There is a list of the world's languages, called "Ethnologue" (Grimes 1996). There are 6,500 living languages listed. Of these, 6,000 have registered population figures. 52% of the 6,000 languages are spoken by less than 10,000 people, and 28% are spoken by less than 1,000 people. 83% of them are limited to single countries.
The ten largest languages in the world are the first languages for nearly half of the world's population.
Here is a list of the top 10 languages in February 1999 according to Ethnologue:
The figures refer to the number of people who have the language as their first language. If those speakers who have learnt the language as a foreign language were to be included, English might be at the top of the list.
Arabic would be among the 10 most widely spoken languages, if it were to be counted as one language. Ethnologue lists ten variants of spoken Arabic among its top 100. The biggest of these is Egyptian Arabic with 42.5 million speakers. If they were to be counted as one and the same language, Arabic would come out sixth with 175 million speakers, and Wu would drop out of the top ten.
These figures are from 1999, so some languages may have shifted postions on the list for demographical reasons, and then particularly in positions 4 through 7, where also Arabic might turn up, see above.
The branch of linguistics which is called comparative philology, has classified the world's languages into different families. All of the relationships within the families are not yet clear, and therefore the classification must be seen as preliminary.
The languages within a family usually share a common language, from which they developed. However, sometimes languages are considered to be related just because they happen to be geographically close to one another.
You can look at "Mark Rosenfelder's maps of the world's language families (in a new window, close it to get back here).
The Indo-European language family is the most researched of all the families. Languages, which belong to this family, are spoken in India, Pakistan, Iran, and nearly all of Europe. The Indo-European language family has been split into smaller language groups:
Persian and Kurdish are also a part of the Indo-Iranian language group.
The remaining language groups within the Indo-European language family are considerably smaller.
Beside the Indo-European languages there are also a few other language families represented in Europe. The two largest are the Turkic language group, spoken by about 40 million speakers in Turkey, and the Finno-Ugric language group. Finnish, Estonian, Saami, and Hungarian belong to the Finno-Ugric language group. Another interesting language in Europe is Basque, which is spoken in the Basque region in northern Spain and in a small part of southwestern France. Basque, as far as we know, has no known relatives. The languages in Africa are usually divided into four language families:
Besides these four language families, several Indo-European languages are spoken in Africa, such as English, French, Portuguese, German, and Afrikaans.
The Indo-European languages are spoken by many people in Asia, especially in India, Pakistan, and the Middle East. The Afro-Asian languages are also well represented in the Middle East, especially Arabic.
The Sino-Tibetan language family has the largest number of speakers. This language family is estimated to have 1 billion speakers. Mandarin is the largest language within this family. It is spoken by about 700 million people in northern China. Other large languages in this family are Hakka, Wu, and Yue (Cantonese). These languages are spoken in China. Sometimes, they are called Chinese, but the people who speak these different languages can not understand one another. The reason why they are often lumped together as Chinese is due to the fact that they all share the same written language.
Other languages within the Sino-Tibetan language family are Burmese, Tibetan, and Taiwanese. The relationships between the languages of this family are unclear and disputed.
The Malayo-Polynesian language family is another large language family in Asia and Oceania. It has about 200 million speakers and covers a vast geographical area from Madagascar via Indonesia to Hawaii. After Indo-European, this is the most widespread language family in the world.
The largest languages within the Malayo-Polynesian language family are Javanese, Indonesian, Tagalog (found in the Philippines), and Malay. These belong to the Indonesian (West) branch of the Malayo-Polynesian language family.
The Polynesian (East) branch is usually divided up into Micronesian, Polynesian, and Melanesian languages. Among these you also find Fiji and Maori (the latter spoken in New Zealand).
The Dravidian language family is spoken by 160 million speakers in southern India. The largest languages in this family are Tamil and Telugu each have about 55 million speakers. The Australian language family is significantly smaller than the others. Its languages spoken by the Australian aborigines.
There are also a number of languages whose relationships have not been thoroughly investigated. The largest are Japanese (120 million speakers), Korean (60 million speakers), Vietnamese (50 million speakers), and Thai (40 million speakers). Thai and Vietnamese are considered distant relatives, but neither Japanese nor Korean have any known relatives.
The languages of New Guinea, which number about 700, are usually grouped into a Papuan language family, but only because of its geographic position. The relationships of the languages in the family are unclear.
Indo-European languages were the colonial languages in America, especially English and Spanish. Only a few of the languages that were spoken by the original inhabitants are still spoken. They are usually grouped together under the name American Indian languages. This term covers 20 different families with several languages in each. The largest languages are Quechua (spoken in Bolivia and Peru) and Guaraní (spoken in Paraguay). If you want to know more about where the different languages are spoken see the World Map.