This article details the geographical distribution of speakers of the German language, regardless of the legislative status within the countries where it is spoken. In addition to the German-speaking area (Deutscher Sprachraum) in Europe, German-speaking minorities are present in many countries and 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), it is estimated that approximately 90–95 million people speak German as a first language, 10–25 million as a second language, and 75–100 million as a foreign language. This would imply approximately 175–220 million German speakers worldwide.
Native and non-native speakers
|Standard German||Hunsrik/Hunsrückisch||Low German & Plautdietsch||Pennsylvania Dutch||Hutterite|
Namibia used to be a colony of the German Empire from 1884 to 1919. Mostly originating from German settlers who immigrated during this time, 25,000 to 30,000 people still speak German as a native tongue today. 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. 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. 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.
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. 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 and to a lesser extent around Winterton. German is slowly disappearing elsewhere, but a number of communities still have a large number of speakers and some even have German language schools, such as the Hermannsburg German School. 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.
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.
The German language is spoken in a number of countries and territories in Europe, where it is used both as an official language and as a minority language in various countries. To cover this language area, they are often referred to as the German-speaking countries, the German-speaking area (Deutscher Sprachraum), or equivalently German-speaking Europe (non-European German-speaking communities are not commonly included in the concept).
German is the main language of approximately 95 to 100 million people in Europe, or 13.3% of all Europeans, being the second most spoken native language in Europe after Russian (with 144 million speakers), above French (with 66.5 million) and English (with 64.2 million).
The European countries with German-speaking majorities are Germany (95%, 78.3 million), Austria (89%, 7.4 million) and Switzerland (65%, 4.6 million), also known as "D-A-CH" countries. Other European countries and regions with a German-speaking majority include Liechtenstein (0.03 million), the Italian autonomous region of South-Tyrol (0.5 million) and the German-speaking Community of Belgium with around 70.000 native speakers.
Since 2004 there has been an annual informal meeting of the heads of state of German-speaking countries including the Presidents of Germany, Austria and Switzerland and the Hereditary Prince of Liechtenstein. Since 2014 the King of Belgium and the Grand Duke of Luxembourg have also been taking part.
- Germany (D for Deutschland)
- Austria (A for Austria, in German "Österreich")
- Switzerland (CH for Confoederatio Helvetica, in German "(die) Schweiz")
"Dach" is also the German word for "roof", and is used in linguistics in the term Dachsprache, which standard German arguably is in relation to some outlying dialects of German, especially in Switzerland, France, Luxembourg and Austria.
The term is sometimes extended to D-A-CH-Li, DACHL or DACH+ to include Liechtenstein. Another version is DACHS (with Dachs meaning "Badger" in German) with the inclusion of the German-speaking region of South Tyrol in Italy.
Rest of Europe
Today German, together with French, is a common second foreign language in the western world, with English well established as a first foreign language. German ranks second (after English) among the best known foreign languages in the EU (on a par with French) as well as in Russia. In terms of student numbers across all levels of education, German ranks third in the EU (after English and French) as well as in the United States (after Spanish and French). In 2015, approximately 15.4 million people were in the process of learning German across all levels of education worldwide. This number has remained relatively stable since 2005 (± 1 million) and roughly 75–100 million people able to communicate in German as a foreign language can be inferred, assuming an average course duration of three years and other estimated parameters. According to a 2012 survey, ca. 47 million people within the EU (i.e., up to two thirds of the 75–100 million worldwide) 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 Central and Northern Europe, namely the Czech Republic, Croatia, Denmark, the Netherlands, Slovakia, Slovenia, Sweden and Poland.
German as a foreign language is promoted by the Goethe Institute, which works to promote German language and culture worldwide. In association with the Goethe Institute, the German foreign broadcasting service, Deutsche Welle, offers a range of online German courses and worldwide television as well as radio broadcasts produced with non-native German speakers in mind.
Self-reported German language skills of European Union citizens
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 US. Although the US 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.
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. Regional concentrations can be found in the provinces of Entre Ríos and Buenos Aires (with around 500,000 to 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 primarily Spanish.
According to Deutsche Welle, there are some twelve million people of German ancestry in Brazil. Nevertheless, the number of people speaking any sort of German (Standard German, Hunsrückisch or East Pomeranian) is on the decrease, with 3 million speaking German as a first language today. The main variety of German in Brazil is Riograndenser Hunsrückisch which is to be found in the southern states. This version of German there has changed over 180 years of contact with Portuguese as well as the languages of other immigrant communities. Such 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 true for younger German-Brazilians. Another place where the German language continues alive is in some of the more of four thousand Brazilian Lutheran churches, in which some of the cults continue to be in German.
