What are the most spoken languages of South America? What is the balance between Spanish and Portuguese speaking countries in South America? And how many indigenous language speakers are there?
This week, I’ve put South American languages under the spotlight. Read on to discover all manner of exciting nuggets of information about the languages spoken in South America and why it’s so important to learn them – and to learn from them.
The languages of South America deliver a vast range of linguistic diversity. Indigenous languages rub shoulders with imported languages from Europe to create a linguistic melting pot like no other.
I should be clear at this point that there is still much work to be done in terms of recording and classifying many South America language. Some are spoken only in remote areas of dense jungle. Others have very few speakers. Others still blur the lines between language and dialect to the point that linguists are hard-pressed to deliver a definitive total number of languages in South America.
What we do know is that many South American languages preserved their distinctive features thanks to geography. Jungles, mountains and wide, fast-flowing rivers have all served to keep people – and their native languages – in isolated communities until very recently, in historical terms.
We know that colonisers/conquerors/invaders brought Spanish and Portuguese to South America, as well as English, French, Dutch, German and a number of other European languages. Where linguists differ, however, is on the origins of the indigenous languages of South America.
One theory is that all of the indigenous languages of Latin America are descended from a common ancestor. Yet there is no way to prove this – or to disprove it. Other linguists assert that the vast differences between the indigenous languages spoken in South America today rule out this common ancestry. Sadly, we will likely never know for sure.
One thing that is clear is that South America has more language families (37 of them) than either North or Central America (which have 13 and 6, respectively). It also has more languages. While definitions of languages and dialects remain under discussion, Ethnologue’s data shows that South America is home to 448 languages, compared to 220 in North America and 273 in Central America.
Some of the largest language families in South America include the Tupi-Guarani language family, which includes 76 languages, the Arawakan language family (with 64 languages), Quechuan (with 46), Carib and Macro-Ge (32 apiece), Panoan (28), Tucanoan (25) and Chibchan, which includes 22 languages.
In terms of individual languages, I won’t be listing all 448 or so in this article, but I will walk you through some of the most commonly spoken, including:
Let’s take a look at some of these now.
When it comes to total speaker numbers, Spanish wins the day in South America, followed by Portuguese, Quechua and Guarani. I’ll look at each of these – along with various other languages spoken in South America – in a little more depth below.
What is the most widely spoken language in South America? That would be Spanish, with a whopping 210 million speakers. That includes both those speaking Spanish as their first tongue and those who speak other languages but use Spanish to communicate when need be.
Colombia is home to more Spanish speakers than any other South American country, at 47.2 million. That’s followed by Argentina, which is home to 43.5 million Spanish speakers, Venezuela, with 31.1 million, Peru (27.4 million) and Chile (18.1 million).
Spanish arrived in South America back in the late 1400s, with the first permanent Spanish-speaking settlement there (Cumaná in Venezuela) established in 1501. How many countries speak Spanish in South America today? Nine – out of a total of 13 countries.
That leaves just four non-Spanish speaking countries in South America. Many businesses looking to trade across international borders within South America therefore make use of Spanish translation services in order to ensure the smooth flow of goods between the countries that speak Spanish and those that don’t.
Few, if any, of those settling in Cumaná at the time would have foreseen the colossal impact that they were going to have on South America’s local languages. An impact only threatened in scale by the arrival of Portuguese…
Hot on the heels of Spanish, Portuguese has 206 million speakers in South America. However, while Spanish speaking South America includes nine countries, Portuguese South America includes just one. Which South American country speaks Portuguese? Brazil, of course.
Brazil is home to 205 million of the 206 million Portuguese speakers in South America. And while a couple of hundred thousand people in neighbouring Venezuela and Paraguay also speak Portuguese, Brazil is the only country in South America where Portuguese is the official language. As such, Portuguese translation services can come in handy for those who need to communicate with Brazilians but reside elsewhere in South America.
The third most spoken language in South America, and the most spoken indigenous language there, is Quechua. With eight million speakers, it is one of the major languages in Latin America.
Thought by some to have originated around 2,600 BC, Quechua was spread by the Incas as their empire flourish across South America in the 1400s. This is why the language is spoken today across such a wide geographic area; Quechua speakers can be found in Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, Argentina, Chile and Colombia.
As Quechua is largely used orally, children who speak it natively are often educated in Spanish. In Peru, for example, Quechua is an official language but schooling is delivered exclusively in Spanish. Even in Bolivia and Ecuador, where efforts are afoot to promote the use of Quechua, a lack of teaching materials means that Spanish is often used instead.
Spoken in Paraguay and parts of Argentina, Bolivia and Brazil, Guarani has around 6.5 million speakers in total. It is an official language in Paraguay and the majority of Paraguayans speak it. Around half of the population in rural Paraguay is monolingual, speaking only Guarani.
Unlike many South American languages, Guarani has a written grammar dating as far back as 1639. It was published by Jesuit priest Antonio Ruiz de Montoya, who described the Guarani language as, “So copious and elegant that it can compete with the most famous [of languages]”.
Another European language that is widely spoken in South America, having been brought by explorers/invaders in the late 15th and 16th centuries is English. It is the fifth most spoken language in South America, with 5.4 million total speakers (native and second language speakers).
