The Most Commonly-Spoken Languages Around The World

It’s difficult to pinpoint the exact moment humans started to use language, but the practice goes back several centuries. All social animals, ranging from humans, dolphins, ants, whales, and much more, have their own way of communicating. There are now about 5,000 human languages spoken around the world with at least a third of them in Africa.

Languages gain popularity from several factors, such as geographic location and usefulness. These are the most common languages spoken across the globe in terms of the total number of speakers.

English Is The Universal Language

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John Cordes/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Often referred to as “the universal language,” English has become the most commonly spoken language in the world. Over 1.5 billion out of 7.5 billion people speak English, which is equivalent to 20 percent of the world’s population. While there are a large percentage of English speakers it’s not the most common native language.

Only about 360 million people learn English as their first language. English is the official language in around 60 countries including Fiji, Kenya, Hong Kong, Barbados, and the United States. There are a few reasons why it’s important for non-English speakers to learn the language, such as getting a multinational job or for international travel.

Why So Many People Know Mandarin

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Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

There are actually several languages that are of Chinese origin, but the most common is Mandarin. When the word “Mandarin” is translated into English it means “common speech.” Non-Mandarin speakers may not know that it is written using symbols called Han characters. Each character represents a different word.

Around 1.3 billion people speak Mandarin, which is equivalent to about every one in six people. It is the official language in China, Singapore, and Taiwan, and is widely spoken in Malaysia. Experts predicted that it would become the language of international business, but that probably won’t happen because not many people outside of Asia speak the language.

Why Hindi And Urdu Are Lumped Together To Make Hindustani

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Matt Blyth/Getty Images

The language of Hindustani refers to both Hindi and Urdu. Hindi is the official language of India, which is the second-most populous country in the world. Urdu is the official language of Pakistan and is most common in Muslim communities. An estimated 545 million people speak Hindi and another 100 million speak Urdu.

There are several differences between Hindi and Urdu, such as vocabulary and pronunciation, but speakers of either language are able to easily communicate with one another. Both of these languages are direct descendants of Sanskrit, an ancient language of India.

You Can Find Spanish Speakers Almost Anywhere

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Tim Graham/Getty Images

Spanish is categorized as a Romantic language with a total of 580 million speakers around the globe. The majority of Spanish speakers either know it as their native or second language, but about 22 million are students with a limited capacity for the language.

Spanish originated in the Castile region of Spain and it began to spread when Spanish explorers and conquistadors ventured to other countries. There are about 19 countries where Spanish is the official language, including Argentina, Cuba, Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, Spain, and Mexico. It’s also the official language in the African country of Equatorial Guinea and is the second most common language in the United States.

French Isn’t Only Spoken In France

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Mapchart
Mapchart

France isn’t the only country that speaks French. In fact, there are a total of 28 countries where French is the official language, such as Switzerland, Madagascar, Haiti, Canada, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. There are 270 million French speakers around the world with only 80 million native speakers.

One of the main reasons why numerous countries speak French is due to France’s many past conquests and settlements. French is also a Romantic language and incorporates influences from German, Celtic, and Latin. France and the language of French actually get their name from a collection of tribes from the Middle Ages called the Franks.

Arabic Originated Over A Millennium Ago

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BSIP/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Origins of Arabic date back more than a thousand years ago, traced to the Bedouin nomadic tribes in the deserts of the Arabian peninsula. It’s one of the Central Semitic languages, which also include Hebrew, Aramaic, and Phoenician. Arabic is primarily spoken in the Middle East, but is also prevalent in nearby Asian and African countries.

The world is comprised of about 313 million Arabic speakers and Egypt has the most Modern Standard Arabic speakers with 65 million people. The main reason why it’s still such a popular language is that it’s the language of Islam.

Bengali Is The Fifth Most-Spoken Native Language

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Farjana K. Godhuly/AFP via Getty Images

According to the Constitution of Bangladesh, Bengali is and always will be the sole official language of Bangladesh. Nearly 261 million people speak Bengali with almost half of them in India. It is now widely spoken around the world thanks to the many Bangladeshi and Indian immigrants who came to the United Kingdom, the Middle East, and the United States.

