The Most Spoken Second Languages In The World (In Order)


Language is an important part of any culture, and you can learn a lot about a country based on the most popular languages present. It is easy to identify the most common first languages in the world. But determining the most spoken second languages can be a bit more difficult. 

The most spoken second languages in the world in order are:

  1. English
  2. Hindi 
  3. French
  4. Mandarin Chinese 
  5. Indonesian 
  6. Russian
  7. Urdu
  8. Swahili 
  9. Spanish
  10. Standard German 

In this post, we will walk through the most popular second languages around the world. Each language has its own history and connection to the country in which it is spoken. We will also compare the most common second languages to the most common first languages.

The Most Spoken Second Languages In The World 

There are nine languages that are most spoken as second languages. However, determining the overall most spoken second languages in the world has garnered some debate, especially as to their rank by the numbers.

It can be confusing because a second language is considered a foreign language, or the language that falls outside of the official language of the country in which you reside. You can read more about learning a second language here, where I address it in detail.

The most common second language will vary by country. However, when looking at the world as a whole, you get nine languages that are the most common second languages.

The following chart is a comparison of the most popular second and first languages as ranked by Ethnologue:

Language SpokenRank As Most Spoken Second LanguageRank As Most Spoken First Language
English11
Hindi23
French35
Mandarin Chinese42
Indonesian510
Russian68
Urdu711
Swahili814
Spanish94
Standard German1012

As you can see based on the comparisons above, English ranks number one as both the most spoken first language and the most spoken second language around the world. But the other most spoken second languages fall at different intervals in the most spoken first language category. 

English

In the world, there are just over 1.2 billion English language speakers. With this many English speakers, it makes sense that this language ranks number one as the most spoken second language in the world. 

The following are some quick facts about the English language:

  • 898.4 million people speak English as their second language
  • It has more than 1.2 billion speakers in the world
  • It is a language that falls into the Germanic branch
  • It is in the Indo-European family of languages

Even though English is ranked number one as both first and second languages, the other languages on our most spoken second languages list do not match up. 

Hindi 

Hindi is the second most spoken second language. Hindi is popularly spoken in India and is spoken by over 600 million people around the world. Most native speakers reside in India. 

Hindi was actually derived from Hindustani of North India during the 1800s. This language is similar to Urdu, which falls lower on our list of most spoken second languages.

The following is a brief list of facts about Hindi:

  • 342 million people speak it as a first language
  • 637 million people speak Hindi
  • Hindi is spoken as a second language by more than 295 million people
  • It is an Indo-Aryan language
  • This language is most common in India

In addition to being the predominant language in India, it is spoken in the following countries:

  • Fiji
  • Suriname
  • Nepal
  • Trinidad and Tobago

Hindi borrows quite a bit from the English language, which means that some words are pronounced the same. The grammar associated with the Hindi language is usually one of the more difficult aspects of the language to master. 

French

French is another popular second language. Many French words are actually used in some form in the English language (I address cognates in this article here.). Even still, French has fewer words than the number in the English language. Another fun fact: one of the oldest known written documents in the world was written in French. 

The following is a list of key facts about French:

  • 199.3 million people speak French as a second language
  • French is one of the romance languages
  • It is ranked third among second languages that are spoken around the world
  • Only 77.3 million people speak French as a first language

French is similar to both Italian and Spanish, as they are all romance languages. The most confusing parts of learning French are:

  • Four different accents – Acute, grave, circumflex, and trema are the accents used in French. 
  • Gender – Some words are assigned a grammatical gender that must be considered in writing the language. 
  • Nasal sounds – An uncommon or nonexistent pronunciation in English
  • Verb conjugation – Irregular verbs can be difficult to learn

Also, in French, they consider “y” a vowel, and the sound used to pronounce a “u” does not actually exist in English. This adds to the difficulties in pronunciation. 

This Latin-derived language is very popular as a second language, but it is less popular as a first language. French is spoken widely around the world, including in the following places:

  • Belgium
  • Cambodia
  • Central Africa
  • Luxembourg
  • Madagascar
  • Monaco
  • Northern Africa
  • Other French territories 
  • Quebec
  • Switzerland
  • Vietnam

Mandarin Chinese 

Even though 921 million people around the world speak Mandarin Chinese, a majority of these people reside in China, where it would naturally be their first language. And since China is so population-dense, it is ranked as the second most spoken language in the world. Even so, it only ranks fourth among second language learning and acquisition. 

