Geographical distribution of German speakers

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  "German Sprachraum": German is official language (de jure or de facto) and first language of the majority of the population
  German is a co-official language, but not the first language of the majority of the population
  German (or a German dialect) is a legally recognized minority language (Squares: Geographic distribution too dispersed/small for map scale)
  German (or a variety of German) is spoken by a sizable minority, but has no legal recognition

In addition to those parts of Europe where German is an official language, teaching of the German language as well as German-speaking minorities are present in many countries on all six inhabited continents.

Mostly depending on the inclusion or exclusion of certain varieties with a disputed status as separate languages (e.g., Low German/Plautdietsch,[1]), it is estimated that approximately 90–95 million people speak German as a first language,[2][3][4] 10-25 million as a second language,[2][3] and 75–100 million as a foreign language.[2][5] This would imply approximately 175-220 million German speakers worldwide.[6]

German as official language[edit]

German as foreign language[edit]

In the Early Modern period, German varieties were a lingua franca of Central, Eastern and Northern Europe (Hanseatic League).[7]

Today, German, like French, is a common second foreign language in the western world, as English (Spanish in the US) is well established as first foreign language.[5][8] German ranks second (after English) among the best known foreign languages in the EU (on par with French)[5] as well as in Russia.[9] In terms of student numbers across all levels of education, German ranks third in the EU (after English and French)[10] as well as in the United States (after Spanish and French).[11][12] In 2015, approximately 15.4 million people were in the process of learning German across all levels of education worldwide.[8] As this number remained relatively stable since 2005 (± 1 million), roughly 75–100 million people able to communicate in German as foreign language can be inferred assuming an average course duration of three years and other estimated parameters.[2] According to a 2012 survey, up to two thirds of this global number, i.e., ca. 47 million people, within the EU claimed to have sufficient German skills to have a conversation. Within the EU, and not counting countries where it is a (co-)official language, German as a foreign language is most widely taught in Eastern and Northern Europe, namely the Czech Republic, Croatia, Denmark, the Netherlands, Slovakia, Slovenia, Sweden and Poland.[5][10]

German as a foreign language is promoted by the Goethe Institute, which works to promote German language and culture worldwide.[8] In association with the Goethe Institute, the German foreign broadcasting service, Deutsche Welle, offers a range of online German courses[13] and worldwide television as well as radio broadcasts produced with non-native German speakers in mind.[14]

German as minority language[edit]

Minorities exist in the countries of the former Soviet Union, Poland, Romania, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Belgium, Italy, Canada, Chile, the United States, Latin America, Namibia, South Africa, Israel, and Australia. These German minorities, through their ethno-cultural vitality, exhibit an exceptional level of heterogeneity: variations concerning their demographics, their status within the majority community, the support they receive from institutions helping them to support their identity as a minority.

Approximate distribution of native speakers of German or a German variety outside Europe
(according to Ethnologue 2016[15] unless referenced otherwise)
Numbers of speakers should not be summed up per country, as they most likely overlap considerably.
Table includes varieties with disputed statuses as separate language.
Standard German Hunsrik/Hunsrückisch Low German/Plautdietsch Pennsylvania Dutch Hutterite
Argentina 400,000 N/A 4,000 N/A N/A
Australia 79,000 N/A N/A N/A N/A
Belize N/A N/A 9,360 N/A N/A
Bolivia 160,000 N/A 60,000 N/A N/A
Brazil 1,500,000 3,000,000 8,000 N/A N/A
Canada 430,000 N/A 80,000 15,000 23,200
Chile 35,000 N/A N/A N/A N/A
Costa Rica N/A N/A 2,000 N/A N/A
Israel 200,000 N/A N/A N/A N/A
Kazakhstan 30,400 N/A 100,000 N/A N/A
Mexico N/A N/A 40,000 N/A N/A
Namibia 22,500 N/A N/A N/A N/A
New Zealand 36,000 N/A N/A N/A N/A
Paraguay 166,000 N/A 40,000 N/A N/A
Russia 394,138[16] N/A N/A N/A N/A
South Africa 12,000 N/A N/A N/A N/A
Uruguay 28,000 N/A 2,000 N/A N/A
United States 1,104,354[17] N/A 12,000 118,000 10,800
Sum 4,597,392 3,000,000 357,360 133,000 34,000