In 2010 the parliament of Bangladesh proposed for the United Nations to make it one of their official languages, but they haven’t had any success so far.

The Obvious Reason Why Russian Is So Common

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Pallava Bagla/Corbis via Getty Images

It makes sense that Russian is one of the most common languages because it is one of the largest countries in the world. Russian is a Slavic language written with the Cyrillic alphabet and is the official language in Abkhazia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, South Ossetia, and Transnistria.

There are about 267 million people who speak Russian worldwide and 153 million know it as their native language. Ukrainian and Belarusian are also very similar to Russian because they descended from the medieval state of Kievan Rus. Russian can also be heard in nations that gained independence after the collapse of the Soviet Union, such as Poland and the Czech Republic.

How Portuguese Spread Around The World

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Wolfgang Kaehler/LightRocket via Getty Images

Portuguese is most similar to the Romantic languages of Spanish and Italian and can be found in numerous countries all over the world. This is because early colonizers, traders, and missionaries left the small country of Portugal and began spreading the language wherever they went.

Now, there are about 229 million Portuguese speakers on the planet and the majority learn it as their first language. It is most commonly heard in Brazil because half of Portuguese speakers live there. Other countries with Portuguese as the official language include Angola, Cape Verde, Macau, and Portugal.

The Long History Of Indonesian (Malay) Language

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Ulet Ifansasti/Getty Images

Indonesian is the most widely-used language in the Malay dialects and is spoken by about 170 million people. Malay most likely began in 1000 BC on the Asian island of Borneo and is commonly heard in Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei, and Singapore.

Indonesia is home to over 700 different languages making it one of the most linguistically diverse countries of all time. Indonesian is part of the Austronesian language group with other languages such as Tagalog, Māori, and Samoan. Also, in the 17th century, Dutch colonists actually spoke Indonesian to the natives when they were conquering the area, rather than force their native language on them.

Most Didn’t Know German Was Spoken Here

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Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Britannica found that the very first instance of the German language happened in the first century BCE when the Germanic people met with the Romans. Now, at least 132 million people are regular German speakers and about 79 million live in Germany. It is also the official language in Austria, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Slovakia, and Switzerland.

Surprisingly, there’s a large portion of Brazilians in the city of Pomerode who mostly speak German and Portuguese. Most of them are actually of German descent. Also, German is the third most common language in the European Union, after English and French.

Why Japanese Is Unlike Most Languages

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Chris McGrath/Getty Images

Westerners will notice a lot of differences between their own languages and Japanese. For example, Japanese has an extensive grammatical system to represent politeness and formality. Japanese speakers will converse based on their position in society, which is chosen by factors such as occupation, age, or psychological state.

It’s estimated that the language didn’t begin until the third century with substantial texts not appearing until the eighth century. Approximately 128 million people speak Japanese with about 97 percent of them living in Japan. Japanese is also frequently spoken in some areas of Hawaii and Brazil because several Japanese immigrant communities have formed there.

Swahili Is A Mixture Of Many Different Languages

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Badru Katumba/AFP via Getty Images

Swahili is primarily spoken in Africa and is the official language of Rwanda and Uganda. It is categorized as a Bantu language and is the first language of the Swahili people of East Africa. About 30 percent of Swahili is derived from many other languages including Arabic, Persian, Hindustani, Portuguese, and Malay.

Many language experts have a hard time pinpointing the exact number of Swahili speakers, but estimate there to be around 100 to 150 million in the world. Swahili started to become popular because it was used as a trading language along the African coast.

Knowing This Language Will Help You Understand Marathi

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Satish Bate/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

The Marathi language is mainly spoken by those living in the western Indian states of Maharashtra and Goa. It is part of the Indo-Aryan language group and dates back to the third century BCE. There are about 90 million fluent Marathi speakers around the world and it’s the fourth most common language in India.

