Are you looking for a list of German speaking countries? How about insights into the number of German speakers spread around the world? In this post, I dive into the Germanosphere to take a look at everything from regional dialects to surprising places where German is spoken. Shall we begin?
German has around 130 million speakers dotted around the world, the vast majority of whom are concentrated in the German speaking countries in Europe. The main countries where German is spoken include Germany (obviously), along with Belgium, Austria and Switzerland.
Sprechen Sie Deutsche? I love the German language. The fact that words can be up to 60 letters long makes it a fascinating language to learn, while German’s many similarities to English make it one of the easiest tongues for English speakers to pick up. (If you’re looking for a challenge, by the way, why not check out our post on which languages are the hardest to learn? Click the link below to find out more.)
Let’s start by taking a look at where German is spoken, including the six countries with German as their official language.
Read more: What Is the Hardest Language to Learn?
Which Countries Speak German?
Do you want to know which countries speak German in order to plan your post-lockdown travels? Or are you seeking to launch a new business venture and feel fired up about engaging with German engineers to manufacture your products? Either way, it can be handy to have a list of German speaking countries to hand. So, here goes:
European Countries Where German is Spoken
Where is German spoken? In Europe, mainly. There are sizeable pockets of speakers dotted elsewhere around the globe, as I talk about below, but the main places that speak German are all clustered within Europe.
In fact, there are six countries where German is listed as an official language, and all six of them lie within central and western Europe.
Germany is, of course, home to more German speakers than any other country. It is home to around 84.9 million people, of whom over 75 million (92%) speak German natively. A further 5.6 million people (7%) speak it as a second language.
Plenty of different dialects exist within Germany, naturally. It is Standard German that is used as the country’s sole official language.
Where is German spoken outside of Germany? Austria is next in terms of native speaker numbers. Austrian Standard German is the country’s sole official language.
Over 8 million people speak German as their mother tongue in Austria. In percentage terms, that means that a greater proportion of the Austrian population speaks German natively than the German population (at 93% and 92% respectively). A further 500,000 or so Austrians speak German as a second language.
Switzerland also features prominently on any German language map of Europe. The country is home to more than 5.3 million native German speakers, who account for about 64% of Switzerland’s total population. Some 400,000 or so Swiss residents also speak German as a second language.
In Switzerland, German is one of four official languages, each of which has equal status, despite vastly varying speaker numbers. The other three official languages are French, Italian and Romansh.
Next on our tour of German speaking Europe is Belgium, where Dutch, French and German are the country’s three official languages. Despite this, German is spoken natively by less than 1% of Belgium’s population, with the country being home to just 73,000 native speakers. However, some 2.4 million Belgians speak German as a second tongue, accounting for around 22% of the country’s total population.
Another of the German speaking countries in Europe is Luxembourg, where German is a national language, alongside French and Luxembourgish. The situation in Luxembourg is similar to that in Belgium, in that only a small proportion of people (11,000 of them, or 2% of the total population) speak German natively. Second language speakers, however, total 380,000, which equates to 67.5% of Luxembourg’s population.
German is the sole official language in the tiny, picturesque country of Liechtenstein, nestled between Switzerland and Austria. Over 32,000 people there (86% of the population) speak German natively and over 5,000 (the remaining 14%) speak it as a second language.
While not a country, I’ve included the autonomous province of South Tyrol in Italy in with these six European nations, as it is another location where German is recognised as an official language (as opposed to a protected language or a minority language – more on those below).
Located in northern Italy, South Tyrol sits on the country’s border with Austria, providing it with a clear geographic link with the German language, as well as with Italian, which is the province’s other official tongue. There are over 350,000 native German speakers in South Tyrol, who together account for nearly 70% of the province’s population.
Opole Voivodeship and Silesian Voivodeship, Poland
In Poland, the Opole Voivodeship and the Silesian Voivodeship both also recognise German as an official language, as they are home to notable populations of ethnic Germans. Between them, the two areas are home to around 50,000 native German speakers, though the language is not officially recognised at a national level.
Countries Where There Are a Significant Number of Speakers
While only six countries officially speak German, significant clusters of native speakers are spread across at least 42 countries worldwide. I’ll take a look at some of the larger German speaking populations now.
Though overwhelmingly a Portuguese speaking country, around 1.5 million Brazilians actually speak German as their mother tongue. It is recognised as a state-wide cultural language in Espírito Santo and as a minority language in one municipality, while eight other municipalities recognise non-standard German dialects. The language has increasingly been protected as a part of the cultural heritage of a minority of Brazilians in recent years.
Some 1.4 million native German speakers live in the US, earning it a place on any noteworthy list of countries that speak German. In the state of North Dakota, German is the second most spoken language after English, while in a further 16 states, it is the third most spoken language (after English and Spanish).
German speaking countries in Africa are few and far between. However, despite English being the sole official language of Namibia for over two decades, German is still recognised there as a national language (essentially, a minority tongue).
It is spoken natively by around 31,000 Namibians and as a second tongue by tens of thousands more, particularly in the central and southern parts of the country. It is sufficiently widespread that German is taught in many Namibian schools and the country also provides daily programming in German and a German language daily newspaper.