The majority of South American English speakers live in Argentina, which is home to around 2.8 million of them, while a further 1.9 million also live in Colombia.
Native to the Bolivian Andes and Peru, Aymara has around 2.5 million speakers, making it the third most spoken of the indigenous languages of South America. As well as being an official language in those two countries, it is also a recognised minority language in Chile, where it is spoken by some northern communities.
Like many indigenous languages in South America, Aymara is battling against the overwhelming use of Spanish. However, in Peru, speaker numbers have been rising – from 440,380 native speakers in 1993 to 450,010 by 2017. Bolivia, also, has done much to try and preserve and promote indigenous languages in recent years.
Were you expecting to find German in a prominent position on this list of South American languages? Well, no South American language map would be complete without, as there are around two million German speakers spread across Brazil (1.5 million), Argentina (400,000) and Ecuador (112,000). Significant German-speaking communities can also be found in Paraguay, Uruguay and Chile.
There are 1.5 million or so Italian speakers living in South America. Argentina is home to most of them, but Brazil also has a sizeable community of Italian speakers, with around 50,000 of them living in São Paulo. You can find out more about the languages of Brazil by clicking the link below.
Read more: Which Languages Are Spoken in Brazil?
Arabic speakers in South America number around 1.1 million, the vast majority of whom live in Argentina. Other notable Arabic-speaking communities can be found in Venezuela and Suriname.
I’ve looked above at all of the South American languages with over one million speakers. However, there are also hundreds of indigenous languages in use, as well as Chinese, Ukrainian, Japanese, Dutch, French and numerous other immigrant tongues.
Many of the indigenous languages spoken in Latin America are severely or critically endangered. And many more have already dwindled to the point of extinction. When European sailors first arrived in South America, an estimated 1,500 languages were spoken there. Today, the total number of languages (according to Ethnologue) is under 450 – and that includes immigrant languages from Europe and elsewhere. That’s over 1,000 indigenous languages wiped out in just over 600 years.
Not all of these languages were lost to Spanish, Portuguese or other immigrant languages; Quechua’s spread also led to the demise of many indigenous South American languages. In the Marañón River basin, for example, multiple languages were lost to the combination of Spanish and Quechua, as well as to Aguaruna.
Today, many countries are actively working to protect the languages of South America, or at least to document them in some way before they are lost to the sands of time. Let’s take a look at some of these languages now.
Also called Mapuche, Mapudungun is spoken in Chile and Argentina, although it is not recognised as an official language by either country. Mapudungun has around 260,000 native speakers and numbers continue to dwindle. Despite some political rhetoric in Chile around the preservation of the language, including a commitment to provide education in it, very little has translated into actual use of the language, with Spanish used in education instead.
Another language in South America that is subject to efforts to preserve and expand its use is Wayúunaiki. Also referred to as Wayuu and Guajiro, it is spoken by the Wayuu people of Venezuela and Colombia.
There are around 420,000 native Wayuunaiki speakers. In recent years, efforts to protect the language have included the creation of an illustrated Wayuunaiki–Spanish and a dictionary of technology terms.
Spoken in Colombia and Panama, Kuna has around 61,000 native speakers. Many of them also speak Spanish and Kuna is now classed as severely endangered.
Not endangered, but still classed as a vulnerable language, Embera has around 70,000 speakers, many of them in Colombia but some also in Panama. There is a Northern Emberá and a Southern Emberá, with several regional variations of the language within these two groups.
Páez is spoken in Colombia, which is home to around 60,000 native speakers of it. Efforts to promote education in Páez have been faltering, at best. The language has several dialects, including two that are now extinct (Panzaleo and Alausí).
Spoken in Peru and Brazil, Asháninka has between 35,000 and 63,000 speakers, depending on whether numerous related tongues (including Gran Pajonal Campa, Ashéninka, Axaninca, Machiguenga and Nomatsiguenga) are classed as dialects or languages in their own right.
While the main language in South America is Spanish (closely followed by Portuguese), learning the area’s other languages can reap significant rewards in terms of cultural understanding and discovery.
One of the most significant examples of this is provided by American academic and explorer, Hiram Bingham III. Bingham was exploring South America and understood the value of embracing local languages. As such, he turned to a Quechua-speaking guide to ask the local people where the interesting cities were. His efforts to engage with the locals in their own language paid off, resulting in him ‘discovering’ the Inca citadel of Machu Picchu in 1911 – a finding that Bingham went on to share with the world.
Learning South American native languages isn’t likely to result in any discoveries on this scale today but doing so can certainly promote cultural and social connections with indigenous communities within South America.
Many of the languages are also a fascinating study in and of themselves, with some superb linguistic diversity available to those with a keen interest in language learning.
From the official languages of Latin America to indigenous tongues with just a handful of speakers, there’s plenty of linguistic diversity awaiting those who want to discover South American languages. It’s a huge topic – one that I’ve touched on some of the larger points of, including:
• The major language families of South America
• How many languages are spoken in South America
• The South American languages with the most speakers
• Some of the most spoken indigenous languages of South America