Marathi is derived from Sanskrit and now has at least 42 different dialects. It’s almost guaranteed that if someone knows Hindi that they will be able to speak and understand Marathi, even though some words have different meanings.

Telugu Sounds Very Similar To This European Language

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Creative Touch Imaging Ltd./NurPhoto via Getty Images

A language that people should expect to hear in the southeastern states of India is Telugu. It is the most common of the Dravidian languages and dates back at least to the sixth century. There are about 92 million Telugu speakers and it’s one of the few languages to have official status in more than one Indian state.

Every word in Telugu ends in a vowel and the language was nicknamed “Italian of the East” by Italian explorer and merchant Niccolò de’ Conti. He coined the term after noticing how similar it sounded to the Italian language.

Punjabi Is One Of The Most Unique Languages In The World

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Narinder Nanu/AFP via Getty Images

There are over 148 million Punjabi speakers around the world. The Indo-Aryan language is the official language of the Punjab state in India, but also has speakers in Pakistan, the United Kingdom, Canada, and the United States. Punjabi is considered a bit unusual among other languages because of its lexical tone, the distinctive pitch that gives away the meaning of each word.

When the word for “Punjabi” is translated to English it means Five Waters, which refers to the five major eastern rivers that are split between India and Pakistan. It emerged during the 12th century when the region started to produce new poetry and other writings.

Wu Chinese Dates Back To Ancient China

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Johannes Eisele/AFP via Getty Images

While Mandarin may be the most common language spoken in China, Wu Chinese follows closely behind. Wu Chinese is mainly spoken in Shanghai, but can also be heard in Jiangsu and Zhejiang. Around 85 million people are Wu Chinese speakers, which make up eight percent of China.

It is actually the oldest of the six major Chinese languages with origins that date back over 3,000 years. One of the main differences between Wu Chinese and Mandarin is that Wu Chinese uses older versions of Chinese characters. It’s also the softer and more fluid of the six Chinese languages.

Tamil Is One Of The Oldest Living Languages

An Indian student performs a folk dance of Karagattam
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Arun Sankar/AFP via Getty Images

Tamil is the official language of the Tamil people of India, Sri Lanka, and Singapore. Famous Indian literary scholar A.K. Ramanujan believed that Tamil is “one of the great classic traditions and literatures of the world.” This is because it’s one of the oldest classical languages that’s still used in contemporary India.

It’s estimated that there are 75 million Tamil speakers across the globe and when the word “Tamil” is translated to English it has several meanings such as beauty, sweet, and natural. In Karaikudi, Tamil Nadu there is a temple for a personified god of the Tamil language named Tamil Thai, meaning mother.

A Brief History Of The Turkish Language

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Chris McGrath/Getty Images

Turkish was established by the Seljuq Turks during the 11th century and became the official language for the Ottoman Turks who spread it throughout their empire. As time went on it started to gain influences from the Arabic and Persian languages.

It is the official language in Turkey and one of the official languages in Cyprus. There are now over 78 million people who speak Turkish natively, with millions more who know it as their second language. The vast majority of Turkish speakers live in Turkey.

Korean Is Extremely Diverse

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Han Myung-Gu/WireImage/Getty Images

It shouldn’t be too surprising that Korean is the official language in both North and South Korea. Something unique about Korean is that it’s classified as a language isolate. This means that it is not linked to any other language on earth. About 77 million people speak Korean, with 48 million in South Korea and 24 million in North Korea.

The main difference between Korean and English is that English has a subject, verb, and object pattern. Korean has a subject, object, and verb pattern. The Korean spoken in North Korea is also different from South Korea because they have distinct vocabularies, pronunciations, and grammatical rules.

Vietnamese Can Be Difficult To Learn

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Linh Pham/AFP via Getty Images

Although Vietnamese originated in Vietnam it is spoken in many countries around the world. This is due to a large Vietnamese emigration to places such as the United States, Australia, and the Czech Republic. Around 95 million people speak Vietnamese with 75 million currently residing in Vietnam.

