Top Ten Languages To Master In The 21st Century

It’s hard to imagine a young person nowadays who doesn’t speak or study at least one language besides their mother tongue. Globalization forces so many people to communicate and cooperate more in a variety of businesses. But, what are the most important languages of the 21st century?

From academic collaboration and professional networking, to transport and traveling—the modern world simply requires us to use different languages. But there are more than 7,000 languages worldwide and it seems difficult to pick the most important languages.

But, it’s not really that confusing, as only 23 languages account for more than half of the world’s population. And, of those, the following 10 could be considered the most important languages.

When you think about the languages you would like to learn, consider your future plans and think about how you see yourself in the coming years. Language experts from often say that language learning depends on personal preferences and practical reasons to master a language. So, you shouldn’t decide the most important languages simply by chance.

If you need help to decide, here are some very good reasons to learn these 10 most important languages:

1. Mandarin Chinese (1.1 billion speakers)

Number of native speakers: 897 million
Number of non-native speakers: 193 million
Total speakers: 1.09 billion
Name in the language itself:
普通话 (Putonghua)
Language family: Sino-Tibetan
Related to: Cantonese, Tibetan, Burmese

People sometimes speak of “Chinese” as if it’s a single language. It’s actually a group of related languages, of which Mandarin Chinese is by far the biggest. It’s an official language in the People’s Republic of China, the Republic of China (Taiwan), and Singapore. The native name for Mandarin, Putonghua, literally means “common speech”, although in Taiwan people call it Guoyu – “national language”. Historically, it was also called Guanhua – “the speech of officials”. Since Mandarin is more common in northern China, it’s sometimes referred to as beifanghua (北方话) – “Northern Dialects”.

2. English (983 million speakers)

Number of native speakers: 371 million
Number of non-native speakers: 611 million
Total number of speakers: 983 million
Language-family: Germanic, a sub-family of Indo-European.
Related to: German, Dutch, Frisian
Name in the language itself: English. But you already knew that.

Thanks to the historical dominance of the British Empire – and, more recently, the economic and cultural clout of the United States – English is well-established as th English vocabulary is Latin in origin, having been introduced by the French-speaking Normans who conquered Britain in the 11th century A.D.he world’s lingua franca (if only there were other contenders for an international language), and is the second most spoken language in the world.

The name “English” comes from the “Angles”, a Germanic people who settled in Britain in the first millennium A.D.. They ultimately derived their name from Anglen, a region in northern Germany, and of course they gave their name to the area now known as England.

At its core, English is a Germanic language. Its vocabulary and sentence structure are closest to modern languages like German and Dutch. However, it’s been heavily influenced by other languages throughout its strange history. Much English vocabulary is Latin in origin, having been introduced by the French-speaking Normans who conquered Britain in the 11th century A.D.

3. Hindustani (544 million speakers)

Number of native speakers: 329 million
Number of non-natives: 215 million
Total number of speakers: 544 million
Language family: Indo-Aryan, a sub-family of Indo-European.
Related to: Bengali, Punjabi, Marathi, Kashmiri, Nepali
Name in the language itself:
हिन्दुस्तानी or ہندوستانی

Hindustani is the collective name for Hindi and Urdu – two dialects of the same language. The name comes from Hindustan, a historical term for the north/north-western part of the Indian subcontinent.

Hindi is spoken across northern and central India, and is the official language of the Indian government. Urdu is primarily spoken in Pakistan. While Hindi and Urdu have differences in vocabulary and pronunciation, speakers of either language can easily communicate with each other.

A notable difference between Hindi and Urdu is that they use different writing systems. Hindi is usually written in in Devanagari script – called “देवनागरी” in the script itself. Urdu, on the other hand, is written right-to-left with a script that’s closely related to the Arabic alphabet. The name “Urdu” itself is written “اُردُو”.