Among them are small groups (such as those in Namibia) and many very large groups (such as the almost 1 million non-evacuated Germans in Russia and Kazakhstan or the near 500,000 Germans in Brazil (see Riograndenser Hunsrückisch German)), groups that have been greatly "folklorised" and almost completely linguistically assimilated (such as most people of German descent in the USA, Canada, Australia, Argentina and Brazil), and others, such as the true linguistic minorities (like the still German-speaking minorities in the USA, Argentina and Brazil, in western Siberia or in Romania and Hungary); other groups, which are classified as religio-cultural groups rather than ethnic minorities, (such as the Eastern-Low German speaking Mennonites in Paraguay, Mexico, Belize or in the Altay region of Siberia) and the groups who maintain their status thanks to strong identification with their ethnicity and their religious sentiment (such as the groups in Upper Silesia, Poland or in South Jutland in Denmark).

Latin America[edit]

At least one million German speakers live in Latin America. There are German speaking minorities in almost every Latin American country, including Argentina, Belize, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Guatemala, Mexico, Nicaragua, Paraguay, Peru, Uruguay and Venezuela. In the eighteenth century only isolated or small groups of German emigrants left for Latin America. However this pattern was reversed at the start of the last century as a tidal wave of German emigration began. German emigration to the Americas totalled 200,000 people during the eighteenth century. During the 1880s, during the wave of mass emigration, this figure was reached annually. The Handbuch des Deutschtums im Ausland (The Germans Abroad Handbook) from 1906 puts a figure of 11 million people in North and South America with a knowledge of the German language, of which 9 million were in the USA. Although the USA was the focal point for emigration in the 19th century, emigration to Latin America was also significant for differing economic and political reasons.

The majority of German emigrants to Latin America went especially to Brazil but also to: Argentina, Uruguay, Chile, Paraguay, Guatemala, and Costa Rica.[18]

Starting in 1818, when King D. João VI brought the first German and Swiss immigrants to Brazil, German immigration continued a constant flow with an average of 25 to 30 thousand immigrants per decade entering the country since 1818. It peaked in the years following World War I, to around 90 thousand, and again in the 1940s to around 50,000. In the 1880s and 1890s, German emigration to Latin America grew and in some years was the destination of up to 30% of German emigrants. During the Nazi period - until the ban on emigration came into effect in 1941 - some 100,000 Jews from Central Europe, the vast majority of which were German speaking, moved to South America with 90% of these moving to the Cono Sur or Southern Cone. From the start of the 20th century until 1946 80% of Jews lived in Europe but by the end of World War II this was reduced to 25%, however after the war over 50% of Jews now lived in the Americas. This change was aided by Jewish emigration groups such as the Hilfsverein deutschsprechender Juden (later to become Asociación Filantrópica Israelita) which was based in Buenos Aires, Argentina. The majority of German minorities in Latin America - as well as elsewhere around the world - experienced a decline in the use of the German language, with the exception of Brazil, where the dialect Riograndenser Hunsrückisch is being taught in schools and in some media, totaling over 200 thousand speakers spread over the Brazilian southern states. The main cause of this decrease is the integration of communities, often originally sheltered, into the dominant society, and then modernisation after assimilation into society which confronts all immigrant groups.

Specific reasons for language change from German to the national language usually derive from the desire of many Germans to belong to their new communities after the end of World War II. This is a common feature among the German minorities in Latin America and those in Central and Eastern Europe: the majority of countries where German minorities lived had fought against the Germans during the war. With this change in situation the members of the German minorities, previously communities of status and prestige, were turned into undesirable minorities (though there were widespread elements of sympathy for Germany in many South American countries as well).

