** This article is updated regularly. It was last updated in November 2021. **
How many Spanish speakers are there in the world? And how many countries speak Spanish? This week, I’ll be answering these questions and a whole host of others relating to the Spanish language and the countries that speak Spanish. Shall we get started? Great!
Over 450 million people around the world speak Spanish natively. A further 75 million or so speak it as a second language. Only Chinese has more native speakers than Spanish (English comes in third, with around 360 million native speakers).
How many countries speak Spanish? Depending on how you count, the total comes in at 20 or more. I’ll look at these 20 Spanish speaking countries below, as well as considering some of differences between the variety of the language spoken in Spain versus that spoken in Latin America Spanish speaking countries (and elsewhere around the globe).
Let’s dive in. Vamos!
Listing the number of Spanish speaking countries depends on how we define a country as ‘Spanish speaking.’
Is Spain a Spanish speaking country? Yes, of course. Is Mexico a Spanish speaking country? Absolutely. But what about the United States? Spanish isn’t an official language there (the US doesn’t have an official language), but over 55 million speak Spanish there, 42 million of them as their first language.
There’s also the matter of places where Spanish is spoken that aren’t sovereign states. Puerto Rico, for example, and the principality of Andorra, nestled in the Pyrenees mountains between France and Spain.
Let’s look into this.
In total there are 20 sovereign countries where Spanish is listed as an official language or used as a de facto national language. 18 of these are in the Americas region, while one (Spain) is in Europe and one (Equatorial Guinea) is in Africa. If you’re communicating with Spanish speakers from any one of these countries for professional purposes, we recommend using Spanish translation services to ensure that your language is spot on. Doing so can help achieve smoother business dealings and could even save you from accidentally offending someone.
Mexico is by far the biggest of the Latin American Spanish speaking countries when it comes to speaker numbers, despite Argentina’s greater size. In fact, Mexico has more Spanish speakers than any other country, with just under 122 million native speakers. Interestingly, Spanish is not actually an official language in Mexico. While the vast majority of Mexicans speak it, it is the country’s indigenous languages that are recognised and protected by law.
Is Colombia a Spanish speaking country? Yes, indeed. In fact, Colombia is the country with the world’s second largest Spanish speaking population, at over 49 million speakers. That’s more than 99.5% of the country’s residents.
Spanish is also an official language in Argentina. The largest by area of the Latin American countries that speak Spanish, Argentina is home to just over 44 million native Spanish speakers.
The birthplace of the Spanish language, Spain is home to almost 43 million people who speak Spanish as their first language. It was on Spanish ships that the language spread to the Americas, though notable differences in pronunciation and grammar have evolved since then (I’ll look at that in more detail below).
Venezuela also has a significant Spanish speaking population, at over 31 million people. At least 40 additional languages are spoken in Venezuela, but it is Spanish that is used for official purposes.
Around 86% of Peru’s population speaks Spanish. Quechua also has a notable number of speakers in Peru, with about 10% of the population speaking it natively. Those figures equate to around 31 million Spanish speakers and over 3.5 million Quechua speakers. You can read more about the languages of Peru by clicking the link below.
Chile is another major Spanish speaking country, with over 18 million speakers. That’s almost the entire population.
Spanish has been an official language in Equatorial Guinea since 1844 and is still spoken by over 65% of the population. It’s used for education and government, though Portuguese has also been an official language since 2010 (French is also an official language there, though largely for political and economic reasons, rather than any great volume of speakers). Equatoguinean Spanish is the only variety of Spanish to hold national official status in Sub-Saharan Africa.
South and Central America and the Caribbean are home to numerous other Spanish speaking countries. These are detailed below.
In total, around 60% of all of Latin Americans speak Spanish (while 34% speak Portuguese).
In Guatemala, Spanish is spoken by some 93% of the population, with around 54% speaking it natively and the other 39% speaking Spanish as a second language.
Given its widespread use, Spanish is Guatemala’s official language, though the country is also home to 24 indigenous languages – 22 Mayan languages, plus the Amerindian Xinca and Garifuna languages.
Cuban Spanish is spoken natively by around 11 million people. The language first arrived in Cuba with seafarers from the Canary Islands, meaning that Cuban Spanish is descended from Castilian Spanish. This variation of the Spanish language is particularly notable for its weak pronunciation of consonants.
The Dominican Republic is home to around 10 million Spanish speakers, with Spanish being the country’s sole official language. 98% of the population speak it as their native tongue and it is the language of education, government, the media and daily life.
The Spanish spoken in the Dominican Republic is very similar to the other forms of Spanish spoken in the Caribbean, with its roots in the Canary Islands and a number of influences from both African languages and indigenous Caribbean languages.
Bolivia is home to several regional variations of Spanish, which together are spoken by around 9.5 million people. The Spanish dialects spoken in Bolivia include Andean Spanish, Camba Spanish, Chapaco Spanish and Vallluno Spanish.
Nearly all Hondurans speak Spanish, which is the country’s official language. Like many of the forms of Spanish spoken in South and Central America, Honduran Spanish has its own distinctive pronunciation and words borrowed from local indigenous languages. In total, Honduras is home to some nine million Spanish speakers.
