Numbers vary widely — Ethnologue puts the number of native speakers at 1.3 billion native speakers, roughly 1.1 billion of whom speak Mandarin — but there’s no doubt it’s the most spoken language in the world.
If we were only to look at native speakers, Spanish has its nose in front of English with about 471 million speakers. If you want a language that will open up whole continents to you, Spanish is your best bet.
If you’re reading this article, you may be one of the 370 million-odd native English speakers, or one of the 978 million people who speak it as a second language. This indicates the remarkable success of English as the lingua franca of business, travel and international relations.
India has 23 official languages, with Hindi/Urdu chief among them. Whether this is one language — Hindustani — or two dialects is still fiercely debated. If you ever travel in the Indian subcontinent, a little Hindi will get you a long way.
Recent numbers put Arabic at around 315 million native speakers. But this is another instance of numbers not telling the full tale: Arabic, like Chinese, is so vastly different in its respective dialects as to be effectively a number of languages, grouped as one for the sake of convenience.
Today, Portuguese is spoken by 232 million native speakers in countries like Brazil, Goa, Angola, Mozambique, Cape Verde, Guinea-Bisseau, São Tomé and Príncipe and Macau. It’s also the language of Machado de Assis, Bossa Nova, Mia Couto, Fernando Pessoa and Agualusa.
With roughly 154 million native speakers, Russian is the eighth most spoken language in the world. Famed for its inscrutable grammar and quite lovely Cyrillic script, it remains one of the six languages spoken in the United Nations, and produced the literary likes of Dostoyevsky, Nabokov, Chekhov, Gogol, Tolstoy and Pushkin.