For many German minorities WWII thus represented the breaking point in the development of their language. In some South American countries the war period and immediately afterwards was a time of massive assimilation to the local culture (for example during the Getúlio Vargas period in Brazil).

Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Paraguay show some clear demographic differences that affect the minority situation of the German language: Brazil and Argentina are massive countries and offer large amounts of land for immigrants to settle. The population density of the Southern Cone countries is relatively low (Brazil has 17 inhabitants/km², Chile has 15/km², Argentina and Paraguay both have 10/km², data from 1993), but there are major differences in the areas settled by Germans: Buenos Aires Province, which was settled by Germans, has a far higher population density than that of the Chaco in northern Paraguay (with 1 inhabitant/km²). Argentina and Chile have a far greater proportion of city dwellers (86% and 84% respectively), while Brazil is 82% urbanised, and Paraguay is just 47% urbanised. Most of the German immigrants that arrived in Brazil went on to live in small inland communities. The original 58 German communities of the early 19th century Brazil, grew today to over 250 towns where Germans are a majority, and German speaking is encouraged.


There are about 500,000 German speakers and around 320,000 Volga-Germans alone, of which 200,000 hold German citizenship. This makes Argentina one of the countries with the largest number of German speakers and is second only in Latin America to Brazil. In the 1930s there were about 700,000 people of German descent.[19] Regional concentrations can be found in the provinces of Entre Ríos and Buenos Aires (with around 500,000 - 600,000) as well as Misiones and in the general area of the Chaco and the Pampas.

However most German-descended Argentinians do not speak German with native fluency (that role has been taken by Spanish). The 300,000 German speakers are estimated to be immigrants and not actually born in Argentina, and because of this they still speak their home language while their descendants who were born in Argentina speak only Spanish.


According to DW (Deutsche Welle) there are some twelve million German descendants in Brazil. Yet, the number of people speaking any sort of German (Althochdeutsch. Hochdeutsch, Hunsrückisch or Pommerischis) keeps decreasing, and today a bit over three million people has German as a first language. The main variety of German in Brazil is Riograndenser Hunsrückisch which is to be found in the southern states. The version of German there has changed over 180 years of contact with Portuguese as well as the languages of other immigrant communities. This contact has led to a new dialect of German concentrated in the German colonies in the southern province of Rio Grande do Sul. Although Riograndenser Hunsrückisch has long been the most widely spoken German dialect in southern Brazil, like all other minority languages in the region, it is experiencing very strong decline - especially in the last three or four decades. In all the vast majority of German descended Brazilians speaks Portuguese as their mother tongue today, and German is known only as a second or third language, if at all, to the point of initiatives to preserve the language being started recently in areas with strong German-descended presence, with government sponsored Gemeindeschulen. This is especially and almost universally true for younger German-Brazilians. Aus der Schuul komme, another place where the German language continues alive in some of the more of four thousand Brazilian Lutheran churches, in which some of the cults continue to be in German.

[20] [21] [22]


Chile (with a population of 15 million) has an estimated 40,000 German-speakers.[23] About 30,000 ethnic Germans arrived to Chile.[19] During the first flux of German immigration (between 1846 and 1875) German colonies were primarily set up in the "Frontera" region. The second wave of immigration occurred between 1882 and 1914 and consisted mainly of industrial and agricultural workers, mainly from eastern Germany; the third wave (after 1918) settled mainly in the cities. As in Argentina and Brazil, these populations are today overwhelmingly Spanish speaking, and German as a home language is in heavy decline.


Colombia has a population of about 40 million people. Of the 40 million only 5,000 people of German descent speak the language. Many of these people settled in Antioquia, and el Eje Cafetero. Most of the immigration occurred during World War I until the end of the Cold War. Many of these ethnic Germans now speak primarily Spanish at home.