The following is a list of facts about Mandarin Chinese:

  • 1.12 billion people speak Mandarin Chinese around the world
  • 198.7 million people speak Mandarin Chinese as a second language
  • As a first language, Mandarin Chinese is spoken by 921 million people
  • Includes standard Chinese
  • Is derived from Sino-Tibetan languages

Mandarin Chinese can seem like a daunting language to learn, but it offers straightforward grammar. The difficulty lies in mastering the tonal aspect of the language. Mandarin Chinese uses changes in pitch to change the meaning of the word being said. 

The alphabet is not similar to the English Latin-based alphabet, so there is a learning curve with the script in writing and reading Mandarin Chinese. 

Indonesian 

Indonesian is the official language of Indonesia, and it is spoken as a second language in many other countries. For this reason, Indonesian ranks at number five on our list of most spoken second languages in the world. 

Indonesian was originally known as Malay, and its name changed to Bahasa Indonesia. This phrase translates to “the language of Indonesia.”

Some of the dialects of Indonesian are spoken in the following countries:

  • Australia
  • Brunei
  • Malaysia
  • Philippines
  • Singapore
  • South Africa
  • Sri Lanka
  • Thailand
  • Timor

Indonesian is Austronesian, and other languages in this family include Maori and Filipino. It is unrelated to the English language, but native English speakers do not find it too difficult to learn and to develop fluency. 

Russian

Many former countries in the Soviet Union speak Russian as a second language. Russian is the sixth most spoken second language in the world. It is derived from Slavic and was standardized in the 1700s. 

The Russian language was further simplified after the Russian Revolution in the early 1900s. It has been speculated that Russian is actually one of the more difficult languages to learn if you do not know other Slavic languages. This is due to the following aspects of the language:

  • Grammar
  • Noun endings
  • Pronunciation
  • Verb usage

Here is the following list of some statistics and facts about Russian:

  • About 104 million people speak Russian as a second language
  • Around 154 million people speak Russian as a first language
  • The official second language of Estonia and Latvia
  • Spoken by 258 million people worldwide
  • Used as a common language among former Soviet countries
  • Uses Cyrillic script

Learning Russian may help you learn some other East Slavic languages like Ukrainian and Belarussian, but it will be easier to speak:

  • Bosnian
  • Bulgarian
  • Croatian
  • Czech
  • Polish
  • Serbian
  • Slovak
  • Slovene

In addition to all the languages that will be easier to understand, the following is a list of countries that also commonly speak the Russian language:

  • Belarus
  • Kazakhstan
  • Ukraine

Another fun fact: Russian is learned by astronauts, as it is used on the International Space Station as an official language alongside English. Russian is spoken widely throughout all of Europe. 

Urdu

Urdu is one of the official languages of Pakistan, and it is spoken throughout India. These regions make up the majority of Urdu speakers. The Urdu language is ranked at number seven in the most spoken second languages in the world ranking. Both Punjabi and Hindi are similar to Urdu. It is also common to speak Urdu in many Muslim communities, including those in the Middle East. 

In addition to the Middle East, Urdu is commonly spoken in the following countries:

  • Bangladesh
  • India
  • Nepal
  • Pakistan 
  • United Kingdom

Urdu has 52 characters in its alphabet, making it almost double the size of the English alphabet. The alphabet borrows significantly from Arabic, Persian, and Sanskrit. Some of the letters in Urdu do not equate to English pronunciations easily. 

In learning Urdu, pronunciations can vary, and reading can be challenging. You read and write Urdu from right to left. 

Learning Urdu can be extra tricky for many as a second language because Urdu is read and written from right to left.

Swahili 

One fun fact is the phrase Hakuna Matata meaning “no worries,” is a Swahili phrase!

Swahili is ranked at number eight in terms of the most spoken second languages around the world. It is a common African language spoken by a total of 99 million people around the world, and it is similar to English in its lack of lexical tone. This makes it one of the easier African languages to learn by native English speakers. 

Swahili is a Bantu language that is commonly spoken in the following countries in sub-Saharan Africa:

  • Burundi
  • Comoros Islands
  • The Democratic Republic of the Congo
  • Kenya
  • Malawi
  • Mozambique 
  • Northern parts of Zambia
  • Rwanda
  • Tanzania
  • Uganda

One fun fact is the phrase Hakuna Matata meaning “no worries,” is a Swahili phrase! Swahili uses the same alphabet as English but does not use the letters X or Q in their language. 

If you want to learn a new language, Swahili would be a good option for you. And I also encourage you to get Disney’s The Lion King, available from Amazon, to make your studies even more enjoyable!