Modern Vietnamese uses the Latin alphabet, but was influenced by several Chinese languages. Vietnamese is one of the more difficult languages to learn because it requires the knowledge of six different tones. To compare, Mandarin only has four tones.

How Yue Chinese Differs From Mandarin

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Anthony Wallace/AFP via Getty Images

Yue Chinese is usually spoken in southern China in the provinces of Guangdong, Guangxi, Macau, and Hong Kong. Many Chinese immigrants have brought the language around the world to places such as the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, and many more. There are now 73.5 million Yue Chinese speakers in total.

It comes from the Sinitic language group and is often referred to as Cantonese. If someone goes to an area where Yue Chinese is one of the official languages and starts speaking in Mandarin it can be considered rude by the locals. The two languages look similar, but sound very different.

Most Javanese Speakers Live On This Island

Female palace court dancers perform the ritual dance Bedhaya Semang in Java, Indonesia
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Jack Vartoogian/Getty Images

The language of Javanese comes from the central and eastern parts of the Java island in Indonesia. There are 98 million Javanese speakers, which make up about 42 percent of the population of Indonesia. Javanese is part of the Austronesian language group, but isn’t directly related to other languages.

The earliest findings of Javanese are from 804 CE in the Sukabumi inscription. New Javanese emerged in the 16th century as Islam started to become more influential in the area. The current version is called Modern Javanese and it has been around since the 20th century.

What Happened To The Italian Alphabet

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Laurent Emmanuel/AFP via Getty Images

It’s hard to miss someone speaking Italian in Italy, but there are plenty of other countries where people can hear this Romantic language. Aside from Italy, Italian is the official language in Switzerland, San Marino, Malta, and Vatican City. It’s estimated that 87 million people speak Italian, with 63 million native speakers.

There are only 21 letters in the Italian alphabet because it excludes j, k, w, x, and y. One thing to notice if you’re visiting Italy is the different dialects in each region, but standard Italian is based on the Tuscan dialect.

Hausa Is More Common Than You’d Think

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Pius Utomi Ekpei/AFP via Getty Images

The native people of Niger and Nigeria are the dominant groups who speak Hausa. They make up the largest ethnic group in Sub-Saharan Africa with a total of about 150 million Hausa speakers. Hausa is based on tone where pitch differences add meanings to words.

It’s written using versions of both the Arabic and Latin alphabets and started to be taught outside of Africa as early as 1885 in Berlin. Since there are about 521 languages spoken in Nigeria, it is ranked as one of the most popular. Hausa is the only Nigerian language to be broadcast by foreign stations.

Gujarati: From India To The United Kingdom

A young woman studies Gujarati in school.
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Arijit Sen/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

Gujarati is an Indo-Aryan language that dates back 700 years. As the native language of the Gujarati people, it is the sixth most popular language in India and 26th most popular in the world. Around 55.5 million people speak Gujarati–only 4.5% of India.

But Gujarati doesn’t only exist in India. Residents of southeast Africa, the United Kingdom, and the Middle East also speak the language. Gujarati is closely related to other languages with Arabic script, such as Kutchi and Parkari Koli. It is also responsible for the English words ‘bungalow’ and ‘tank.’

Persian (Fārsī) Has Hardly Changed Since Ancient Times

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ATTA KENARE/AFP via Getty Images

Persian, often called Fārsī, stems from one of the world’s oldest languages. It extended from Old Persian, with the oldest resource dating back to the third century. You can thank Persian for shaping other Iranian languages such as Georgian, Urdu, and Armenian.

Today, over 52 million people speak Fārsī. Outside of Iran, the language is spoken in South Asia and India. The modern language is similar to its ancient origin. Unlike other languages, Persian does not distinguish between subjects, pronouns, and direct or indirect objects. Instead, it uses suffixes (sounds added to the end of a word) to make its nouns.