Germans came to South America in the world wars I and II, settling first in Colombia because it was the only country in the South American to have the Pacific and Atlantic oceans, gold, emeralds, coal, oil, textiles, tobacco, flowers and the best weather conditions for agriculture. Colombia has weather under 32F to the 80s year round which makes it easy to choose where to live according to the kind of business you want to do and was a good start for Germans and other Europeans escaping war and hunger. Germany built the Bavaria, Pilsen, Club soda Klausen factories in Cali, Barranquilla, Pereira, Medellin, etc. Germans born in Colombia celebrate Oktoberfest in Cali along with other traditions. Their children attended German schools and married children of Germans descendants.

Costa Rica[edit]

Costa Rica has a population of 4,8 million, and a German speaker population of 8,000 people. Many of these people are immigrants or native German speakers from Germany or Swizerland and the 18, 19 and 20 centuries massive immigration descendants. But also in the northern area of the country, there are 2,200 German Mennonites communities in Sarapiquí and San Carlos that spoke Plautdietsch and other Low German dialects.

This German-Costa Rican community is one of the most important and biggest collectivities of German speakers in Central America and the Caribbean, and has a lot of cultural and social institutions, churchs, farms, business companies and schools.


Australia has an estimated population of around 75,600 German speakers. Australians of German ancestry constitute the fourth largest ethnic group in Australia, numbering around 811,540. German immigrants played a significant role in settling the states of South Australia and Queensland. Barossa German, a dialect of German, was once common in and around the German-settled Barossa Valley in South Australia. However, the German language was actively suppressed by Australian governments during World War I and World War II, resulting in a sharp decline in the use of German in Australia. German Australians are today overwhelmingly English speaking, with the German language as a home language in heavy decline.


Examples of German language in Namibia's everyday life.

Namibia used to be a colony of the German Empire from 1884 to 1919. Mostly originating from German settlers who immigrated during this time, 25–30,000 people still speak German as a native tongue today.[24] German, along with English and Afrikaans used to be a co-official language of Namibia from 1984 until its independence from South Africa in 1990. At this point, the Namibian government perceived Afrikaans and German as symbols for Apartheid and colonialism, and decided for English to be the sole official language, claiming that it was a "neutral" language as virtually no English native speakers existed in Namibia at that time.[24] German, Afrikaans and several indigenous languages became "national languages" by law, identifying them as cultural heritages of the nation and ensuring the state to acknowledge and support their presence in the country.[2] Today, German is used in a wide variety of spheres, especially business and tourism, as well as churches (most notably the German-speaking Evangelical Lutheran Church in Namibia (GELK)), schools (e.g. the Deutsche Höhere Privatschule Windhoek), literature (German-Namibian authors include Giselher W. Hoffmann), radio (the Namibian Broadcasting Corporation produces radio programs in German), and music (e.g. artist EES). The Allgemeine Zeitung is also one of the three biggest newspapers in Namibia and the only German-language daily in Africa.[24]

South Africa[edit]

Mostly originating from different waves of immigration during the 19th and 20th centuries, an estimated 12,000 people speak German or a German variety as a first language in South Africa.[25] Germans settled quite extensively in South Africa, with many Calvinists immigrating from Northern Europe. Later on, more Germans settled in the KwaZulu-Natal and elsewhere. Here, one of the largest communities are the speakers of "Nataler Deutsch", a variety of Low German, who are concentrated in and around Wartburg. German is slowly disappearing elsewhere, but a number of communities still have a large number of speakers and some even have German language schools. Furthermore, German was often a language taught as a foreign language in White South African schools during the Apartheid years (1948-1994). Today, the South African constitution identifies German as a "commonly used" language and the Pan South African Language Board is obligated to promote and ensure respect for it.[26]

United States[edit]