Spanish

Spanish is one of the most spoken native languages ranking at number four. As a second language, it is spoken by far fewer people. Spanish is ranked at number nine among the most spoken second languages. However, around 21 million students are learning the language. This makes it one of the most popular languages studied around the world, too. 

The United States is actually the second-largest Spanish-speaking country. And just under 75 million people speak Spanish as their second language. And the oldest known written document in Spanish is from the 10th century. 

Spanish is unique in many ways, including the following points:

  • Also called Castellano 
  • Borrows words from Amerindian and Arabic
  • Inverted or upside-down exclamation points and question marks
  • Originally the Spanish language began as the language of Castile
  • Words without a one-to-one word translation

Spanish is the official language of 31 different countries, making it one of the more popular native languages. And in addition to being spoken in Spain, its country of origin, Spanish is also spoken in the following countries:

  • Africa
  • Asia
  • Central America
  • Equatorial Guinea
  • Philippines 
  • South America
  • United States

Learning Spanish will make it easier to learn other romance languages like:

  • French
  • Italian
  • Portuguese
  • Romanian 

Spanish is not only popular due to its ease in learning, but in its similarity to other languages. If you are interested in learning Spanish, I’ve written more about it here.  

Standard German 

Standard German ranks at number ten on our list of most spoken second languages in the world. It is another Indo-European language. Standard German is sometimes referred to as High German or Hochdeutsch. 

Standard German came from the Middle High German dialects in the 16th century. But it was not standardized completely until the 19th century. As such, it was written in the Fraktur script, which was later retired from use after the second world war. 

As it adopted the Latin alphabet, it also added four more letters. These letters are known collectively as “die Umlaute.”

German is similar to the following languages:

  • Dutch or Flemish
  • English
  • Frisian

Many countries speak German, including the following:

  • Austria
  • Belgium
  • France
  • Germany
  • Italy
  • Liechtenstein
  • Switzerland

If you are a native English speaker, learning German can be difficult. These languages are related, but it has a different structure. It is also descriptive, which means word combinations are commonly used in German. 

One last fun fact about the German language is that it has some lengthy words, the longest of which is now obsolete.

Our family is German descent and as such, my husband, Mat, and daughter, Alexis, speak it fluently, and both are self-taught! So yes, it can be difficult for native English-speaking Americans to learn, but certainly not impossible.

As we wrap up our list of the most spoken second languages in the world, let us recap some of the more prominent statistics before we close up this post. 

A Final Comparison By The Numbers

As we presented the top ten most spoken second languages in the world, we highlighted some important statistics. Seeing the numbers in one chart may help you decide what language you want to learn next, especially if you are looking to choose one of the more popular second languages. 

The following chart consolidates the information on the number of second-language speakers presented throughout this post:

Language SpokenRank As Most Spoken Second LanguageNumber of Speakers in MillionsDifficulty in Learning
English1898.4Hard due to grammar rules
Hindi2295.3Can be difficult to learn because of pronunciation and grammar
French3199.3Can be difficult to pronounce and remember the grammar rules
Mandarin Chinese4198.7There is a large difficulty in mastering the tonal aspect, in addition to the entirely new script and alphabet
Indonesian5155.4Can be difficult because it is unrelated to English
Russian6104.3Very difficult to learn because of pronunciation and grammar
Urdu7101.6Challenging due to changes in reading and writing direction
Swahili882.3A simpler African language with strong similarities to English
Spanish974.9One of the easiest to learn if you are familiar with English or other romance languages 
Standard German1056.1Difficult to get used to structure and descriptiveness 

This chart has been customized and adapted from this one on Wikipedia to include the relevant information in this article.

Again, these are just the facts and ultimately, there are many factors to consider when picking a second language to learn, namely what’s most important to you. But keep in mind that English is the top spoken language in both native or first languages, and foreign or second languages. 

The Final Talking Point on The Most Spoken Second Languages In The World

Language is important no matter where you go and no matter which language you speak. It is the basis for all communication. English is the most spoken second language when looking at the entire world. 

Many words are borrowed from the English language in the other most spoken second languages discussed in the post. 

While the ease in which you could learn one of the most spoken second languages will vary from person to person, do not let difficulties discourage you. Learning a new language is a challenge all by itself, without considering the language you are trying to learn.

Jackie Booe

Jackie Booe is a licensed teacher for elementary through high school in 3 states. She is a former adjunct professor at the undergraduate level and certified to teach elementary, secondary English, and English Language Learners. She was a mentor for many education interns, has taught and coordinated professional development for teachers and educators, and professionally tutored in a multitude of subjects.

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