survive.
Hindi is the lingua franca of much of Southeast Asia and travelers to the region will do well for themselves by learning a few helpful words and phrases like:
- Hello: नमस्ते (namaste)
- Please: कृप्या अ (krpya a)
- Thank you: जी शुक्रिया (jee shukriya)
- Left: बाएं (baen)
- Right: सही (sahee)
- Do you speak English? क्या आप अंग्रेज़ी बोलते हैं (kya aap angrezee bolate hain)
If your travels take you to Southeast Asia, try to learn a little Hindi to make communication easier — or, at least, friendlier!
Countries and Regions Where Hindi Is Spoken
Expect to hear Hindi if your travel plans will take you to:
Bengali is the fifth most spoken native language of the world. It is the official language of Bangladesh and is spoken in the Bengal region of India — where it is one of 23 national languages. Bengali has been spoken for over 1,300 years and has its origins in the Magadhi Prakrit languages, originating in the 10th century.
Bengali nouns have no assigned gender — as other languages do, but the language might be difficult for English speakers because it follows a different sentence structure: subject-object-verb.
Try your luck with Bengali, and you will make friends if your travels take you to Southeast Asia.
You’ll find Bengali spoken in Bangladesh and India.
Portuguese — along with Spanish, Italian, and French — is in the Romance language family, dating back to the fall of the Roman Empire in Western Europe in the fourth century. The first written Portuguese words can be traced to Latin administrative documents in the ninth century.
The Portuguese language is spoken around the world, but most commonly in Portugal and Brazil. Portuguese is the sixth most spoken native language. It is recognized by the European Union, although its reach can be felt all around the world.
Some helpful Portuguese phrases include:
- Hello: Olá
- Please: Por favor
- Thank you: Obrigada
- Left: Esquerdo (masculine) or esquerda (feminine)
- Right: Certo (masculine) or certa (feminine)
- Do you speak English? Você fala inglês?
If you speak or understand Spanish, you’ll find many similarities, and Portuguese could very well be your next language to conquer. If you’re serious about traveling the world, it’s a great idea to add some European languages to your bag of tricks. The world is your oyster!
Countries and Regions Where Portuguese Is Spoken
Portuguese is the official language in the following, including many African countries:
- East Timor
- Equatorial Guinea
- Cape Verde
Russian is one of the official languages of the United Nations, the second most widely used on the internet, and one of two official languages at NASA’s International Space Station. Globally, Russian has over 258 million native speakers. Russian was the official language of the Soviet Union until its dissolution in the 1980s.
The Russian language descended from a loose conglomeration of Slavic tribes dating back to the end of the ninth century and is widely spoken in Eastern Europe.
Some helpful Russian phrases include:
- Hello: Привет (Privet)
- Please: Пожалуйста (Pozhaluysta)
- Thank you: Спасибо (Spasibo)
- Left: Оставил (Ostavil)
- Right: Верно (Verno)
- Do you speak English? Ты говоришь по-английски (Ty govorish’ po-angliyski)
Countries/Regions Where Russian Is Spoken
Traveling to the following countries will inevitably expose you to the Russian language:
The Japanese language is spoken by over 130 million people and the earliest recorded mention of Japanese is contained in a Chinese text from 252 C.E. Modern Japanese rose in speaking prevalence in the 1600s.
After World War II, Japan’s period of isolation effectively ended, and the language has seen the inclusion of what linguists call “loan words.” These are words borrowed from other languages and usually words that reflect Japan’s booming economy. These include the Japanese words for personal computer, internet, and camera.
Countries and Regions Where Japanese Is Spoken
Ninety-nine percent of Japanese is spoken in Japan, but you may also encounter the language in the following countries:
- United States
The Punjabi language is an Indo-Aryan language spoken primarily in the Punjab regions of India and Pakistan. With around 113 million global speakers — and 80.5 million in Pakistan alone — it’s the world’s ninth most spoken language. Apart from the Punjab region, Punjabi is also frequently spoken in North America and the United Kingdom.
The word Punjabi is translated from the Persian phrase “five waters,” referring to the five major tributaries of the Indus River in Southeast Asia. It’s an ancient language, first appearing in the seventh century.
Should your travels take you to a part of the world where Punjabi is spoken, a few helpful phrases include:
- Hello: ਸਤ ਸ੍ਰੀ ਅਕਾਲ (Sata srī akāla)
- Please: ਕ੍ਰਿਪਾ (Kripā)
- Thank you: ਤੁਹਾਡਾ ਧੰਨਵਾਦ (Tuhāḍā dhanavāda)
- Left: ਖੱਬੇ (Khabē)
- Right: ਸਹੀ (Sahī)
- Do you speak English? ਕੀ ਤੁਸੀਂਂਂ ਅੰਗ੍ਰੇਜ਼ੀ ਬੋਲਦੇ ਹੋ (Kī tusīṁṁṁ agrēzī bōladē hō)
Countries and Regions Where Western Punjabi Is Spoken
You’ll hear Punjabi in travels abroad to:
- Great Britain
The Marathi language rounds out our list of the most spoken languages of the world and is another Asian language. Like Punjabi, it’s an Indo-Aryan language with 83 million native and non-native speakers globally.
Marathi first appeared as a distinctive language around the 3rd century BCE. There is a tremendous Marathi literary history with a major international festival held every year honoring Marathi texts.
Countries/Regions Where Marathi Is Spoken
Although there are 42 distinct Marathi dialects, standard Marathi is the official language in the following countries:
Although not one of the 10 most spoken native languages of the world, Arabic is found around the globe and especially in the Middle East. It’s one of the oldest languages on Earth, dating back to its Semitic roots in the 1st century CE. Modern Standard Arabic is considered the lingua franca of the Arab world — a region that spans from Egypt to Syria.
Arabic is the official language of Islam and readers of the original text of the Quran. Arabic is one of the third most common official languages of the world — after English and French. The Arabic language has a rich history and was considered a cultural vehicle in Europe, as the language of science, math, and philosophy during the Middle Ages.
Countries and Regions Where Arabic Is Spoken
You’ll hear Arabic in the following countries:
- Saudi Arabia
- United Arab Emirates
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