The Spanish of El Salvador shares some of its local slang with neighbouring Honduras, but in other ways Salvadoran Spanish is distinctly different than the forms of the language spoken in neighbouring Spanish speaking countries. Salvadoran Spanish is referred to locally as caliche. Overall, well over six million people in El Salvador speak Spanish natively.
The Republic of Nicaragua is also home to some six million native Spanish speakers. Cross the country and you will hear a wide variety of accents, along with vocabulary variations that show indigenous influences.
Spanish is spoken by around five million people in Costa Rica, where it is the country’s official language, alongside several regionally recognized indigenous languages. As is the case in other countries in Central America, it’s possible to identify Costa Rican Spanish by its distinctive pronunciation.
Interestingly, Spanish in Costa Rica involves a wide range of colloquial expressions referred to locally as ‘tiquismos.’ The language also features ‘pachuquismos’ – street slang expressions which sound innocuous in other Spanish-speaking countries, but which have a duplicate and usually far more vulgar meaning in Costa Rican Spanish.
Spanish is one of two official languages in Paraguay, with the other being Guaraní. Around 92% of people in Paraguay speak Spanish (68% of them displaying mastery of the language), while around 77% speak Guaraní. The country’s bilingual and multicultural nature is enshrined in the 1992 Constitution of Paraguay.
Around 93% of Panama’s citizens speak Spanish natively. Panamanian Spanish bears close resemblance to other varieties spoken in South American, Central American and Caribbean countries that speak Spanish. The language shows indigenous influences, as well as evidence of multiple loanwords from English, such as the use of ‘ok’ instead of ‘vale’ and ‘fren’ (taken from ‘friend’) rather than ‘amigo/amiga.’
The Oriental Republic of Uruguay, in South America, has Spanish as its official language, alongside Uruguayan Portuguese, which is recognised as a regional language. Well over three million people in Uruguay speak Spanish, with the language having effectively stamped out Uruguay’s indigenous tongues.
Spanish is also spoken as an official language in the Caribbean island of Puerto Rico, along with English. This unincorporated territory of the United States uses Spanish as its primary language, with 95% of Puerto Ricans speaking it and using it for business, education and daily interactions. In total, Puerto Rico is home to just over three million Spanish speakers.
I should of course make clear that Spanish doesn’t have to be an official language, or even a country’s main language, to still have a significant number of speakers there. I’ve included some key examples of this here:
In terms of speaker numbers, the US has almost as many Spanish speakers as can be found in Spain. Over 42 million people in the States speak Spanish natively, while the country is also home to well over 10 million people who can speak Spanish as a second language. The Pew Research Centre reports that Spanish speakers in the US have increased by 233% since 1980 and the language continues to grow in use there to this day.
Spain is no longer an official language in the Philippines, but it was for many years. During the 19th century, education was delivered in Spanish in the Philippines. Today, however, the rising prominence of both Filipino and English has served to diminish Spanish’s status in the country.
That said, Rosetta Stone reports that Spanish is currently enjoying a renaissance in the Philippines, so perhaps the language’s history there is not due to come to an end quite yet.
The Philippines is also home to Chavacano – a Spanish-based creole that has over 700,000 speakers.
While English is the sole official language of Belize, and it is thus not counted as one of the Latin America Spanish speaking countries, some 56% of the population speaks Spanish, 45% natively. Spanish is taught in primary and secondary schools in Belize and the country borders Mexico and Guatemala, so Spanish is one of its key languages.
Andorra is another country that doesn’t make it onto the Spanish speaking countries map, yet Spanish is still a significant language there. The tiny country (the world’s 16th smallest by area) has Catalan as its official language. However, Spanish is widely spoken there – to the point where the government has recently been trying to promote the wider use of Catalan, having seen Spanish gradually become the primary language of communication for those in the country who hail from different linguistic backgrounds.
The British Overseas Territory of Gibraltar, on the southern coast of Spain, is another location where Spanish isn’t an official language (English is). However, the majority of Gibraltarians speak it, as well as speaking English.
Every country has its own variation of Spanish – and many have a number of dialects within their national borders as well. As a general rule, the closer the Spanish speaking countries are to each other, the fewer differences they have between their varieties of Spanish. As such, the Spanish spoken in Honduras will be closer to the form of the language spoken in neighbouring Guatemala than it will be to that spoken in Spain (for example).
If you speak some Spanish but don’t want to risk muddling up your local variations, we recommend using a translation service to ensure you access the particular vernacular you need. I’ve included a link below to 20 of the fastest and best translation services on the market in 2021.
For now, let’s look at some of the most commonly used varieties of Spanish around the world today.
The Spanish spoken in Spain developed from Latin in the Middle Ages, with notable Moorish influences. It was the language of the kingdom of Castile that evolved as Spain’s language of administration and culture. In 1492, Castilian was declared to be Spain’s official dialect. In the same year, it arrived in the New World courtesy Columbus and his crew, whose ships departed from Castile and arrived in the Bahamas two months later.