4. Spanish (527 million speakers)

Number of native speakers: 436 million
Number of non-native speakers: 91 million
Total number of speakers: 527 million
Language family: Romance, a sub-family of Indo-European.
Related to: French, Portuguese, Italian, Romanian
Name in the language itself:
español or castellano

¡Sí señor! By number of native speakers, Spanish is the second biggest language in the world (behind only Mandarin). By total speakers, it’s at number four.

The language now known as Spanish originated in the Castile region of Spain. For this reason, it’s sometimes referred to as “Castilian” – castellano In the language itself. Since then, Spanish explorers and conquistadores have spread their language all around the world. It’s spoken all across South and Central America and the Caribbean, with pockets of speakers in Southeast Asia and even Africa.

(Trivia tidbit: Equatorial Guinea is the only country in Africa to have Spanish as an official language.)

Spanish is also the second most-common language in the United States, which People sometimes speak of “Chinese” as if it’s a single language. It’s actually a group of related languages, of which Mandarin Chinese is by far the biggest. It’s an official language in the People’s Republic of China, the Republic of China (Taiwan), and Singapore. The native name for Mandarin, Putonghua, literally means “common speech”, although in Taiwan people call it Guoyu – “national language”. Historically, it was also called Guanhua – “the speech of officials”. Since Mandarin is more common in northern China, it’s sometimes referred to as beifanghua (北方话) – “Northern Dialects”.is home to a whopping 40 million native speakers. This makes the U.S. the second-biggest Spanish-speaking country in the world, behind only Mexico – and it’s predicted that, within our lifetimes, it’ll overtake Mexico and become the largest.

5. Arabic (422 million speakers)

Number of native speakers: 290 million
Number of non-natives: 132 million
Total number of speakers: 422 million
Language family: Semitic, a sub-family of Afro-Asiatic.
Related to: Hebrew, Amharic, and Aramaic.
Name in the language itself:
العَرَبِيَّة‎‎ (
al-ʻarabiyyah)

Arabic is the official language of 26 countries, although some have argued that it’s not really one language, but several.

If we leave this aside and assume that there’s a single tongue called “Arabic”, then it’s a massive language, with over 400 million speakers. It originated on the Arabian peninsula, and has since spread all across the Middle East and North Africa.

That was 1400 years ago, and modern Arabic dialects have changed a lot since the “Classical Arabic” of the Quran. As well as their local dialects, many Arabs also speak “Modern Standard Arabic”, an academic dialect that’s based on Classical Arabic.

6. Malay (281 million speakers)

Number of native speakers: 77 million
Number of non-natives: 204 million
Total number of speakers: 281 million
Language family: Austronesian
Related to: Javanese, Tagalog
Name in the language itself:
bahasa melayu

Malay is an official language in Singapore, Brunei, Indonesia, and Malaysia. You can also hear it being spoken in parts of Thailand and the Philippines. It’s by far the largest of the Austronesian languages – a family that’s thought to have originated in Taiwan.

The area in which Malay is spoken is extremely linguistically diverse. Indonesia alone is home to more than 700 living languages! Bahasa melayu, as it’s known, has a long history in the region as a Lingua franca, the language of government and trade.

Except Indonesians don’t call it bahasa melayu (Malay), they call it bahasa indonesia (Indonesian). Malaysians call it bahasa malyasia (Malaysian). These dialects are mutually intelligible, and shouldn’t be considered separate languages.

Just whatever you do, don’t call it “Bahasa”! For some reason, foreigners often call it this, but the word bahasa simply means “language”. Malay isn’t called “Bahasa” any more than Spanish is called “Idioma”. You have been warned.

7. Russian (267 million speakers)

Number of native speakers: 153 million
Number of non-natives: 113 million
Total number of speakers: 267 million
Language family: East Slavic, a sub-family of Indo-European
Related to: Ukrainian, Belarusian
Name in the language itself: ру́сский язы́к, (rússkiy yazýk)

The largest of the Slavic languages, Russian is the official language of four countries (Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan). It’s also widely spoken in many other countries of the former Soviet Union, and has official status in numerous sub-national territories.

