Some of the most spoken languages in the Americas may be guessed, others may come as a surprise. The Americas have received tens of millions of immigrants from all over the world in the last centuries. So there are plenty of native and foreign languages that compete for the 8 spots of this list.
8. Guarani: 5.6 million speakers
Most countries in the Americas have a European tongue as their most spoken language, but not original Paraguay. In this landlocked nation most people speak Guarani, a Native language.
Guarani is the mother tongue of 80% of Paraguayans (5,6 million people). Two million of them are monolingual, while the others are fluent in both their language and Spanish.
Paraguay’s neighbouring countries also have a few Guarani speakers: 200,000 live in Argentina, 67,000 in Bolivia, and 6,000 in Brazil.
7. German: 7 million speakers
Germans have migrated to the Americas massively and constantly for centuries, and the migration intensified during the World Wars.
Brazil was a favored spot for German immigrants. They started arriving in 1818, and no less than 25,000 Germans entered the country in each of the following decades. During the wars the number spiked up to 90,000.
There are entire communities in southern Brazil made up mostly of Germans and their descendants. And in those cities German is an official language and the language used in schools.
Currently, about 5 million Brazilians have German as their first language. 1.5 million of them speak standard German, 3 million speak Hunsrik -a German dialect mixed with a bit of Portuguese-, and almost 500,000 more speak other variations of German, like Pomeranian.
1.24 million German speakers live in the United States, 428,000 in Canada, 112,000 in Ecuador, 98,000 in Paraguay, 60,000 in Bolivia, 46,000 in Argentina, 40,000 in Mexico, 30,000 in Uruguay, 20,000 in Chile, 9,000 in Belize, and 6,000 in Venezuela. These numbers include different varieties of German, such as standard German, Low German, Pennsylvania Dutch (which is only spoken in the U.S. and Canada), and Hutterite. Some consider these varieties are separate languages, but plenty others agree they are all German dialects.
All in all, there about 7 million native German speakers in the Americas, making German the seventh most spoken language in the region.
6. Quechua: 8.5 to 10 million speakers
This resilient Native language is spoken in the Andes Mountains of South America.
Nowadays there are between 8.5 and 10 million Quechua speakers.
It is difficult to pinpoint their exact number since some Native populations are not overly fond of European ideas such as birth registration and census. Furthermore, Quechua-speakers live up in the imposing Andes Mountains, in remote areas, and census takers may bypass them inadvertently.
Nonetheless, there are estimates. On the conservative side, it is thought that 21% of Bolivians speak Quechua (2,400,000), 13.6% of Peruvians (3,800,000), and 13% of Ecuadorians (some 2,300,000). Some of them are monolinguals, while others are also fluent in Spanish.
And a few thousand Colombians, Chileans, and Argentines also speak this macrolanguage.
5. French: 9.8 million speakers
During the colonization of the Americas, France was able to secure territories in Canada, the United States, the Caribbean, northern South America, and Brazil.
She lost many of those territories to competing nations, but she did keep its settlements in Canada for longer.
And to this day, France has dependent territories in both South America and the Caribbean.
Creole is a mix of languages that is unique to each country so, say, the French Creole spoken in St. Martin is different than the one spoken in the island of Guadeloupe. Some of these variations are understood by French speakers, others are not. In any case, these Creoles are nowadays considered languages on their own right.
So, without counting Creole speakers, the vast majority of native French speakers live in Canada: 8.2 million. The others live in the United States (1,250,000), the Dominican Republic (144,000), French Guiana (108,000), which is still part of France; Uruguay (20,000); Argentina (16,000); and a few thousand more live in the islands of Dominica, Guadeloupe, Martinique.
4. Haitian Creole: 11.1 million speakers
Haitian is an interesting mix of French and African languages.
By the 17th century Haiti had been colonized by the French, who imported tons of enslaved Africans to work on their plantations.
The French settlers spoke, well, French, while the recently enslaved people spoke the Niger-Congo languages of Africa. So to communicate with the French, the slaves combined their tongue with French words. The result was that eventually a new language was born: Haitian Creole, which is not understood by French speakers.
Haitian was standardized in the 20th century and recognized as an official language of Haiti in 1987.