It is estimated that up to 6% of American schoolchildren were educated in German until 1918.[citation needed] Small communities of Amish and Hutterites speak it as a home language up to the present day.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Jan Goossens: Niederdeutsche Sprache: Versuch einer Definition. In: Jan Goossens (Hrsg.): Niederdeutsch: Sprache und Literatur. Karl Wachholtz, 2. Auflage, Neumünster 1983, S. 27; Willy Sanders: Sachsensprache, Hansesprache, Plattdeutsch: sprachgeschichtliche Grundzüge des Niederdeutschen. Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, Göttingen 1982, ISBN 3-525-01213-6, S. 32 f.; Dieter Stellmacher: Niederdeutsche Sprache. 2. Auflage, Weidler, Berlin 2000, ISBN 3-89693-326-4, S. 92.
  2. ^ a b c d e Ammon, Ulrich - Die Stellung der deutschen Sprache in der Welt (de Gruyter Mouton; ISBN 978-3-11-019298-8)
  3. ^ a b Sum of Standard German, Swiss German, and all German dialects not listed under "Standard German" at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015)
  4. ^ Marten, Thomas; Sauer, Fritz Joachim, eds. (2005). Länderkunde – Deutschland, Österreich, Schweiz und Liechtenstein im Querschnitt [Regional Geography – An Overview of Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Liechtenstein] (in German). Berlin: Inform-Verlag. p. 7. ISBN 3-9805843-1-3. 
  5. ^ a b c d "Special Eurobarometer 386: Europeans and their languages" (PDF) (report). European Commission. June 2012. Retrieved 2015-07-24. 
  6. ^ "The most spoken languages worldwide (speakers and native speaker in millions)". New York, USA: Statista, The Statistics Portal. Retrieved 2015-07-11. Native speakers=105, total speakers=185 
  7. ^ von Polenz, Peter (1999). "6.5. Inter- und übernationale Beziehungen". Deutsche Sprachgeschichte vom Spätmittelalter bis zur Gegenwart. de Gruyter Studienbuch (in German). Band III: 19. und 20. Jahrhundert. Berlin; New York: de Gruyter. pp. 192–194, 196. ISBN 3-11-016426-4. Retrieved 21 August 2014. 
  8. ^ a b c Deutsch als Fremdsprache weltweit. Datenerhebung 2015 - Worldwide survey of people learning German; conducted by the German Ministry for Foreign Affairs and the Goethe Institute
  9. ^ Знание иностранных языков в России [Knowledge of foreign languages in Russia] (in Russian). Levada Centre. 16 September 2008. Retrieved 10 May 2015. 
  10. ^ a b Eurostat - Foreign language learning statistics
  11. ^ "Foreign Language Enrollments in K–12 Public Schools" (PDF). American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL). February 2011. Retrieved October 17, 2015. 
  12. ^ Modern Language Association, February 2015, Enrollments in Languages Other Than English in United States Institutions of Higher Education, Fall 2013. Retrieved 2015-07-07.
  13. ^ Deutsche Welle - Online German courses
  14. ^ Deutsche Welle Website
  15. ^ Ethnologue 19th Edition (2016)
  16. ^ Ethnic groups in Russia
  17. ^ U.S. Department of Commerce, Economics and Statistics Administration - Language Use in the United States: 2007
  18. ^ Thomas Schoonover (2008). Hitler's Man in Havana: Heinz Luning and Nazi Espionage in Latin America. United States of America: The University Press of Kentucky. p. 35. ISBN 978-0-8131-2501-5. Retrieved 27 May 2014. 
  19. ^ a b OLAF GAUDIG y PETER VEIT - Freie Universität Berlin
  20. ^ O alemão lusitano do Sul do Brasil | Cultura | Deutsche Welle | 20.04.2004
  21. ^ "Hunsrückish". Ethnologue. Retrieved 20 July 2015. 
  22. ^ "Standard German". Ethnologue. Retrieved 20 July 2015. 
  23. ^ Handwörterbuch des politischen Systems der Bundesrepublik Archived March 10, 2011, at the Wayback Machine.‹The template Wayback is being considered for merging.›  (German).
  24. ^ a b c "Deutsch in Namibia" (PDF) (in German). Supplement of the Allgemeine Zeitung. 18 August 2007. Retrieved 23 June 2008. 
  25. ^ German L1 speakers outside Europe
  26. ^ South African Constitution - Chapter 1, Section 6

External links[edit]