Russian’s closest relatives include Ukrainian and Belarusian. The three are all descended from the language that was spoken in the medieval state of the Kievan Rus. More distantly, they’re related to other Slavic languages like Polish, Czech, Slovak, Bulgarian, and Serbo-Croat.

By number ofnative speakers, Russian is the biggest language in Europe. Like many of the Slavic languages, it’s written with the Cyrillic alphabet (see here for some tips on how you can learn it.)

8. Bengali (261 million speakers)

Number of native speakers: 242 million
Number of non-natives: 19 million
Total number of speakers: 261 million
Language family: Indo-Aryan, a sub-family of Indo-European.
Related to: Hindustani, Punjabi, Marathi, Kashmiri, Nepali
Name in the language itself:
বাংলা (Bangla)10. French (229 million speakers)

Sometimes known in English by its native name Bangla, Bengali is the official language of Bangladesh and of several Indian states. In fact, it’s the the second most widely spoken language in India.

Like Hindustani (mentioned above), Bengali is an Indo-Aryan language. This is a branch of the Indo-European family; other branches include the Romance and Germanic languages. In other words, Bengali and Hindustani are (believe it or not) distant cousins of English.

Bengali is written in the Bengali alphabet, sometimes known as Eastern Nagari or Bengali-Assamese script. It’s related to Tibetan script. Natively, “bengali alphabet” translates to “bangla bôrnômala”. In the alphabet itself, that looks like this: বাংলা বর্ণমালা.

Bengali script is relatively unknown in the West, but it’s actually the fifth most widely-used writing system in the 10. French (229 million speakers)world. More people worldwide write in Bengali script than in Cyrillic!

9. Portuguese (229 million speakers)

Number of native speakers: 218 million
Number of non-natives: 11 million
Total number of speakers: 229 million
Language family: Romance, a sub-branch of Indo-European.
Related to: French, Spanish, Italian, Romanian
Name in the language itself:
português

Portuguese developed from Latin and is closely related to modern Spanish. The name comes from “Portugal”, whose name in turn comes from Porto, the second-largest city in that country. But the word porto in Portuguese simply means “port”.

Someone who speaks Portuguese is called a Lusophone. This word comes from “Lusitania”, the Roman name for the area that’s now Portugal. The vast majority of Lusophones live in Brazil, which has more than twice as many Portuguese speakers than the rest of the world put together!

The Portuguese empire once stretched far and wide, from South America to Africa to as far as India and Southeast Asia. Today, Portuguese is an official language in nine countries, as well as in the Chinese territory of Macau.

Personally, I find Brazilian Portuguese to be an extremely beautiful language. That’s just one Of many great reasons to learn it.


10. French (229 million speakers)

Number of native speakers: 76 million
Number of non-natives: 153 million
Total number of speakers: 229 million
Language family: Romance, a sub-branch of Indo-European.
Related to: Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, Romanian
Name in the language itself:
le français

Rounding up the top 10 is French, another Romance language. It’s the official language of 28 countries, with the highest number of speakers in France, Canada, Belgium, then Switzerland (in that order). It’s also widely spoken in parts of Western and Central Africa, on several Caribbean islands, and even on the South American mainland (in the French overseas department of French Guiana.)

French is a Romance language, but over the centuries it’s taken on heavy influence from Celtic and Germanic tongues. In fact, the language (and country) are named after the Franks, a collection of tribes from the Middle Ages whose language, Frankish, was Germanic, not Romance.

Frankish is now extinct, but it’s believed to have contributed many words to modern French vocabulary. French, in turn, contributed many words to English vocabulary, largely thanks to the Norman invasion of Britain in 1066.

As well as the countries and territories that speak French today, many people worldwide speak French-based creoles – particularly in Haiti, where most of the population speak Haitian Creole as their only language. Haitian Creole is heavily influenced by French, but different enough to be considered a separate language.

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