95% of the population of Haitians speak Creole at home, which is about 10.5 million people.
And migrating Haitians have taken their language to other countries, so 453,000 souls speak Haitian in the U.S., 159,000 in the neighbouring Dominican Republic, 23,000 in French Guiana, 12,000 in the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe, and thousands more in the Bahamas, St. Martin, and Canada.
3. Portuguese: 200 million speakers
Portugal was an early contender in the race to the Americas. And although it explored or settled parts of Canada and the Caribbean, it was ultimately beat by other nations, like France, and its colonies were crushed. But Portugal managed to keep a stronghold in South America for almost three hundred years: Brazil.
The country has 209 million inhabitants. There is no official data on how many of them speak Portuguese as their first language, but it is estimated that 199 million do.
Brazil’s numbers could single-handedly place Portuguese third on this list. But the language is also spoken by minorities in nations such as the United States (693,000); Brazil’s neighbor, Venezuela (254,000); Canada (222,000); another of Brazil’s neighbors, Paraguay (212,000); Argentina (58,000); Uruguay (20,000); and the French Guiana (13,000).
2. English: 278 million speakers
English slides easily at number two.
This popular language can claim official status in the four regions of the Americas: North, Central, South America, and the Caribbean.
Plus, to this day, the British have nine Realms in the Americas, that is, countries that recognize the Queen of England as their head of state, for example Jamaica. And several other countries, such a Trinidad and Tobago, have their own head of state by now, but are still members of the British Commonwealth.
Although in many of these territories the majority speak English dialects -which some consider separate languages-, Standard English is usually the official language and the one used in public functions, at school, and when writing. And some of the dialects, like the Bajan spoken in Barbados, are quite similar to English. Ever heard singer Rihanna talk? Well, that is Bajan.
The United States also has territories in the Caribbean, such as Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, where a percentage of the population speak Standard English.
In total, some 278 million people of the Americas are native English speakers. The United States makes the greatest contribution with almost 254 million souls (77% of their population), followed by Canada with 21 million (59%). Chile contributes 1,8 million (mostly British and Irish immigrants); the U.S.’ neighbour Mexico adds 350,000 anglophones; British-colonized Belize, 184,000; U.S.-territory Puerto Rico, 159,000; British-colonized Guyana, 149,000; while Argentina randomly adds 100,000 (British/Irish immigrants and their descendants). The rest of anglophones live in Barbados, Bahamas, Bermuda, and other islands of the Caribbean that were colonized by the British.
1. Spanish: 425 million speakers
If you did not see this one coming: surprise! Spanish takes the crown: it is the most spoken language in the Americas.
Spanish as the language of the majority
Spanish is spoken at home by more than 99% of Colombians (47,700,000), Cubans (11 million), Dominicans (10 million), Salvadorians (6 million), and Costa Ricans (5 million people); by 97% of Argentines (43 million); 96% of Venezuelans (30,700,000) and Chileans (17,700,000); 93% of Mexicans (120 million) and Ecuadorians (15 million); 80% of Peruvians (26 million); 55% of Guatemalans (9,500,000); and 42% of Bolivians (4.7 million people). And that was just a partial list, there are plenty more American countries were Spanish is spoken by the majority of the population.
*Numbers might overlap with those of other languages because some people are fully bilingual. For example, a percentage of Argentines consider both Spanish and Italian their native language; while a group of Ecuadorians consider both Quechua and Spanish theirs.
Even the territories in the United States that, once upon a time, belonged to Spain are still populated with Spanish speakers. So in New Mexico 46% of the population speaks this language at home. While California (38%), Texas (38%), Arizona (30%), Nevada (27%), Florida (23%), and Colorado (21%) trail behind.
In total, 43 million people in the United States consider Spanish their only native tongue. While almost 12 million more are fully bilingual, speaking both English and Spanish since childhood. So between both groups the total number of native Spanish speakers in the U.S. is 55 million. Which, quite surprisingly, makes the United States the second country with most native Spanish speakers in the world. Only Mexico has more native speakers.
Other countries which have strong Spanish-speaking minorities are Brazil (491,000), which after all is surrounded by Spanish-speaking countries; Canada (459,000), Paraguay (400,000), and Belize (165,000).