Polish Has Letters That Don’t Exist Anywhere Else

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Michal Fludra/NurPhoto via Getty Images

As the name suggests, Polish is the official language of Poland. This West Slavic language has some roots in Latin, although it is more closely related to Slovak and Czech. On top of the standard Latin alphabet, Polish has added nine other letters: ą, ć, ę, ł, ń, ó, ś, ź, and ż. Some of these letters don’t appear in any other alphabet.

Over 40 million people speak Polish, including citizens of Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom, Argentina, Brazil, Israel, and the United States. A unique aspect of Polish is digraphs, which are two letters combined to form one sound. These include cz, ch, sz, rz, dz, and .

Bhojpuri Is Mainly Oral

Artists sign a poster of a Bhojpuri film.
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Vijayananda Gupta/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

Bhojpuri is one of the Hindi dialects spoken in northern India and Nepal. Bhojpuri is a direct descendant of Sanskrit, and it inspired other Indian languages such as Fiji Hindi. Although it is not an established literary language, it’s a popular oral language used by 5% of the Earth’s population.

However, Bhojpuri can be written in the Devanagari script. The Kaith script was used in the past. The language has around 34 consonants (depending on how you count them), and many words begin and end with consonants. Unlike other languages, stress does not distinguish a word’s meaning in Bhojpuri.

How Urdu Is Different From Hindi

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Creative Touch Imaging Ltd./NurPhoto via Getty Images

Although many languages have descended from Urdu, the original language still exists. In fact, over 170 million people speak Urdu today. Despite being closely related to Hindi, Urdu originally came from Arabic and Persian. It is most commonly spoken in India and Pakistan, where it is the official state language.

Although Urdu borrows some consonants from Persian, it sounds closer to Hindi. Urdu uses more Perso-Arabic prefixes and suffixes than Sanskrit languages, but 99% of its words come from Sanskrit. Its similarity to Hindi makes it easy to combine as Hindustani.

Dutch Is “In Between” German And English

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Sebastian Kahnert/picture alliance via Getty Images

Dutch is the third most popular Germanic language in the world, behind its close relatives, German and English. In fact, Dutch is often said to be colloquially “in between” English and German. Although it is mainly spoken in the Netherlands, over 24 million people use this language worldwide.

The word Dutch comes from the old Germanic word theodisk, which was used for people who did not speak Latin. Old Dutch branched off around the same time as Old English, although its grammar is more similar to German. Modern Dutch speakers borrow many words from English, including saying “Hello” and “Hallo.”

Odia Rarely Borrows From Other Languages

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Sanjeev Verma/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

Despite its long history, Odia has not borrowed much from other languages. Odia, sometimes called Oriya, is the official language of the Indian state Odisha. Early inscriptions date back to the tenth century, when the language descended from Prakrit. It has influenced much of modern Persian and Arabic.

Although Odia has influenced other languages, it has hardly changed throughout the centuries. Like other Indo-Aryan languages, most of Odia’s grammar and vocabulary comes from Sanskrit. Odia is agglutinative; it adds suffixes to words to indicate grammar. For example, an object would have a different suffix from a subject.

How Ukrainian Differs From Russian

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STR/NurPhoto via Getty Images

As the official language of Ukraine, Ukrainian is an Eastern Slavic language that has been in use since the 17th century. When written, Ukrainian employs the Cyrillic script, the same alphabet as Turkic, Mongolic, and Russian. Although some say that Ukrainian is a vernacular of Russian, the two are distinct languages.

Despite the languages developing around the same time, Russian and Ukrainian diverged during the Russian revolution of 1917. Three Ukrainian letters are different from the Russian alphabet. Plus, one word in Russian can be spelled the same way in Ukrainian, but it may mean something entirely different!

Sindhi Has 62 Distinct Sounds

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RIZWAN TABASSUM/AFP via Getty Images

Although Sindhi is not an official language in India, it is still spoken by over 24 million people. This ancient language of the Sindhi people has migrated from northern India to Pakistan. The earliest indication of Sindhi is from the second century, when the language evolved from Middle Indo-Aryan.