Spanish in Spain has some notable characteristics that aren’t seen in the variants spoken elsewhere in the world. The distinctive ‘lisp’ of European Spanish is the easiest of these to spot. Technically, the lisp is not a lisp at all. A lisp is defined as the mispronunciation of the sibilant sound of the letter ‘s’ but in Spanish it is the letter ‘z’ or the letter ‘c’ when followed by ‘i’ or ‘e’ that sounds like a ‘th.’ This is actually known as the ‘ceceo.’
Popular myth holds that King Ferdinand of Spain had a lisp and that his courtiers copied it, followed by the rest of the population, as a way to show respect. However, many historians and linguists dispute this. Linguistic changes like this usually occur naturally as a part of language evolution over time.
In Mexico and across Latin America, the letter ‘z’ sounds like an ‘s,’ as does the letter ‘c’ when it comes before an ‘e’ or and ‘i’ – so the language lacks that lisping sound associated with European Spanish.
Mexican Spanish has a range of other differences to European Spanish, having evolved largely from the Andalusian Spanish spoken by most of Spain’s early explorers, rather than from Castilian Spanish. In addition to being spoken in Mexico, it is spoken in many parts of the United States and Canada.
In Mexican Spanish, for example, ‘ustedes’ is used as the plural for ‘tú,’ while in Spain ‘vosotros’ is used. Mexican Spanish uses a different form of the past tense. And there are plenty of differences when it comes to vocabulary, too. In Spain, you would catch the autobús, but in Mexico you would hop on the camion (in Colombia you would catch the bus, in Argentina the colectivo and in Puerto Rico the guagua).
Caribbean Spanish refers to the variants of Spanish spoken in Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. It also incorporates the forms of Spanish spoken in Panama, Venezuela and the Caribbean coast of Colombia.
Again, we can trace the differences in the language back to early Spanish explorers, with Colombus and his crew introducing the variant of Spanish spoken in the Canary Islands to the Caribbean.
Caribbean Spanish deals with the pronunciation of the letter ‘r’ differently, making it sound more like an ‘l’ instead. They also use ‘tú’ and ‘usted’ far more frequently than other variations of Spanish, which tend to drop such pronouns when the context is clear.
Each country in the Americas uses its own variant of Spanish, with unique vocabulary and pronunciation quirks. Indeed, pronunciation can vary hugely within each individual country, just as it does with the English language as you travel the length of the UK, for example, or the US.
Mapping all of these differences could be a lifetime’s work, so I’ll settle for including a few that I found interesting, just to give a flavour of the variations in Spanish that exist across the Americas.
The Chilean Spanish dialect in particular has distinctive pronunciation and plenty of local vocabulary. As such, those who speak Castilian Spanish may sometimes struggle to follow the flow of conversation in Chilean Spanish.
Meanwhile, in some areas of Argentina and Uruguay, the ‘ll’ in words like ‘llamar’ and ‘lluvia’ is not pronounced like the letter ‘y’ as it is in Spain and most of Latin America. Instead, it is pronounced as ‘sh,’ meaning that certain words in this variation sound closer to the equivalent words in Portuguese: ‘chamar’ and ‘chuva,’ in the case of this example.
The only official Spanish speaking country in Africa, Equatorial Guinea has its own variant of the language. It is closer to that spoken in Spain than in Latin America, using ‘usted’ with the ‘tú’ verbal conjugation, for example, while using ‘vosotros’ interchangeably with ‘ustedes.’ One notable difference is the use of ‘en’ to mark a destination, with Equatoguinean Spanish saying ‘voy en’ instead of ‘voy a.’
I’ll end this look at all Spanish speaking countries and their unique takes on the language with a quick word on creoles. These exist in most places where Spanish is widely spoken.
The Spanish-based Chavacano creole spoken in the Philippines, for example, has around 700,000 native speakers. In Belize, inhabitants of northern towns such as San Pedro and Corozal speak their own ‘kitchen Spanish’ – a mix of Spanish and the local, English-based Belizean Creole.
Interestingly, over in Gibraltar, many residents speak Llanito – a language that mixes an Andalusian Spanish base with words from British English and influences from Maltese, Portuguese, Genoese Italian and the Judaeo-Spanish dialect, Haketia. Speakers often code-switch between Spanish and English. What’s particularly interesting (to my mind, anyway), is that many Gibraltarians describe themselves as Llanitos, showing just how closely language and national identity are intertwined.
If you want to engage with Spanish speaking places around the world, it’s important to learn the local variation. Doing so can provide both personal and professional benefits. Learning Spanish can aid your travels, help you to connect with people and open up career opportunities.
It’s also an important part of our collective global future. Spanish is the world’s third most studied language already and the Cervantes Institute predicts speaker numbers in Spanish speaking countries will rise to 750 million by 2050. Spanish is becoming increasingly important as a global lingua franca, so if you don’t keep up, you may find yourself left behind.
If you are planning to learn Spanish, by the way, you should find the article below of use.
Read more: How to Learn Spanish Effectively
I hope you’ve enjoyed this tour of countries that speak Spanish. Just to recap, we’ve looked at:
• How many countries have Spanish as an official language – and why that’s a tricky question to answer
• Other Spanish speaking places around the world
• Language variation across the countries that speak Spanish
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