Although not officially one of the German speaking countries in Europe, France is still home to a sizable population of native German speakers – around 750,000 of them. That’s around 1.2% of the total French population.
Canada is home to over 600,000 German speakers. They are dotted about the country, with the main clusters located in British Columbia and Ontario.
The Varieties of German Spoken in Different Countries and Their Differences
The Standard German spoken in Germany varies significantly from the variants of the language that are spoken elsewhere around the world. Most variations of the language are mutually intelligible, but there are notable differences in pronunciation, in grammar, in orthography and more.
As is the case with so many languages, the closer the geographical locations, the more similar the varieties. I’d like to run through a few of these regional variations and dialects right now. To my mind, tracing the way that languages evolve is one of the most fascinating aspects of studying new tongues, so let’s take a quick look at this now in respect of the German language.
Austrian Standard German is mutually intelligible with Standard German, though there are plenty of words that differ between the two languages. In Germany, you might eat kartoffel, tomate and hackfleisch (potato, tomato and ground beef), for example, but in Austria you would need to order erdapfel, paradeiser and faschiertes in order to enjoy the same foods.
The two languages’ accents differ, just as they do as you travel from region to region across each of the two countries. However, thanks to close working between the two countries on linguistic matters, there are relatively few grammatical differences between the two languages.
Switzerland is home to both Swiss German speakers and Standard German speakers, with the former outnumbering the latter by around six to one.
As is the case with Austrian German, written Swiss German is very similar to Standard German. One notable difference is that Swiss German doesn’t use the eszett (ß) but instead uses a double s (ss).
There are differences in vocabulary too. A German might use a rechner (computer) to book at appointment at the frisör (hairdresser), while a Swiss German speak would borrow from English and French, using a computer to book their appointment at the coiffeur.
Differences are certainly notable when it comes to pronunciation, with a variety of regional accents and dialects in use across Switzerland.
Not all countries where German is spoken adhere so closely to Standard German. Namibian German incorporates plenty of words from Afrikaans, English, and Ovambo and other Bantu languages.
The language is characterised by simplification, when compared with Standard German. It is referred to as Südwesterdeutsch, though younger Namibians also call it Namsläng (that is, Namibian slang).
Another interesting variant in the German speaking world is Alsatian, which is the dialect spoken in Alsace, in eastern France. All German speaking countries and regions have their own linguistic quirks and Alsace is no exception.
Alsatian German is closely related to Swiss German, but also includes words of Yiddish origin, as well as adaptations of French and English terms. This is particularly the case in relation to new technological developments.
German in Liechtenstein
I’m including another of the German-speaking countries – Liechtenstein – as a further example of regional differences here. It’s comparable to the Standard Austrian German spoken in Vorarlberg in Austria, in many ways, which is perhaps no surprise as that province borders Liechtenstein. Yet despite their proximity, the German spoken in Liechtenstein still has a distinct sound.
In fact, there is more than one dialect spoken within Liechtenstein itself, despite the country’s relatively small geographic footprint. What I find interesting is that the differences between the dialects aren’t down to pronunciation alone but also due to the speed at which the language is spoken.
Of course, the German spoken in every location around the world that I’ve mentioned continues to evolve. In Liechtenstein, for example, the influence of Swiss German media is beginning to move the language closer to that variant. Listen to teenagers in Liechtenstein chatting and you would be forgiven for thinking you were in Zurich.
Why Is it Important to Learn About the Different Varieties of German?
There are plenty of reasons why it’s important to learn German – whether that’s Standard German or one or more of the language’s many variations.
As a global economic powerhouse and Europe’s largest economy, Germany certainly commands plenty of attention. Any number of German speakers have thus found their language skills useful in the business world. The manufacturing, automotive and engineering sectors in particular see a high prevalence of German speakers, as does the scientific community. Our German translation services are regularly called upon by companies that work across these sectors.
Online, too, knowledge of German is a useful skill. There may just be six countries where German is an official language, but it is the internet’s third most used language, with around 6% of all live websites delivering their content in German. And in the literary world, it’s believed that around 10% of all printed books are published in German.
Other places that speak German include a range of international institutions. The EU, European Commission, European Patent Organisation, European Space Agency, Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe and many, many more such bodies include German as one of a limited number of official languages in which they communicate (usually alongside English and French, and more rarely one or two other languages).
When it comes to learning about different dialects, this can provide extensive cultural insights. The way that languages evolve is shaped by countless political, cultural, social and other factors. Understanding these can provide insights into not just the German speaking countries but the people speaking German within them. And understanding and respecting such differences and cultural quirks can only be a good thing.
I hope you’ve found this round-up of places that speak German interesting. To sum up, we’ve looked at:
• A list of German speaking countries, including the six main German speaking countries in Europe
• Which countries speak German without it being an official language there
• How many countries speak German in total – and how many people
• Some of the differences between the dialects and variations of all these German speaking countries and other territories
• Why it’s important to learn German and to learn about the different varieties of the language
If you’re feeling fired up and ready for more linguistic insights, why not check out my recent language-related tours of countries where they speak Portuguese, Spanish and French? You can access these by clicking the links below.
Read more: Portuguese Speaking Countries and Varieties of the Portuguese Language
Read more: Spanish Speaking Countries
Read more: French Speaking Countries and Varieties of the French Language