Europe is home to hundreds of languages, including some, such as Russian, which have the most number of speakers in the world.
The majority of languages spoken in Europe belong to the family of Indo-European languages and within this family, 94% of speakers belong to the Romance, Germanic and Slavic branches.
Five of these languages have over 50 million native speakers in Europe: French, Italian, German, English and Russian.
We’ll now look at the families of the languages spoken in Europe:
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Some 215 million Europeans are native speakers of Romance languages; there are most speakers of French (72 million), Italian (65 million), Spanish (40 million), Romanian (24 million), Portuguese (10 million), Catalan (9 million), Sicilian (5 million), Venetian (4 million), Galician (2 million), Sardinian (1 million), Occitan (500,000 speakers) and other smaller communities that speak other more minority languages.
Germanic languages are mainly present in Western, Southern and Central Europe, totalling around 210 million native speakers. The dominant Germanic language in Europe is German (95 million), followed by English (70 million), Dutch (24 million), Swedish (10 million), Danish (6 million) and Norwegian (5 million).
Other Indo-European languages
The Indo-European language family encompasses even more languages, for example, Greek (13 million), Lithuanian (3 million), Latvian (2 million), Albanian (5 million), Welsh (700,000 speakers), Breton (200,000 speakers), Irish (140,000) and Gaelic (50,000).
Non-Indo-European languages include Finnish (5 million), Estonian (1 million) and Hungarian (13 million).
Languages of the European Union
Up until now we’ve talked about the languages spoken in Europe as a continent; now we’re going to focus on the languages spoken in the European Union.
As you probably already know, the European Union is a political organisation comprising 27 of the 50 countries that make up the European continent.
As we can see on their official web page, the European Union has 24 official languages which have been progressively added to over the years with new countries joining the organisation:
Bulgarian (since 2007)
Croatian (since 2013)
Czech (since 2004)
Danish (since 1973)
Dutch (since 1958)
English (since 1973)
Estonian (since 2004)
Finnish (since 1995)
French (since 1958)
German (since 1958)
Greek (since 1981)
Hungarian (since 2004)
Irish (since 2007)
Italian (since 1958)
Latvian (since 2004)
Lithuanian (since 2004)
Maltese (since 2004)
Polish (since 2004)
Portuguese (since 1986)
Romanian (since 2007)
Slovak (since 2004)
Slovene (since 2004)
Spanish (since 1986)
Swedish (since 1995)
Multilingualism in the European Union
The European Union has a multilingualism policy that is part of one of its founding principles and which has the following aims:
– to communicate with its citizens in their own languages
– to protect Europe’s rich linguistic diversity
– to promote language learning in Europe
The EU’s Charter of Fundamental Rights states that every citizen of the EU has the right to use any of the 24 official languages to contact the EU institutions, and they are obliged to respond in the same language.
For this reason, all EU law and legal documents are published in all the official languages, except for Irish due to an issue surrounding linguistic resources.
Regional and minority languages in the European Union
In addition to the 24 official languages, more than 60 indigenous regional or minority languages coexist in the European Union, represented by around 40 million speakers. Some examples of these regional languages are Catalan, Basque, Frisian, Saami and Yiddish.
English, the most spoken language in the EU
If you were asked what language you think is the most widely spoken in Europe, no doubt you would say English and you would be completely right. This comes as no surprise if we consider the extensive use of English as an international business communication language.
According to a survey carried out by the European Commission in 2012, the five most widely spoken languages in the European Union were English (38%), French (12%), German (11%), Spanish (7%) and Russian (5%).
Despite Russian not being one of the 24 official languages, it is spoken by a significant number of people in the EU due to its proximity to the country where the language originates and its historical ties with member states such as Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.
More than half of Europeans are bilingual
It’s very rare to find people who are truly bilingual, except for in Europe where the majority of its inhabitants (54%) are. This means that they can speak to you in another language that isn’t their mother tongue. But it doesn’t end there; 25% of Europeans are trilingual, meaning they can communicate without any problem in three different languages. And if three languages seem like a lot, just think that 10% of Europeans speak four languages.
It’s therefore no wonder that there are so many translators and linguists of European origin who master and can translate and interpret into more than one language.
Sources consulted for this article:
Official website of the European Union: https://europa.eu/european-union/about-eu/eu-languages_en