The German language is co-official in the municipality of Pomerode, besides being cultural patrimony of the State of Espírito Santo. In Rio Grande do Sul, the Riograndenser Hunsrückisch German is an integral part of the State's historical and cultural heritage.
Chile (with a population of 15 million) has an estimated 40,000 German-speakers. About 30,000 ethnic Germans arrived in Chile. 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 of its wealth in natural resources and favourable weather conditions for agriculture. German immigrants built the Bavaria, Pilsen, Club soda Klausen factories in Cali, Barranquilla, Pereira, Medellin, and other cities. Germans born in Colombia celebrate Oktoberfest in Cali along with other traditions. There are currently German schools in various major cities around the country.
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 Switzerland and 18th, 19th and 20th 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, churches, farms, business companies and schools.
In Canada, there are 622,650 speakers of German according to the most recent census in 2006, with people of German ancestry (German Canadians) found throughout the country. German-speaking communities are particularly found in British Columbia (118,035) and Ontario (230,330). There is a large and vibrant community in the city of Kitchener, Ontario, which was at one point named Berlin. German immigrants were instrumental in the country's three largest urban areas: Montreal, Toronto, and Vancouver; post-Second World War immigrants managed to preserve a fluency in the German language in their respective neighborhoods and sections. In the first half of the 20th century, over a million German-Canadians made the language Canada's third most spoken after French and English.
In Mexico there are also large populations of German ancestry, mainly in the cities of: Mexico City, Puebla, Mazatlán, Tapachula, Ecatepec de Morelos, and larger populations scattered in the states of Chihuahua, Durango, and Zacatecas.
In the United States, the states of North Dakota and South Dakota are the only states where German is the most common language spoken at home after English. German geographical names can be found throughout the Midwest region of the country, such as New Ulm and many other towns in Minnesota; Bismarck (North Dakota's state capital), Munich, Karlsruhe, and Strasburg (named after a town near Odessa in Ukraine) in North Dakota; New Braunfels, Fredericksburg, Weimar, and Muenster in Texas; Corn (formerly Korn), Kiefer and Berlin in Oklahoma; and Kiel, Berlin, and Germantown in Wisconsin.
Between 1843 and 1910, more than 5 million Germans emigrated overseas, mostly to the United States. German remained an important language in churches, schools, newspapers, and even the administration of the United States Brewers' Association through the early 20th century, but was severely repressed during World War I. Over the course of the 20th century, many of the descendants of 18th century and 19th century immigrants ceased speaking German at home, but small populations of speakers are still found in Pennsylvania (Amish, Hutterites, Dunkards and some Mennonites historically spoke Hutterite German and a West Central German variety of German known as Pennsylvania German or Pennsylvania Dutch), Kansas (Mennonites and Volga Germans), North Dakota (Hutterite Germans, Mennonites, Russian Germans, Volga Germans, and Baltic Germans), South Dakota, Montana, Texas (Texas German), Wisconsin, Indiana, Oregon, Oklahoma, and Ohio (72,570). A significant group of German Pietists in Iowa formed the Amana Colonies and continue to practice speaking their heritage language. Early twentieth century immigration was often to St. Louis, Chicago, New York, Milwaukee, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati.
The dialects of German which are or were primarily spoken in colonies or communities founded by German-speaking people resemble the dialects of the regions the founders came from. For example, Hutterite German resembles dialects of Carinthia. Texas German is a dialect spoken in the areas of Texas settled by the Adelsverein, such as New Braunfels and Fredericksburg. In the Amana Colonies in the state of Iowa, Amana German is spoken. Plautdietsch is a large minority language spoken in Northern Mexico by the Mennonite communities, and is spoken by more than 200,000 people in Mexico. Pennsylvania German is a West Central German dialect spoken by most of the Amish population of Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Indiana and resembles Palatinate German dialects.
Hutterite German is an Upper German dialect of the Austro-Bavarian variety of the German language, which is spoken by Hutterite communities in Canada and the United States. Hutterite is spoken in the U.S. states of Washington, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Minnesota; and in the Canadian provinces of Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba. Its speakers belong to some Schmiedleit, Lehrerleit, and Dariusleit Hutterite groups, but there are also speakers among the older generations of Prairieleit (the descendants of those Hutterites who chose not to settle in colonies). Hutterite children who grow up in the colonies learn to speak Hutterite German before learning English, the standard language of the surrounding areas, in school. Many of these children, though, continue with German Grammar School, in addition to public school, throughout a student's elementary education.
Rest of the world
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.
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 US, Canada, Australia, Argentina and Brazil), and others, such as the true linguistic minorities (like the still German-speaking minorities in the US, 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).
- List of territorial entities where German is an official language
- Ethnic German
- German diaspora#Distribution
- Germanic languages
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- German language in the world in 2012 (full report)
- Development of German in South America (in German)
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