Compared to other languages, Sindhi has a wide range of sounds, with 46 consonants and 16 vowels. Most words end in a vowel or semi-vowel (a sound between a consonant and a vowel). Grammar-wise, Sindhi is very similar to ancient Prakrit and other Indo-Aryan languages like Hindustani and Punjabi.

Romanian Is A Close Modern Descendant Of Latin

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DeAgostini/Getty Images

Over 24 million people speak Romanian. Outside of Romania, native speakers live in Moldova, Italy, Spain, Germany, Russia, Canada, and the U.S. It originally developed from Vulgar Latin during the fifth century in Rome. Later, native speakers connected with Slavic speakers, and Romanian became the language it is today.

Romanian places great emphasis on vowels and diphthongs, a combination of two vowels. Compared to other Romance languages, Romanian has maintained much of its original Latin grammar. Two Romanian words that have migrated into English include ‘pastrami’ and the character Dracula.

How Popular Is Pashto?

A professor teaches Pashto literature and poetry.
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MASSOUD HOSSAINI/AFP via Getty Images

Pashto, called Afghani in literature, is a Persian language and one of the official languages of Afghanistan. Pashto descended from the Northeastern Indo-Iranian group; Nothern Pashto is the most popular. Overall, over 50 million people speak some dialect of Pashto.

Pashto has two main dialects, called “soft” (Pakhto) or “hard” (Paxto). These dialects usually differ through pronunciation and some vocabulary. Unlike other Indo-Aryan languages, Pashto contains some retroflex consonants. These consonants form sound by bending the tongue back, like in many Latin words. Because Pashto’s grammar is highly complex, language students may have a hard time with this one.

Why Afrikaans Is Dying

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Jeffrey Greenberg/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Although over 20 million people speak Afrikaans, that number is decreasing. The language is a “daughter” of Dutch since it combines Dutch words with German, English, and African Khoisan languages. Around 90% of words of Afrikaans come from Dutch.

The introduction of English words has been a subject of controversy to Afrikaans speakers. Some are opposed to adopting English into the language. As a result, there is a large gap between colloquial Afrikaans and traditional, standard Afrikaans. It uses the same alphabet and sentence structure as most Latin languages (subject, verb, and object).

Swedes Can Converse With Other Language Speakers Without A Translator

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JONATHAN NACKSTRAND/AFP via Getty Images

Swedish is a Northern Germanic that is the native language of Sweden. Residents of Finland, Belgium, Switzerland, the Netherlands, and France also speak Swedish. The language developed from Old Norse around the eighth century, and it appeared in the Latin alphabet around 1225. Swedish is so closely related to Danish and Norwegian that to this day, native speakers can communicate without an interpreter.

Like English, Swedish words have few inflections compared to other languages. Along with a standard Latin alphabet, Swedish includes three more vowels, å, ä, and ö. Throughout the centuries, Swedish grammar has simplified much more than its medieval counterpart.

The Number Of Greek Speakers Has Declined

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LOUISA GOULIAMAKI/AFP via Getty Images

As one of the first Indo-European languages, Greek has influenced many other languages throughout the world. However, the number of Greek speakers has declined to just over 12 million. In ancient times, Greek was spoken throughout the Mediterranean and South Asia, but it is mainly used in Greece today.

As a language, Greek is closely related to Armenian. Modern Greek is a descendant of Proto-Greek, which appeared before the fourth century. Much of the vocabulary has not changed from Proto-Greek, but the modern language has borrowed words from French, English, and German.

Maithili Is A Common Second Language

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Burhaan Kinu/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

Over 34 million people speak Maithili throughout India and Nepal. Maithili (also spelled Matili or Methli) is an Indo-Aryan language closely related to Bhojpuri and Magahi. The language has many different dialects, which are largely based on caste. Its vowel sounds can either be oral or nasal.

The earliest example of Maithili came from a collection of Buddhist mythical verses from the seventh century. Because of its long literary tradition, many people speak Maithili as a second language. The language stemmed from Sanskrit, and it has been influenced by Hindi, Bengali, and English. It is written in the Mithilakshar script, which looks similar to Bengali.